Catastrophes and calamities – and a ref in the eye of the storm as Eastbourne Borough crash against Maidstone United

It was, as Eastbourne Borough’s official Twitter feed put it, a game that could have been so different: a 5-1 defeat to powerful Maidstone on an enthralling, melodramatic afternoon.
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A packed stadium of over 2,200 – including a large contingent of noisily jubilant visitors – was gripped by the action from the very start, as a series of catastrophic moments undermined the home side’s best efforts. And the man in the eye of the storm was referee Robert Ablitt, who awarded a contentious penalty to Maidstone and sent off two home players.

Priory Lane has lived through a season like no other. And it isn’t even over yet. But Adam Murray’s men are surely due a change of fortune after a succession of tough refereeing calls in recent weeks. More of that later; but first, let us scroll back through the ninety minutes as the Stones rolled over the Sports.

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Five minutes: in front of the Mick Green Stand, an early Maidstone corner is blocked and scrabbled to the edge of the Eastbourne area. There is contact – possibly outside the 18-yard line – between DeCarrey Sheriff and Jephte Tanga, and the referee judges DeCarrey to be the offender. Soft penalty: 0-1.

24 and 26 minutes: Sam Beard collects two yellows in two minutes – the first for a nagging foul and the second for catching that man Tanga, way out on the North Stand touchline. Sending-off. Calamitous.

34 minutes: with Eastbourne unabashed, and still very much in the game, Pierce Bird takes a trademark long throw from the left touchline. It’s headed back out from the goalmouth – and from a ridiculous angle Bird fires a left-foot volley which scarcely rises above knee-level and scorches inside the Stones’ back post. Incredible: literally a goal of the season. Watch it in the tweet embedded in this article.

44 minutes: Borough’s Matt Green has too much to say to Mr Ablitt, and is cautioned. And as the teams troop to the dressing-rooms, the whole ground is simply buzzing with anticipation. Tight, incident-packed, unpredictable: they ought to double the admission price for contests like this.

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53 minutes: after early second-half chances at both ends, catastrophe for the Sports. As the ball squirms between two players, Bird steps in and whacks it clear: there is contact with Tanga, who crumples, and Mr Ablitt reaches for a straight red card! The home side are down to nine players – but the score is still level at 1-1.

It was an afternoon when little went right for Eastbourne Borough | Picture: Lydia RedmanIt was an afternoon when little went right for Eastbourne Borough | Picture: Lydia Redman
It was an afternoon when little went right for Eastbourne Borough | Picture: Lydia Redman

At this point, home supporters are recalling the legendary “Darlington Game” – when a nine-man Borough, with midfielder Matt Smart in goal, withstood a Darlington siege to claim a 1-1 draw. Oh, and England captain John Terry was in the stands! Could they possibly “do a Darlington” again here? For the next ten minutes, the improbable looks possible. But…

65 minutes: Stones regain the lead when a deflected cross falls kindly for Matt Rush and he strikes it past Foulkes for 1-2. Twenty-five minutes remain, and for twenty of them, just a single goal separates the teams. In the yellow shirts, the nerves are visible. In the red shirts, the spirit is tangible.

85 minutes: maddeningly, those final five minutes plus stoppage time will see Maidstone achieve a final scoreline which does not tell the true story. Substitute Lamar Reynolds – the hero of Ipswich - grabs a ten-minute hat-trick, two absolute crackers plus a needless penalty.

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And as Borough troop off, to a warm and sympathetic Priory Lane ovation, the Kent side take the plaudits from their ecstatic travelling support.

Pierce Biard's amazing goal was the high point for Eastbourne Borough | Picture: Lydia RedmanPierce Biard's amazing goal was the high point for Eastbourne Borough | Picture: Lydia Redman
Pierce Biard's amazing goal was the high point for Eastbourne Borough | Picture: Lydia Redman

As an aside, the visitors were generous in their post-match comments. Posts on Stonesnet included this warm assessment: “It's difficult to understand how Eastbourne are in the bottom four, I've seen far worse teams this season. I hope they manage to escape the drop. Lovely club too - good food in the clubhouse, friendly staff and fans, no segregation, no trouble - not even anger directed at away fans (and to some extent justified) - a real old-school non-league ground. I wish more away-days were like this (even without the result).”

In the context of the day – and leaving aside the issue of losing two players to suspension – it might have been worse for Borough. Adam Murray would have regarded even a point as a bonus, while the really important showdowns are still to come in the next three weeks. And results on the day, with every relegation-threatened club losing, could have been much worse.

But – now – on Easter Monday afternoon to be precise – comes Dartford v Eastbourne Borough – a relegation six-pointer in the true meaning of the phrase.

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