It’s ten past two on a Saturday afternoon, and I’m walking across a field towards a turnstile. There’s one thing, though. This isn’t a metal gate at which I’m greeted by an old man wearing a v-necked jumper and a striped tie offering a ticket in return for my hard earned cash. This is a wooden turnstile, of the type traditionally used to allow people to pass from field while keeping sheep or other livestock penned in rather than the type that most football supporters are familiar with. We cross it and walk along a pathway covered in brambles that looks familiar from many, many episodes of Crimewatch UK. “This,” I think to myself, “is exactly the sort of place where dog-walkers – and it’s always dog-walkers – come across hastily constructed shallow graves, and I could do without that sort of bother this afternoon, thank you very much.”
The decision of the venue for my first match of the season had been greeted, on my part at least, with a furrowed brow and the distinctive sound of air being sucked in between my front teeth. Eastbourne Borough’s Priory Lane ground rather feels as if it sits on the very edge of the world. A lengthy journey from Eastbourne town centre, it’s surrounded by fields and bungalows, it feels a long way from anywhere. For someone who grew up believing that concrete is a naturally occurring substance, it’s a curiously disquieting environment. Still, though, we cross a stream turned bright green with algae (I presume, I have no intention of inspecting it too closely, lest I contrive to find a way to fall in) and suddenly here we are, standing near the entrance to the Langney Sports Club, which, with its indoor bowls and membership policies, is a timely reminder of Eastbourne Borough’s history as Langney Sports FC, a county league side which was – and in some respects still is – part of a broader sporting organisation.
All’s not necesarily well in the state of Eastbourne at the moment, though. After a solid enough start to the season, the team has lost its last three consecutive matches in the Conference South and has slipped to ninth place in the table. This afternoon, though, should – in theory, at least – provide a little respite from their recent travails in the league. This afternoon, they face opposition from a rung down the football food chain in the Second Qualifying Round of the FA Cup. Enfield Town go into this match in sixteenth place in the Ryman League Premier Division and with another season of struggling to avoid relegation back from whence they came three seasons ago quite possibly ahead of them. Veteran controversialist George Borg kept the team in this divsion by the skin of their teeth, but he’s gone already and under new manager Bradley Quinton the team seems to have had the sort of start to the season that we might have expected from a team that so narrowly only avoided the drop at the end of last season.
For me, though, this afternoon’s match is a dipping of my toe back into football’s metaphorical water. Regular readers – if there are any left – will already be fully aware of the extent to which I’ve fallen out of love with the game over the last year or so, and this trip along the south coast is one that I’m making with greater trepidation than I would do, normally. I’ve caught a handful of live matches on the television this season – and, it has to be said, the pleasure of watching the look on a Chelsea-supporting friend’s face the weekend before last as Frank Lampard scored for Manchester City against his team was a reminder of the restorative effects of schadenfreude, if nothing else – and I know roughly what has been going on within The Beautiful Game™, but I still find it difficult to watch Match Of The Day without thinking, “You’ve changed, football, you’ve changed.” Perhaps getting down and dirty in an East Sussex coastal resort will spark this particular passion back to life.
Perhaps, however, I’m just getting old. My primary source of anger during the first half is the fact that, although Eastbourne’s colours are of red and black and Enfield’s are of white and blue, the visitors are in their change kit. Line me up for a place on the “Grumpy Old Men” sofa alongside Rick Wakeman and Jeremy Clarkson, chaps. On the pitch, meanwhile, things are lumpy and bumpy. Eastbourne have a goal disallowed for handball – a decision that convention tells me I should describe as “controversial”, even though the linesman’s flag shot up as soon as the offending Eastbourne forward controlled the ball – and Enfield have a couple of half-decent opportunities that come to nothing, but at half-time its goalless and my team, the Ryman League team, are some distance from having disgraced themselves. Things could be worse.
It can be the habit of even the most tepid of matches to come to life in the second half, as legs start to weary, though, and the ultimate fate of this match falls on four minutes midway through. Seven minutes in, Michael Kalu crosses from the left for Neil Cousins to head the visitors into the lead, but one goal leads can often feel so precarious that they may as well not exist, and when defender Ian Simpemba attempts what might be best described as a hybrid of an overhead kick and a rugby tackle on Enfield’s Corey Whitely to give the visitors a much-needed penalty kick after sixty-two minutes, it feels as if the importance of this kick cannot be understated, but Whitely’s shot is poor and is comfortably saved by the Eastbourne goalkeeper Lewis Carey. And sure enough, within four minutes Eastbourne are level when Darren Lok has his legs swept from under him by Theo Jones and the seventeen year old – think about that for a moment – Ryan Worrall converts the resulting penalty kick to bring the home side level.
There’s a script for this sort of situation, of course. A lower-ranked team takes the lead away from home, misses a chance to double its lead and then concedes an equaliser just a few minutes later… it’s the narrative of a match that we’ve all seen a thousand times before. But this time, somehow or other, my fully anticipated Enfield collapse doesn’t come to pass. Enfield have a header cleared off the line, and during a somewhat surprising nine (NINE) minutes of stoppage-time at the end of the match, Carey palms a shot away that might otherwise crept in at his far post. And so it is that, shortly after five o’clock, the final whistle finally blows and it will be all back to North London the following Tuesday for a replay, with the winners facing an away match against Romford or Kingstonian in the next round of the competition.
It’s difficult to shake the feeling that Enfield will not get a better opportunity to win this tie on Tuesday evening than they had in this first match. It’s certainly difficult to imagine that Eastbourne will be as slovenly in the replay as they were in this first match. Having said that, though, they were just about the stronger team in this first match, and there was little on display at Priory Lane to indicate that Eastbourne will improve that much over the course of the three days between the two matches. And what of football and I? Well, I’ve fallen out of love over the course of the last twelve months, and once that bond has broken it can be difficult to rekindle that feeling. For now, though… we’re back on talking terms, and that, I guess, is a start.
Details regarding Tuesday night’s FA Cup replay between Enfield Town and Eastbourne Borough are available here.
Highlights of last Saturday’s match are available here.
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