Dulwich Hamlet come close to an unthinkable comeback

EASTBOURNE BOROUGH 4

Rutherford 4 Hall 16, 42 Cox 28 pen

DULWICH HAMLET 3

Akinyemi 79 Clunis 83 Eshun 85

BY SAM SMITH AT PRIORY LANE

For 11 minutes Dulwich Hamlet looked on the verge of an almighty comeback against Eastbourne Borough, but they were eventually eliminated in this FA Cup third qualifying round tie.

It is a shame that for the other 79 minutes at Priory Lane, Hamlet were so abject. They were easily beaten on the South Coast by a side with whom it seemed almost inconceivable they shared not only the same National League South division, but also relatively similar places in the table. It should not have come to the point where they needed four second-half goals to force a replay.

The South Londoners have had a steady start to life in their maiden campaign in the sixth tier of English football and were unbeaten in five games prior to this cup tie. With a sizeable £15,000 in prize money had they seen off Eastbourne, an influx of cash which would have been so beneficial to Gavin Rose’s side, there was sufficient motivation.

But it was motivation that lacked among those in pink and blue on Saturday. Each player’s head appeared to drop as soon as Alfie Rutherford’s deflected strike wrong-footed Preston Edwards and nestled in the opposite corner to which the Dulwich goalkeeper had dived.

Nathan Ferguson had the visitors’ first shot on target in a rare first half attack as the opening 45 minutes ticked towards its conclusion. But by then it was too late. A stunning 25-yard drive from former Crystal Palace midfielder Ryan Hall and a penalty from ex-Brighton and Leyton Orient man Dean Cox had rendered this game pretty much over.

Dulwich barely strung a succession of passes together, scarcely advanced forward and defended with very little aggression. Frustration soon became apparent and Iffy Allen’s dangerous and completely unnecessary two-footed lunge on Cox meant they would play for 52 minutes with 10 men.

Eastbourne were winning every tackle. Their players appeared sharper and better on the ball than their opponents. Perhaps the vast Football League experience of the likes of Cox, Hall and skipper Sergio Torres – who had a goal disallowed for offside – helped but this was hardly a Dulwich side lacking know-how. Magnus Okuonghae played over 200 times for Colchester United, while a further seven of Rose’s starting 11 have made EFL appearances.

Hall would go on to meander unchallenged into the penalty area and add a fourth before referee Wayne Cartmel signalled the end of a disastrous half for Hamlet.

Rose – who did not conduct media after the game despite suggestions he would – appeared deeply displeased as he watched the first half unfold. It is difficult to imagine exactly what was said in the away dressing room at half-time but whatever it was, it sparked change in the sense that Dulwich were at least competitive in the second half.

Eastbourne cruised through the majority of the second period with minimal trouble. They controlled possession and had opportunities to add to their four goals; Hall’s spectacular long-distance volley after Edwards’ poor clearance almost handed him a hat-trick.

But suddenly the game changed. Whether because of a lapse in Eastbourne’s concentration or because of Dulwich’s realisation that they had nothing left to lose, it is impossible to piece together why and how Hamlet finally turned up with the tie already a foregone conclusion.

Dipo Akinyemi’s gamble and neat finish, Nyren Clunis’ cool strike and the outstretched leg of substitute Kingsley Eshun meant that this somehow finished in what would seem a tight and exciting 4-3 goal-fest rather than the comfortably emphatic Eastbourne victory that it really should have been.

And perhaps the most disappointing element from a Dulwich perspective is that had they not been so poor in the first half, had they properly competed and took the game to their hosts, the final 11 minutes proved they could have won this tie and been £15,000 richer.

Dulwich Hamlet (4-2-3-1): Edwards 4, Taylor 5, Okounghae 5, Chambers 4, Green 5, Vose 5, Ferguson 5, Allen 3, Tomlin 4 (Eshun 36, 5), Clunis 5, Akinyemi 5. Not used: Ming, Carew, Kamara, Cook, Deen-Conteh, Abrahams.

IMAGE BY KEITH GILLARD

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