Combative, professional - and a credit to the shirt

Defeat, disappointment, but not the faintest disgrace. With the nation watching from a distance, Eastbourne Borough bowed out of the Emirates FA Cup with a 3-0 defeat on Sunday - to a Blackpool side who had just too much strength and firepower.

James Ferry gets there first as Eastbourne give Blackpool a run for their money / Picture: Lydia Redman
James Ferry gets there first as Eastbourne give Blackpool a run for their money / Picture: Lydia Redman

In the hierarchy of English football, 68 places separated the two sides – but for most of a compelling afternoon, you would never have known it. The previous 24 hours of FA Cup action had seen two or three clubs from Borough’s level implode or surrender – but Danny Bloor’s battlers were combative, professional and a credit to the shirt.

The scoreline tells only part of the story. For an hour, the Sports were in touching distance of glory. And even in the final half-hour, the game was not quite beyond their grasp as they strove to claw back a two-goal deficit. Blackpool’s third goal, deep in stoppage time, cemented a final result harsher than the home side deserved.

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As unpretentious and welcoming as the club itself, the Priory Lane ground had scrubbed up splendidly for the visit of the Seasiders from League One, and for the cameras of BT Sport, which captured the action from every possible angle. It was a tie to capture football’s imagination, and it deserved a real live crowd, excited and expectant. If only, if only.

But as the magnificent Blackpool banner – nicknamed Big Bertha – stood literally ten feet tall at the River End, the Borough would metaphorically walk just as tall as they took to the shimmering green 3G.

After a poignant and dignified Last Post, the action exploded. Just 85 seconds were on the clock when Franco Ravizzoli’s terrific agile save pushed a shot from Sully Kaikai on to the post, before he gratefully clutched the rebound. It was the first of a string if fine saves throughout the afternoon by Eastbourne’s favourite Argentinian. (Oh very well, equal favourite with Sergio!)

But Borough were by no means under siege. They won an early corner, curled just too long for Chris Whelpdale, and twice more they almost turned the Blackpool back line before, on nine minutes, the home side came desperately close to snatching the lead.

No sooner had Kaikai struck the post for a second time, than a swift counter saw Charlie Walker release Greg Luer, streaking in from the right side. A good first touch set him in on goal, but Blackpool keeper Chris Maxwell advanced to close the angle and block the shot. Fine goalkeeping rather than striker’s error – but on another day, we could have seen the ball buried, and a whole different script written.

James Hammond tracks his man / Picture: Andy Pelling

Individual tussles were developing all over the field. Kai Innocent, against the trickiest and quickest opponent he has ever faced in CJ Hamilton, was stretched but did not flinch, and when a tactical tweak by Bloor and Torres gave extra protection in front of Innocent, the young QPR full-back rose to his task with credit.

Through the centre of Pool’s attack, the massive figure of Gary Madine – who has played in the Premier League – was well contained by Steve James and Mitch Dickenson throughout the first half, although the big man would make his mark later in the game.

Up front, the home strike force was getting little change out of Icelandic centre-back Dan Gretarsson – whose challenges felled Eastbourne’s own Viking figure of Chris Whelpdale more than once without any action from referee David Rock. Whelpdale, beard jutting and long hair flying, has been a formidable Borough talisman during the Cup run, but – newly returned from injury – this was not quite his day.

Even so, the powerful attacker created another Borough chance when he forced his way past James Husband and pulled the ball back to Walker, whose instant shot was blocked by Marvin Ekpiteta.

Kai Innocent goes all out to win this ball / Picture: Andy Pelling

Still the Tangerines held the upper hand, and once again Franco denied them with a series of splendid saves. Half-time arrived with the two teams locked in combat – and Borough absolutely still in the game, as their manager had planned and exhorted.

History, including sporting history, turns on tiny moments. A dropped catch, and a cricketer goes on to score a double century. A dropped baton, and the relay is lost. A ball down off the bar spins out, and a Russian linesman awards the World Cup to England.

The first round proper of the FA Cup is a long way down that scale, but the Priory Lane contest was still absolutely in the balance as the second half opened. Blackpool, though, were in no mood to leave matters to chance. Whatever Neil Critchley and Colin Calderwood had said in the away dressing room, the Pool dominated the next phase of the game.

Ironically, although the second half was to produce three goals, it had fewer of the breathless moments of the previous 45 minutes. The Sports were disciplined in their marking and covering, looking to attack on the break, but the Tangerines – big and athletic – were clearly imposing themselves.

Those turning points? Just before the hour, Husband broke from full-back and played in a cross from the left, met by Madine and drilled past an exposed Ravizzoli for 1-0. Ten minutes later, the big striker, with a suspicion of a push, collected a ball played into him, beat his man and made the game effectively safe at 2-0.

But the game had actually swung Blackpool’s way a few minutes earlier, when Whelpdale – perhaps a little frustrated at the niggling attentions of Gretarsson – caught the defender with his arm, copped a yellow card, and limped off shortly afterwards as his manager took the prudent decision. Blackpool must have been quietly relieved.

Even in the closing phase, a goal for the Sports would have re-opened the contest. Substitute striker Charley Kendall carved his own chance with a determined run, but his left-foot shot curled wide . Then Mr Rock turned down an arguable penalty appeal for handball, and deep into stoppage time Jerry Yates plundered a final goal through a weary Borough defence.

It had been no whitewash by the Tangerines. Both sides had played their part in an excellent game and a proper FA Cup occasion. If it left Danny and his team wanting more, so much the better. There is more to come from this eager Borough squad, and already – only six weeks into the season – they are serving their club, and their town, with distinction.

Borough MoM: hard to select one player from a team performance, but Franco Ravizzoli was heroic.