My God, but Priory Lane is a long way from the centre of Eastbourne. It takes a few seconds to sink in when you first check it out on Google Maps. It looks as if it’s in a different town. It’s a pity, really, because Eastbourne Borough is a friendly sort of club. Perhaps they could lift the ground up with helicopters and put it on the end of the pier or something. Such a trip requires a degree of organisation. There had been talk of carnage with the ticketing arrangements for this match, but a telephone call to Eastbourne’s ticket office at lunchtime put me through to a pleasant-sounding lady and, two minutes later, a ticket is booked. If AFC Wimbledon want to follow an example of how to run themselves in the Blue Square Premier, they could do worse than Eastbourne.
Eastbourne were promoted from the Blue Square South two seasons ago behind Lewes, but while their Sussex neighbours imploded as they were handed the championship in 2008, Eastbourne quietly got on with the job of organising themselves for life at a higher level. They earned themselves Community Interest Club status – the first in England to do so – and finished in a creditable mid-table position in their first BSP season as Lewes practically fell off the bottom of the table. The club’s reaction to the Setanta cash shortfall in the summer was to confirm, with a hint of regret, that they would have to charge a couple of pounds more for people to sit in the stand. They lost their opening match at Wrexham by three goals to nil on Saturday, but this felt like little more than a blip, even before kick-off this evening. Wimbledon, meanwhile, possibly surprised even themselves with a 1-1 draw against Luton Town on Saturday.
So, on a balmy August evening I find myself sitting outside the bar at Eastbourne Borough with nothing t do. There is a reason for this. On police advice, the Langney Sports Club has been designated members only this evening. Some people, with a little sleight of hand, manage to get themselves a drink with the sort of furtive passing of used twenty pound notes usually seen outside Camden Town underground station at midnight on a Saturday night. For those of us that are less well connected, though, we can only look mournfully on. Tiring of the sight of other people enjoying themselves, moving inside the ground seems like the best option.
Priory Lane is a funny little ground, that feels as if it has had three parts of it built by different companies at the sane time. It has executive boxes behind one goal and one side and the away supporters end is covered by an L-shaped cover. This doesn’t cover the fact that the sun sets in the west, and so half of the ground has to shield its eyes from the glare of the sun. Some sort of giant shade might be in order. Or perhaps they could give out sunglasses at the turnstiles, in the way that they were made available for the solar eclipse a few years ago. Indeed it is only this and the hour long wait for the one food outlet that are the only complaints of the evening from the point of view of the hosting, and these would have felt much less significant were it not for the fact that Priory Lane is so isolated.
When the teams come out to the jauntily stirring strains of “Sussex By The Sea”, the patriotic jelly in me briefly simmers, while others on the away terrace look somewhere between bemused and amused that, in this glossy and glitzy age, there is still a place for marching band music in football. It is a unique phenomen, is “Sussex By The Sea”. They don’t just play it at Eastbourne. They certainly play it at Brighton, and I’ve heard it at Lewes and Worthing, too. Suggestions for county anthems for other parts of the country are, of course, more than welcome.
Wimbledon dominate the first half and are slightly unfortunate not to go in ahead at half-time. This isn’t because they have created a dozen clear chances or anything like that, by the way. This is because they dominate possession, playing neat and tidy football which indicates that they are unlikely to struggle in the Blue Square Premier this season. The final touch, however, is missing. Corners and free kicks whip across the Eastbourne goal with four or five players missing the ball by no more than an inch. Passes fall just short. Legs get in the way. A trigger happy linesman provides almost as much resistance as the Eastbourne defence, but by the time half-time comes a sense is starting to build that Wimbledon aren’t going to do it tonight.
The goal that they eventually lose the match to is almost worth losing a match to, though. Four minutes into the second half, and with the players still looking as if they were waking up from a half-time nap, Neil Jenkins launches a twenty-five yard shot into the top corner. 1-0 and, even at that comparatively early stage, it has the feel of being the only goal of the match. It wasn’t that Wimbledon didn’t work hard – such is the amount of possession that they are having that by the last ten minutes Eastbourne are already starting to try and run down the clock. It’s more that they seem to be playing in the middle two-thirds of the pitch rather than the full width of it, which might have tired the home defence a little sooner.
Lewis Taylor finds himself unmarked from a Luke Moore cross but can’tt get enough on the ball. Moore himself forces a couple of saves from the Eastbourne goalkeeper Knowles. On the whole, though, Eastbourne play out time without too much difficulty and at full-time just about deserve their win for the doughtiness and obstinancy of their defence, if nothing else. It’s a result that should ease any nerves brought about by their opening day defeat at Wrexham, if nothing else. Wimbledon, meanwhile, have a small problem. Last year’s star man, top scorer John Main, looked lightweight in attack and there is a suspicion that they will need reinforcement up front (they have managed just one goal – from the penalty spot – in their opening two matches). Luton’s 4-1 demolition of Mansfield last night, however, demonstrates what they may be capable of this season. There was very little to choose between the two teams this evening – there’s nothing to panic about yet.