If Eastbourne Borough have designs on the Fourth Qualifying Round, it is not just a resurgent Ebbsfleet side they need to overcome. History itself stands in their way with the Sports having yet to beat the Fleet in nine attempts since they lost 1-0 in the 2001-02 FA Cup 2nd Qualifying Round – a familiar scoreline as it was also enough for the Fleet to go through in the 2004-05 FA Trophy as well.
The expectation of pre-season, while certainly somewhat tempered since then, is back in the air at Stonebridge Road following Fleet’s 15-goal haul in their last three games and a run of just one defeat in 10 games.
Manager Steve Brown is naturally delighted with the rewards his players are now reaping, telling EUFC.co.uk: “Off the back of beating the teams occupying third and top spots respectively, it’s very pleasing that the hard work and application from the staff and the players have achieved these results, especially as the position in which we found ourselves in the league was far from ideal and had added a certain amount of pressure.
“We were extremely disciplined in both recent league games and the players worked tirelessly for one another with some very unselfish performances that deserved more credit than they will get.”
The Fleet boss is particularly impressed by the contribution of Alex Osborn, whose inclusion playing behind the pairing of Bricknell-May has been paying real dividends. “We’ve tweaked our setup,” said Brown, “and the players have responded very well. Bringing back Alex seems to have given us a better balance with width on both flanks and having a genuine target man in Ben May in the team has made a difference. All of a sudden we have found it much easier to find the back of the net and goals change games. Confidence is a wonderful thing and if you underpin all the above with the work ethic the players have been showing then we will always be a very competitive side.”
Despite making a number of changes in the previous round against Folkestone Invicta, Brown will be reluctant to meddle with a winning side – having fielded his first unchanged line-up in midweek, even the return to fitness of Michael Corcoran and Stacy Long is unlikely to force his hand. Andy Pugh is ruled out due to Cambridge not allowing his participation in the FA Cup, but an ankle injury is still troubling the loan signing anyway.
“Of course, we would love our number to be in the hat come Monday morning,” Brown said of the forthcoming cup tie. “With competition for places now at a real premium, whoever plays will need to be at their very best to stay in this team.”
Eastbourne will travel up to Stonebridge Road buoyed by their early-season form which, although it has dipped slightly since they drew 1-1 with the Fleet back in August, nonetheless sees the Sports very much in contention, sitting fifth in the table – two points and three places better off than the Fleet.
And like the home side, Eastbourne will be riding the crest of a wave, having disposed of Farnborough in midweek by 5-2 – that off the back of a 2-0 win against the same opposition to see them through to this round of the FA Cup. Yet Eastbourne haven’t been travelling particularly well this season, losing 4-0 at Sutton, 2-0 at Eastleigh and 2-1 at Staines.
One man who will need no motivation to take the game to the Fleet is Boro’s Ian Simpemba who was, of course, an Ebbsfleet player back in 2011-12 and a Dover teammate of plenty of current Fleet players last season. He came within millimetres of scoring against his old club in the league meeting in August and while his Fleet career may not have taken off, he is a dependable and determined defender at this level.
Elsewhere, Boro midfielder Chris Shepard – whose shot from distance opened the scoring in our league clash – is on form, with a hat-trick against Farnborough on Tuesday. He believes the pressure is all on the Fleet, saying: “We are excited, they are at home, they are expected to win. But I think if we play the football we have been playing recently, then we will give them a real run for their money and hopefully be in the hat for the next round.”
Striker Simon Johnson is amongst Skrill South’s leading scorers who, along with Fleet’s Billy Bricknell, has netted five times this season. Likely to start on the bench, the Sports’ highly-regarded ‘wonderkid’ Elliott Levy is garnering rave reviews. Used sparingly by manager Tommy Widdrington, he is something of an impact sub and certainly caused the Fleet problems in his brief appearance back in August.
Eastbourne have reached the Fourth Qualifying Round seven times in their relatively short history (two of those automatically as a Conference Premier side) and their furthest progression in the competition is the First Round Proper on three occasions – each time they lost to a fellow non-league side.
Previous form v Eastbourne Borough
|Venue||Matches||W||D||L||Goals||+ / –|
|Home||4||2||2||0||5 – 3||+1|
|Away||5||4||1||0||8 – 3||+5|
|Total||9||6||3||0||13 – 6||+7|