Rewind to last August: bright weather, bright hopes after the third-place finish in the previous, truncated, season. And Eastbourne Borough launch the new campaign with a catastrophic afternoon at the Lane, losing 5-0 to Hampton and Richmond. Welcome aboard Danny Bloor’s Borough Battle Bus!
It has been a long season, with more highs than lows. After that bizarre 5-0 home defeat on the opening day, the Sports negotiated a further 39 games without ever being outplayed. Goals have flowed and entertainment values have been high. The brand of football has the mark of Danny and his staff clearly imprinted on it: be honest, work your socks off, stay on the front foot. It has occasionally felt like a re-invention of that legendary Danny Blanchflower maxim: equalise before the other team score.
Indeed, the Sports failed to score in only a tiny number of games. One of them, maddeningly for the home crowd, was a 0-1 defeat to Horsham which pitched out of the FA Cup – but by then the league campaign was taking shape nicely, including a very impressive 2-0 away win at full-timers Maidstone United, who would finish the season as National South champions.
The arrival of hotshot Charley Kendall, back at his home town club, energized the team and the club, and soon Borough were scoring goals for fun. Bloor’s canny loan signings also made a huge impact – no stopgaps or Football League cast-offs, but keen young professionals of excellent character and calibre, who did themselves and their parent clubs credit. Take a bow, youngsters Currie, Hutchinson, Mahorn and Nippard.
And what Danny and his coaching staff have done, as much as anything, is to build Eastbourne Borough’s reputation across the National League. No longer also-rans, but front-runners. No longer a soft touch for points, but hard, committed competitors.
Crowd figures were growing and would continue to rise, well into four figures. The Lane was transformed from sparse terraces into a pulsating arena. Fixtures became special events, some with a charity focus like the inspired No More Red fixture, when the players took the field in all white in a stand against knife crime.
Into the New Year, the Sports were doing alarmingly well. Play-offs? Promotion? Satnavs set for Gateshead and Grimsby, instead of Havant and Hemel Hempstead? Calm down, everyone…
But – with the spectacular defeat of Dorking Wanderers, 3-2 from 0-2 down – there was genuine momentum. Six straight victories – and then six games without a win? Which was the real Eastbourne Borough? With the play-offs achieved, some observers and some supporters wondered at the time if the team had taken the foot off the accelerator. It would be understandable – but professional footballers are actually not wired for easing off or coasting. Danny’s players were prepared and focused exactly as during the winning run; but there are sometimes factors they cannot control.
Suddenly, key moments were going against the Sports. An incorrectly disallowed goal at Slough cost the team two of the three points. The freakish Welling come-back from 0-3, including the denial of a nailed-on penalty, meant another draw snatched from the jaws of victory. Not to mention the crazy eight-man Alamo action at Havant, where three red cards – best labelled as unfortunate – left the Sports defying the home side’s onslaught until the 82nd minute before the dam burst and they went under by 3-0.
And to round off the season, a listless defeat at Tonbridge was followed by yet another crazy day at the Lane, with visitors Dartford scoring seven of the nine goals – actually eight, if you include Kristian Campbell’s glorious own goal.
By now the Sports were running on empty. The relatively small squad had to summon fresh energy and renewed focus, match after match. By contrast, almost all their play-off competitors had the luxury of large playing squads – as just one example, Dorking played a County Cup final on Tuesday, ahead of their National South play-off decider tomorrow (Saturday) – and manager Marc White rested no fewer than nine players.
The play-off eliminator at Oxford City was actually quite a close game, but Borough lacked a cutting edge and went down 2-0. There was disappointment but not a shred of disgrace. The season had already been a massive success, and the lasting images will be broad smiles, goalscorers submerged under heaps of bodies, and the fusing of the generations: seven-year-olds and seventeen-year-olds and Mums and Dads and Grandads.
Every non-league club is a family. Spats, laughter, celebrations and tears. Bloor’s Boys have brought the smiles back, but they have never lost the humanity and humility which bonds them to their supporters. Never mind promotion – this time at any rate – for National South is a terrific place to play your football. If there’s a rival fan sitting or standing next to you, you can shake a hand, have a natter, disagree cheerfully about the dodgy offside decision, and be grateful for our precious freedom to disagree and still be friends. If the whole world was one great big non-league football club, we’d be a better place.