Three smashing Elliott Romain goals, and three welcome points: Eastbourne Borough opened a new season, and perhaps a new era, in style against Hemel Hempstead on the Priory Lane 3G pitch on Saturday.
The newly-laid playing surface shimmered in bright August sunshine, and Tommy Widdrington’s new-look team rose to the occasion with a sparkling display of attacking football. Tommy may have been close to the wire with his team-building, but he seems to have got it right. All of his new signings add significantly to the strength and quality of the Borough squad.
“The major difference from last season is that we now have the right balance of experience and youth - and especially we have experience in each area of the field. Two seasoned centre-backs with good young full-backs, a wise head in midfield, the experience of Jamie Taylor with probably a younger partner up front.
“We played exactly the way we had planned to. We took the game to Hemel, we got the ball in the danger areas early, and we scored two outstanding early goals. After that I thought we controlled the play. Hemel had a 20-minute bright spell in the second half, but even then we were managing the game.”
The visitors were disappointed and disappointing. With several new faces of their own - including former Whitehawk pair Jake Robinson and Arnaud Mendy - they did not really gel on the day, and the Hemel back line was turned again and again by Eastbourne’s swift, fluent attacks. 3-0 was no flattery and it seriously might have been six.
With Nat Pinney suspended, Romain was switched from his more usual wide position to spearhead the attack alongside Jamie Taylor, and he revelled in it, with explosive strikes on 12 and 17 minutes and a late shot on the run to notch his hat-trick.
The season could not have started more dramatically. Just 75 seconds were on the board when Taylor was tripped just inside the box, and Ryan Worrall stepped up to strike a decent but slightly under-hit penalty, and keeper Jonathan Henly saved. It was only a brief reprieve, though.
Within ten minutes Gavin McCallum’s long cross from the left was retrieved by Miguel Baptiste, who drilled low across goal for Romain to strike a net-busting shot past Henly. Within minutes Gavin twice came close to doubling the lead, first racing clear on a through ball from impressive new full-back Arinse Uade, but lobbing beyond the right-hand post, and then steering a header just wide from Baptista’s cross.
Borough were moving the ball quickly and getting the ball into the Hemel area as early as possible, and the visitors had no answer. And on 17 minutes an absolutely sublime team goal made it 2-0. Dutton began it from half-way, and the ball pinged via Baptista, Taylor and the overlapping Hare, who hammered in a cross which Romain slammed past poor Henly for his second goal.
The home side were rampant now. Romain just missed his hat-trick, chipping his shot too high after Taylor’s uncannily quick brain had set his strike partner clear. But crucially, the two-goal margin had destroyed any Hemel game-plan of getting behind the ball and trying to frustrate the home side.
Instead, the Tudors did respond with some lively attacks, including a couple of inventive set-pieces, but Simpemba and Dutton looked as though they had been playing together for years, and in front of them Mark Hughes - possibly the final piece of Tommy’s jigsaw - was a piece of pure granite. The Worralls and Baptistas of the team can only benefit from his influence and experience.
Worrall set Hare free for yet another wide run and lethal centre, deflected crashingly against the crossbar, but the scoreline stayed stubbornly on 2-0. Just before the break, two cheaply conceded free-kicks gave Hemel a sniff of hope, but the first nestled safely into the arms of Lewis Carey and the other ended up in the car park.
No doubt with their manager’s wisdom still ringing in their ears, the visitors began the second half more positively, dominating the ball for a good spell, but their pressure was blunt. Meanwhile, like the captain on the bridge, Widdrington calmly surveyed his crew from the back of the stand, feeding out instructions via his coaches North and Langton, and the brief squall was weathered quite easily.
Carey, strong and dominating throughout, made several decent saves and catches, and one simply astonishing stop, diving low to his right to keep out a James Potton header. The Sports goalkeeper is far too young to remember Banks against Pele, but some of us on the press benches were tempted to make the comparison....
That save, in the 53rd minute, was actually a match-turning moment.
The Priory Lane faithful, already wowed by the first half, were now watching their side confidently defending a lead instead of letting one slip - as happened a good few times last season. Craig Stone and Michael Aziaya came off the bench to reinforce the midfield, and then the final phase belonged to Borough.
Romain had cracked one shuddering shot against the right hand post, and his relentless pursuit of the hat-trick was finally rewarded two minutes from time. With defenders floundering in his path, the eager striker advanced to the edge of the box and arrowed a low shot just inside the post for 3-0. It is merely one victory ahead of a long, long season, but it will do nicely.
Borough: Carey; Hare, Dutton, Simpemba, Uade; Baptista (Aziaya 76), Hughes, Worrall (Stone 68), McCallum; Taylor (Varouxakis 84), Romain. Unused subs: Khinda-John, Horlock.
Hemel Hempstead: Henly; Kaloczi (Walker 45), Kelly, Mendy, Asafu-Adjaye, Johnson, Richens (Nielson 80), Corcoran, Robinson, Potton (Weiss 68), Taafe.
Referee: Andrew Laver Att: 595
MoM: Elliott Romain in devastating form