Football's back in Eastbourne as 'battle of the Towns' entertains
Football is back on the Eastbourne sporting scene. A biting sharp Tuesday night at the Saffrons saw Eastbourne Town chalk up three points in their Southern Combination Supplementary Cup group, with a 2-1 victory over AFC Uckfield Town.
If Town claimed the points, AFC earned a decent share of the credit. With only one player over 21, their youngsters battled with spirit and stamina – intelligently steered by their management team from the touchline – and finally scored in literally the last frantic second of the game.
By then, it was too late, for Eastbourne’s storming start to the game had put them two goals ahead by mid-way through the first half. “We were much quicker out of the blocks,” commented Town skipper Simon Johnson afterwards, “and when Uckfield did start pressing us, we got to half-time and a chance to re-group. And the second half was similar.
“Everyone has come into the tournament a little bit cold – like starting a new season without a pre-season. But we are all delighted to be playing at all, of course.”
A pity, too, that the gates were firmly locked to paying spectators. When the history of these dreadful months and years is finally written, some politician or some PhD scholar will no doubt explain why clothing stores may be teeming and night-time city centres heaving, while grassroots football is played out in a vacuum.
Over the fence, a bunch of young cricketers were enjoying a twilight net, perfectly legally, while hockey players trained on the Larkins all-weather pitch.
Inside the fence, a competitive and exciting game was witnessed by a dozen officials of the two clubs, and serenely surveyed by the Town Hall clock, high like a chocolate orange suspended against the glorious reds and purples of an April evening.
Never mind the film set. On to the action. Town’s line-up was threaded with experience, from Dan Bolwell anchoring midfield, through Johnson’s playmaking, Tom Vickers the enforcer and Dan Perry ever dangerous up front. As the yellow shirts pressed high and turned over possession, it was Perry who opened the scoring on 13 minutes with a low shot that squeezed in off the foot of the left post.
Ten minutes later, a curling corner-kick from the left was nudged in by Dan Rogers with the AFC marking in a mess. Two-nil, then, and surely the basis for an overwhelming Town victory. But it didn’t happen.
Uckfield had spent the first half-hour on the back foot. Their front three, always miles apart from each other, were giving the home defence an easy time and Chris Winterton was untroubled in the Town goal. But then suddenly, explosively, the visitors burst into action on the half-hour.
A smashing move from right to left played in Jack Samways for a fierce shot that Winterton beat away, and from the resulting corner Town survived a loud penalty appeal for handball. Then Max Walsh saw his direct free-kick superbly tipped over the bar, and Samways conjured a brilliant weaving run into the box but capped it with only a tame final shot.
Right on the half-time whistle Winterton again preserved the two-goal lead with a great save from George Cook, and Town headed for the dressing room to regroup.
After the break, Uckfield did not quite recapture the intensity, but we always sensed that the next goal could turn the game. Amid some concrete tackling and combative duels, yellow cards were flashing all over the place – but the mood was always competitive rather than ugly.
With 15 minutes left, a canny pass into the box found Uckfield substitute Rex Lane, who – with only a split second for his decision – chipped Winterton but saw his effort land on the top of the net. A fraction lower, and you might have backed AFC to turn the game.
But Town shored things up and saw out the final quarter. We were deep into stoppage time, with those purple skies long since replaced by deepest black, when Uckfield forced an improbable sequence of four successive corners – and from the fourth, Wayne Clarke bundled in the consolation goal. Too little, too late: a brave show from AFC, but overall a merited win for Town.