The Eastbourne Rangers ESFL team's penultimate game of the season saw them take on Old Hastonians in the Wisden Sports Challenge Cup final and they were probably marginal favourites after having secured six league points from Hastonians already this season. The venue was The Polegrove, home to county division two side Bexhill United, and on arrival to the dismay of the rangers squad, the pitch was very similar to those used at the Eastbourne Sports Park by rangers this season.
For the first time in months, it was no surprise that Rangers had a full compliment of players to choose from which included five substitutes in the form of Sean Hardie, Dan Wilkes, Luke Barber, Jamie Baker-Beall and keeper Grant Smith. The starting XI saw custodian Martin Bell take the gloves while charged with helping him keeping the teams eleventh clean sheet of the season was Steve Green, Dan Chapman, Aaron Filsell and skipper Dave Bennett-Tomlin. Matty Wheeler and Connor Sullivan were given the nod on the rangers flanks while Tony Derese and Lee Chapman were given the green light in the Rangers engine room in central midfield. The leagues top scorer Jamie Strong was partnered by the lively Ben Jesson up front.
From the kick off it was clear the blustery conditions would play a major part throughout the game. That combined with the torrential drizzle made it tough for both teams to settle early on. Rangers looked the more threatening in the opening exchanges with Green and Wheeler making breaks down the Rangers right. The latter managed to get into the Hastonians box on 12 minutes only to see his cut back find the feet of a very thankful defender.
Rangers usual flowing football deserted them early on with a combination of good Hastonians pressure and the conditions taking its toll. Hastonians main threat was the pace of their number 10, with the back line and Bell generally dealing with most of the long balls over the top with aplomb. On 21 minutes, the number 10 looked liked he was going to speed away towards goal from just inside the Rangers half but Bennett-Tomlin had other ideas, putting in an immense challenge to stop the Hastonians man in his tracks.
Rangers had long range efforts from Derese and Lee Chapman comfortably saved by the keeper while at the other end, Bell gave rangers a heart in mouth moment when he rushed out of his goal only to find the striker beat him to the ball on the left hand touchline. Fortunately, from the resulting cross, the Rangers defenders recovered and cleared the lines of any danger. Just after the half hour mark, Derese made a challenge and gave away a foul. Unfortunately it appeared a Hastonians player managed to talk the referee into booking the influential Belgium which was of course very disappointing and would have an impact later on in the game.
Five minutes before half time, Rangers took the lead. Strong swung in a corner from the Rangers right which was knocked down by Filsell. Sullivan reacted the quickest and poked the ball home to give Rangers a crucial 1-0 advantage.
At half time Rangers knew they hadn't been at their best with calls from the management team to move the ball quicker despite the challenging conditions.
Rangers now found themselves against the wind and the rain which made the entire half very challenging indeed. Hastonians predictably started quickly for the second period and Bell was forced into a world class save early on. A Hastonians man was given too much time 25 yards out and hit a thunderous effort which saw Bell dive full stretch and push the ball athletically around the post. Rangers were then forced into making their first substitution. With Derese already on a booking, and with the Hastonians bench calling for a second yellow after every challenge he made, Wilkes replaced Derese which saw Jesson slot into central midfield with Wilkes coming on up front.
Wilkes made an immediate impact, with his pace and energy clearly going to be a worry for the Hastonians back line for the rest of the game. Hastonians then picked up their first booking of the match after the number 10 made his third poor challenge of the evening, while the Hastonians right back escaped with only a warning after hacking down Jesson in full flow just outside the penalty area. Rangers then made their second change which saw Barber replace Dan Chapman at left back with Barbers attacking intent displayed as soon as he come onto the field.
On 70 minutes there was a major turning point in the game. The Hastonians keeper took a free kick from inside his area which was not met by a Rangers head, allowing it bounce thorough into the box from where it was eventfully cleared for a needless corner. The corner was swung in and a goal mouth scramble ensued which saw Lee Chapman sent off for deliberate handball in the box. Hastonians converted the spot kick despite Bells best efforts to keep it out which made the score 1-1.
Hastonians now had their tails up and Rangers misery was compounded when skipper Benentt-Tomlin pulled a hamstring which saw Rangers make their final substitution with Hardie replacing the Rangers skipper. With three defenders substituted off, the management team had a major issue covering the centre half position. To everybody's amazement, the leagues top scorer Strong stuck his hand up and said "I can play there, played there before" and this was to be a pivotal moment of the match as the only other option was to place left back Barber at centre half - and crucially this option was not taken..... This saw Hardie slot in next to Jesson in midfield leaving Wilkes as a lone front man.
Hastonians were now really in the driving seat with lots of pressure being applied on rangers in their own half. Bell was forced into a save which he barely knew anything about, the ball ballooning directly upwards from his chest after a powerful shot, the wind then blowing the ball over the bar. Rangers were still able to launch the occasional break, and with a few minutes to go they had a golden opportunity to take the lead again. A ball was played down the right hand channel which Wilkes ran onto, accelerating past their back four through onto the opposition goal. However much to the disbelief of every Ranger on the pitch and in the dugout, the assistant referee raised his flag for offside, possibly misjudging it due to Wilkes pace. Even the Hastonians players seemed surprised that the flag was raised. Had Rangers last chance of winning the game in normal time (and maybe at all) just been snatched away from them?
It looked like extra time was looming but with 30 seconds of normal time to go, Wheeler made a break down the Rangers right. His cross was half cleared and helped on by the wind towards Barber on the Rangers left approximately 30 yards from goal. Taking one touch to control the ball, Barber unleashed an arrow-like drive which dipped over the keeper and into the back of the net....!! Cue the entire Rangers bench invading the pitch and swamping Barber as Rangers knew there was hardly any time left for Hastonians to get back in the game.
Just as well Barber wasn't playing at centre half!
Hastonians had time to take the kick off and lump the ball forward but Rangers cleared the ball and then......THE FINAL WHISTLE BLEW. Rangers had won the cup in the last minute after being reduced to 10 men with the odds stacked firmly against them! Despite Rangers not being at their best, they dug in and got the result they deserved as they had shaded the game and were the slightly better side on balance over the ninety minutes.
Our thanks to all the support given on the night and especially to Jamie Baker-Beall and Grant Smith for being part of the squad as unused substitutes. This is the club's first league cup win and fifth trophy in as many seasons. With another league title within touching distance, this could well be the clubs most successful season to date, especially with the club's MSFL team in a cup final of their own as well as pushing for league honours.
Member since: 25th July 2013
Eastbourne Rangers were formed in May 2009 and after a seasons worth of consolidation, we haven't looked back since. Four league consecutive titles in five years (which have seen the club promoted SIX...