Sholing have it all to do to realise their Wembley dream after being held 2-2 by Eastbourne United in the FA Vase semi-final first leg at the Silverlake Arena this afternoon.
Watched by a season’s best crowd of 562, Dave Diaper’s men went ahead courtesy of an own-goal but were pegged back by a penalty shortly before half-time.
They fell behind with the hour-mark approaching, but rallied late on to level through their man-of-the-match Mike Carter, giving both teams all to play for in Sussex next week.
The Boatmen were blessed with a gloriously warm afternoon for the biggest Cup tie in their history.
And there was sunny news on the team front too with twin defensive powers Pete Castle (knee) and Lee Bright (eye) passed fit to play.
With Lewis Fennemore partnering skipper Byron Mason in central midfield, Tyronne Bowers was named on the bench.
Eastbourne’s team coach was held up in heavy traffic and didn’t arrive at the Silverlake Arena until 2.15 pm.
Prior to kick-off, two Saints legends were presented to the crowd with Jim Steele and Mark Dennis invited along as special guests to support the Boatmen’s push for Wembley.
The tie got off to a busy, if uneventful, start – the first action of note coming on six minutes when Eastbourne broke from a Sholing throw and cries for handball by Ryan McBride on the halfway line were ignored by referee Justin Amey.
Bright was adjudged to have tripped the No 9, but Wes Tate’s lofted free kick was an easy take for Matt Brown.
With Marvin McLean, Barry Mason and Mike Carter all lively down the flanks, Sholing looked capable of posing problems with their pace.
But they were lacking the final pass against a resolute Eastbourne defence marshalled by skipper Shaun Loft and former Hastings player-manager Sean Ray.
Sholing’s first real threat followed a high ball into the box by left-back Marc Diaper. The Boatmen had a succession of stabs towards goal with the ball eventually coming to Fennemore.
The midfielder unleashed a shot, which looked to be going wide in any case, which was well turned away by keeper Grant Young.
Having got to grips with Sholing’s early pace, Eastbourne began to get a foothold in the game and threatened on 28 minutes.
Tate played the ball back for McBride from the right by-line and Brown was forced to push the striker’s first-time shot behind for a corner. Joe Dryer delivered a tame flag-kick which was easy pickings for Sholing’s No 1.
On 34 minutes Sholing right-back Carter swung a long ball out to the busy feet of McLean on the left. But, having driven inside, shrugging off the attentions of full-back Pete Featherstone, he lofted his shot way over.
Sholing finally made the all-important breakthrough after 37 minutes with the softest of goals.
Carter played in Ashley Jarvis on the right of the area. He stood the ball up to the near post where RAY headed past his own keeper under pressure from Boatmen skipper Byron Mason.
Sholing worked a promising situation on the left with McLean again dancing into the area from Diaper’s assist, but he lost his footing and ended up on his backside.
Leading marksman Lee Wort unleashed a snap shot from distance which was held by the diving Young.
But just when it looked as if the home side might take control, United grabbed a 44th minute leveller from the penalty spot.
A combination of McBride and Tate ended with the latter unleashing a fiercely driven shot which was smartly tipped over by Brown.
As the flag kick came across, Ray headed it back across goal and a massive goal-mouth scramble ensued. After a succession of frantic blocks and saves, Sholing looked to have survived the worst of it.
But the ball came out towards the edge of the area where Byron Mason was penalised for sliding in on Loft and the referee pointed to the spot.
Brown guessed the right way for TATE’s penalty, but couldn’t prevent it finding its way into his far left corner for 1-1. Half-time: Sholing 1 Eastbourne Utd 1 The opposing left-backs had the early chances in the second half – first United’s Jack Divall arrowed a shot from distance that went comfortably wide of Brown’s right-hand post.
Then Diaper showed good awareness to spot the keeper off his line – but his well-weighted shot was wide.
With neither side building any sort of momentum, another goal looked unlikely.
But one duly arrived just before the hour mark and, alas for Sholing, it went Eastbourne’s way.
Tate was again in the thick of things, laying the ball off for McBRIDE.
The powerhouse striker did the rest, muscling his way into space before firing low into the far corner from 20 yards out on the right.
Wort unleashed a thunderbolt which cannoned off a defender in a packed penalty area as Sholing looked to respond.
But, for a third Vase game running, the Wessex League title favourites were struggling to raise their game for the big occasion against a dogged visiting side.
With frustration building, towering midfielder Fennemore was booked for a late challenge on Divall and almost immediately replaced by the smaller but equally competitive figure of Bowers.
It didn’t take long for Bowers to become the next name in Mr Amey’s notebook.
With McBride again posing problems with his strength, the Eastbourne frontman played the ball forward to Callum Saunders down the right.
The Eastbourne No 8 immediately had the lively substitute snapping at his heels and went to ground at the expense of a booking for the Sholing man.
Bowers was soon joined on the pitch by fellow sub Kevin Brewster who went on in place of Jarvis.
Brewster slotted in at right-back with Carter going into central mid-field alongside Bowers, while Byron Mason joined Wort up front.
Sholing immediately looked more of a threat and weren’t far away from levelling when Byron Mason headed Brewster’s free kick from the right wide of the near post.
And the pressure paid off with the Boatmen making it 2-2 on 83 minutes.
Wort found McLean on the left of the area and the winger teed up CARTER to drill home low from inside the box – a priceless goal ahead of next Saturday’s return leg.
A minimum of four minutes stoppage time had just been announced when Byron Mason was floored under a hefty challenge by Loft.
Brewster sent the free kick goalwards, but the huge figure of Ray took charge in the six-yard box to head it away for a corner.
Brewster thad another free kick, having been floored himself this time.
With time running out, his delivery was half cleared and came to Bright just inside the area, but his low shot took a deflection and skewed just past the post. Result: SHOLING 2 EASTBOURNE UNITED 2