On the evening of Tuesday March 11th there was delight for Cheshunt, Lewes and Romford, as the trio won their matches in the Premier and North Divisions.
We haven’t had a great deal of delight since.
One hundred and seventy four days have passed since that damp winter night, and as we arrived at Lancing this evening for the FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round tie between the Lancers and our very own Phoenix Sports it was sobering to think that not one Isthmian club has kicked a ball in anger since, and that the footballing world- indeed, the whole world- is still full of uncertainty. Tonight was the evening that AFC Sudbury should have been propelled into the national consciousness via the BBC iPlayer, as their match at Burton Park Wanderers was due to be televised, but instead the Yellows were already through to the next round. A Wanderers player tested positive for coronavirus, the tie was awarded to the visitors, and nobody was happy with that outcome. But is it an outcome we might need to get used to in the coming months?
This is the way, to the Sussex FA
The last time we filed a match report from Culver Road, home of both Lancing and the Sussex County FA, we were witnessing the celebrations of a swarm of delighted Hornets. Horsham, at that point tenants here, had just defeated Ashford United to win the 2018-19 South East Playoff Final. Tonight, the place was a great deal quieter, and, much as Lancing is always a fabulous, welcoming place to watch football, slightly surreal. Mask wearing spectators, social distancing, a reduced capacity, a collection of hand sanitisation stations and an electronic programme to cut down on the need for face to face contact made the place seem rather disconnected from reality. If the players had arrived on the pitch in hover boots we’d probably have shrugged our shoulders and only been slightly surprised.
This could so easily have been the opening match of the Isthmian South East season. At the time that the world ground to a dramatic halt, Lancing were six points clear at the top of the Southern Combination Football League. Eastbourne Town were their closest pursuers, but the odds were in favour of the Lancers, and it must have taken a great deal of mental toughness for their players to get over the disappointment. Could they make it this time around? Four wins and one defeat in pre-season had demonstrated that they weren’t exactly ring-rusty, and with one of those victories coming over A27 rivals Chichester City, who defeated tonight’s visitors last season, they looked confident, indeed buoyant, during the warm up. That said, Sports were similarly upbeat, and perhaps with good reason- although they were also rather rushed, as they’d spent much of the preceding three hours on the M25, necessitating a delayed kick off.
Last season was a mixed one for the side from the Mayplace Ground. They were, on occasions, absolutely unplayable, whilst on others, such as their six-nil defeat to Staines Town in their first FA Cup match of the campaign, they were awful. The fact that they won thirteen matches and lost twelve of their twenty seven in the League tells its own story. They were ten points off the playoffs when the campaign crashed to a halt, and yet regularly played like playoff contenders- and at least they managed to win two out of their three matches against neighbours and arch-rivals VCD Athletic (albeit one of them on penalties), so the faithful had something to be pleased about. Could they actually be playoff contenders this time around- there was little doubt that they had the talent, if not the consistency? Pre-season results had been mixed, but then given the number of trialists and the experimentation that goes with this stage of the campaign, did that tell us anything? Perhaps we were about to find out.
There was also a score to settle- although that had little to do with Lancing. The last time Sports played at Culver Road wasn’t too long ago- indeed, it was two years ago this month, in an FA Cup replay. The visitors won by three goals to nil, to progress to the next round and a trip to Hendon, only for them to be removed from the competition for inadvertently fielding an ineligible player. This was a decision they didn’t appeal, mainly because they didn’t want to disrupt the preparations of Lancing or Hendon, but it must have played on the minds of the members of the 2018-19 squad who were still in green this evening that the last time they’d played at Culver Road they’d won, yet lost.
Wecome to the home of Lancing FC
The hosts got us underway, passing the ball around nicely, with their number eight, Josh Gould, at the fulcrum. Sports then did some probing of their own, looking to shake the side in yellow out of their rhythm. Lancing had the first attempt on goal, a pass out wide from Gould finding Connolly who set up Daniel for a shot, but a defender got in the way and the ball was eventually cleared to safety- but it was a warning that Sports didn’t heed, as a quick breakaway saw the hosts into the lead. Connolly charged forward leaving the defence trailing in his wake, and slotted past Stephen Phillips into the corner.
Sports threatened an immediate response, and but for some brave goalkeeping from Bromage in the Lancers goal, who snatched the ball from the feet of Lauris Chin, it could well have been all square. That signalled a spell of Sports pressure, with good interplay between Gaggin and Ansah, but some solid and occasionally acrobatic defending kept danger at bay- though not for long. On eighteen minutes Chin burst clear down the right. The angle was tight, but he went for the near post and somehow forced it home.
Would Lancing now be overawed? Not for one minute- and they were well on top when another break led to another Sports goal. Ansah fed Chin, and the striker turned inside and again managed to beat Bromage at his near post. Two-one to the visitors, somewhat against the run of play, and the match was a quarter over.
Lancing went forward once more, and a lovely passing move ended with Daniel making his own space at the edge of the visitors box. He shot, and it looked a certain goal, but an arching Phillips got the merest of touches and sent it onto- and then over- the bar. A minute later and it could have been three for Sports, as a superb run and cross from Ansah saw a fresh air shot from Chin, who could easily have had a first half hat trick.
The Sports management team 45 minutes prior to kick off, wondering if they'd need to play!
And then it was three. Gaggin was found at the right hand side of the box, and had time to pick his spot, firing a sweet shot over the keeper and in off the underside of the bar. Sports were three-one up, and the Lancing fans in the main stand wondered how on earth that had happened. We were watching a fabulously entertaining match, and their side had done the lions share of the entertaining, but they were now two goals behind.
The match became a little scrappy. Good work from Gaggin saw him test Bromage to his left, but the visitors were content to contain their hosts, who seemed somewhat deflated and started to misplace passes. A free kick from Ansah, just outside the box, forced Bromage to touch it onto his upright, and the resulting corner saw Michael Azaiya volley wide. The pace of the game had slackened markedly.
Lancing were unlucky not to get a spot kick on thirty nine minutes, Honore seemingly upended, but it spurred them into action, and not forty seconds had passed when they were back in the game in a big way, the energetic Connolly forcing home to make it two-three. Suddenly the home crowd, who seemed to have dozed off since the last Sports goal, were awake once more, and the game sparked back into life. Daniel then forced a fabulous save from a full-stretch Phillips, and the Sports keeper was quick to touch the rebound away from an onrushing forward when it seemed the equaliser was certain. Another Phillips save shortly afterwards, this time from Honore, kept Sports ahead- but they were living on their nerves, as was the travelling support.
The half came to an end after nearly two added minutes, and goodness, it had been superb to watch. If we’d forgotten what we were missing during the last six months, we had surely remembered again now. There is nothing quite as exhilarating as live football with an audience!
Lancing get us underway
The second half started with Lancing once more demonstrating their willingness to try and play their way out of trouble. It was immensely entertaining for the neutrals, but it offered an explanation for why so many of the home fans were bald (and that was just the girls!).
On fifty three minutes Sports must have thought they were about to go further ahead. Chin had time and space to shoot, but Bromage made a point blank save to keep his side in the match. The striker held his head in amazement; he must have been convinced that a match ball was firmly in his grasp.
It was perhaps unreasonable to expect the second half to have the pace of the first. But ten minutes in Andrew Dythe was complaining that it had all gone quiet, and he could have been referring to the entire stadium. Lancing tried to shake things up, taking off Daniel and bringing on Waters, and Sports took the opportunity to do the same, Oliver Andrews making his way onto the field.
As we entered the last twenty minutes, suddenly the game came to life once more. Substitute Hitchens saw an effort for the hosts cleared just in front of the line with the keeper beaten, and at the other end a run and cross from Chin was diverted just past the post by a desperate defensive lunge. The margin between timely interception and desperate own goal was fine indeed- but the excitement was short-lived.
Could Lancing find that equaliser? A cross which evaded everyone in a packed Sports box before creeping past the far post just needed a touch, but in truth it had been a rare moment of danger for the visitors, who allowed the home side to continue with their patient passing game when in their own half, but quickly closed them down when they threatened. And then there were ten minutes left, and then five, and it seemed that the endeavours of the first half had left very little in the tank for either side.
And then, with three minutes remaining, a last push. Lancing went forward, and Sports couldn’t clear the ball from the edge of their own box. Suddenly a space, and a shot, and it was three-three. Jeilward was credited with the goal, but it was doubtful if most of the crowd could see who had scored it through the crowd of bodies in the way. Were we off to penalties?
The home side, buoyed by their equaliser, wanted to avoid that, and a cross from Goldsmith was desperately hacked clear as we moved into added time. A shot from Waters was blocked, a cross headed clear, and the yellow wave continued to rush forward, but the breakthrough didn’t come. Jeilward shot wide, we approached the sixth added minute, and the whistle went. We were left with the lottery.
Sports were up first, and Danny Young took on the responsibility, and found the net, Bromage diving to his left, the ball going the other way. Substitute Jarden took an even better kick, right in the bottom corner, and it was one-one.
Bromage got to the next one, but Fitchett wasn’t to be denied and it crept into the net. Hendy levelled matters once more, finding the same corner as his yellow predecessor.
Chin found the top corner to make it three-two, and we had five penalties out of five scored. Waters made it six out of six. Who would be the first to blink?
It wasn’t Everett, who made it four-three to Sports. Now it was Goldsmith’s turn, and although Phillips went the right way, the ball evaded his fingers. Four-all.
Whitelock must have been nervous, but hammered the bal home, and it was five-four. Were the sides ever going to be separated? Connolly- perhaps the best player on the pitch in the first half- made it five-all, and it was sudden death. Someone asked whether we’d still be here in the morning. Bird made sure we were still on tenterhooks by making it six-five. And then it was six-all, Berry with the goal.
Bryon was next up, and nonchalantly found the corner. Seven-six. Pressure was now on Hitchens. What pressure? Seven- all.
Eight-seven, Oliver Andrews, but off the underside of the bar and in off the keeper. Eight-all, Gould.
Nine-eight, and now Bromage was facing his opposite number. He blasted home for nine-all.
Douglas was next for Sports, and passed it home. Ten-nine. Striker Jeilward was next, and made no mistake. We were still level, and into double figures.
Goalkeeper Phillips had been man of the match. He scored, of course. Eleven-ten. Hendy stepped up for Lancing, placed the ball, and…Phillips did what he had done best all night, diving to his right to save. Sports were through!
What a match, and what a start to the season. Congratulations to Sports, whose supporters should go into the new league season with optimism after that performance. But commiserations to Lancing. This was a match that neither deserved to lose- and on the basis of that performance, the Lancers might be an excellent addition to our ranks for the 2021-22 campaign.