‘We march onwards’ – Eastbourne Borough owner Simon Leslie enjoying the ride despite setbacks
Those eight days have seen the Sports slide out of the FA Trophy, then battle for a “winning draw” at a sodden Dover Athletic, and appoint a head of recruitment who has worked with Albion, Liverpool and Manchester United.
High and lows? Well, the highs are not yet high enough, but Mark Beard certainly coaxed the best from his injury-plagued squad on Tuesday night, taking a deserved point in a 1-1 draw and showing huge commitment. Three days earlier, a threadbare Borough had looked second-best at Southern League Hendon, losing to two second-half goals.
Beard’s surreal list of current casualties – with literally a whole “alternative team” of thirteen injured players side-lined – meant that the Sports travelled to North London with only young goalkeeper Fin Holter and half-fit defender Michael Olarewaju on the bench.
Borough actually had the better of the first half – including a missed penalty – but they ran out of steam against a buoyant home side and conceded two goals to exit the Trophy and, in that infamous euphemism, concentrate on the league.
But with four or five players easing back to fitness, Beard was able to name a more recognisable eleven at Dover. In awful conditions at the Kent side’s Crabble ground, high above the town, the Sports took the lead before half-time through Zak Emmerson, and they should really have had more goals to show for a fluent, front-foot performance.
But this was no night for showcase football, and the home side equalised just after the break. By the end of the ninety minutes, the exhausted combatants of both clubs settled for a draw.
With fixtures rushing in on Mark Beard’s squad, Borough set off for Hemel Hempstead Town tomorrow (Saturday) before welcoming Torquay United to Priory Lane on Tuesday night for one of the showpiece games of the season. And owner Simon Leslie – just five months into his project – cannot wait.
For Simon, the business case has always been tinged with excitement and with a sort of romanticism. At a windswept and rain-soaked Crabble, as the final whistle brought an end to Borough’s battling draw, the new owner gazed out at the scene.
“That’s probably been the hardest game I’ve seen them play this season. The rain has been lashing down for an hour and a half, the conditions were terrible and I think everyone played fantastically! They really battled to the very last seconds – we had a super move in the last minute, a great effort on goal – and the keeper saved it!”
And Simon, to echo one of your taglines, are you really still enjoying the journey?
“Oh I’m loving it – really enjoying it. We take everything in, including a night like this in dreadful conditions. We’ve stopped losing, the players have given everything, the supporters have sung their hearts out. We march onwards to Hemel Hempstead in the same spirit, and hopefully a win!”
That fine balance of romantic and pragmatic has always been at the heart of the non-league sport. The Leslie project for Eastbourne Borough was never going to be about a lick of paint and for the stadium and a mixture-as-before on the pitch.
Tuesday night may have been cold, wet and windy, but the day’s action had also included a feature on BBC regional television South East Today, highlighting the glimpses of Tik-Tok content and the commercial whirlwind that has swept through Priory Lane.
And that television coverage also captured the club’s mission, on the playing side, to give young professional footballers their second chance. The current squad of first-teamers is full of players who came through academies at bigger clubs, and are now re-launching their playing careers.
In fairness to previous regimes, that sort of recruitment has always been central to team-building, both at Borough and at other semi-professional clubs. When – perhaps in twelve months or so from now – we look back on the palace revolution which replaced the Sports old guard and reset the compass for future progress, Simon Leslie the businessman will be better placed to judge.
But Simon Leslie the eager enthusiast will still be smiling broadly. In generations past, small boys always wanted a train set for Christmas. Simon hasn’t just got the basic set with an engine, three carriages and a signal box. He’s bought the whole network – and a whistle and a green flag to go with – and this novelty will not be wearing off any time soon.