LEFT-back Marc Diaper reckons Sholing played more football in Saturday’s FA Vase semi-final first-leg than they had winning through the previous two rounds.
But, frustratingly, the latest instalment of the Boatmen’s ‘March to the Arch’ saw them held 2-2 by an unremarkable but effective Eastbourne United side in front of a season’s best 562 Silverlake Arena crowd.
It turns this Saturday’s second leg at The Oval, Eastbourne, into a high stakes one-off showdown for the right to face either St Andrews or West Auckland at Wembley on Saturday, May 10.
Having played second fiddle to Larkhall Athletic for much of their fifth round tie, Sholing came strong in extra time and scraped through with a 101st-minute winner from top gun Lee Wort.
It was a similar story for the quarter-final visit of Wisbech with Wort once again snatching the decider in a far from convincing 1-0 win.
Saturday was different, however. Having gone ahead with a 37th-minute own goal by United defender Sean Ray, the Boatmen could count themselves unlucky not to take that advantage into half-time.
Instead they were pegged back by a 44th-minute Wes Tate penalty and, when powerful centre-forward Ryan McBride achieved the rare feat of outmuscling Sholing’s sturdy centre-back Pete Castle before firing Eastbourne in front, it looked as if the Boatmen might be burdened with a deficit for the return leg.
But the decision to uproot Mike Carter from right-back into central midfield proved an inspired one as he bagged a priceless goal to level the tie with seven minutes remaining.
Diaper, pictured right, 35-year-old son of Sholing’s chairman/manager Dave, reflected: “Today was easier than the last two rounds.
“I thought we played more football than in either of the other two games, but we didn’t have the finish.
“It was a shame we gave the penalty away because that changed things going into half-time when I thought we were on top.
“We’ve conceded a weak second goal, but we got the ball down better in the last 20 minutes, got it out wide and put a few good deliveries into the box.
“They started sitting deeper and deeper and I could see Carts’s goal coming.
“I like him in the centre of midfield because he gives you a lot of energy.” Carter’s eye-catching contribution won him the man-of-the-match nod from Saints legends Jim Steele and Mark Dennis, guests of honour for the biggest cup tie in Sholing’s modern-day history.
The former Dell duo weren’t treated to the greatest of spectacles but, with Wembley just 180 minutes away, it wasn’t entirely surprising to hear manager Dave Diaper admit afterwards that the Boatmen had “lacked the normal flowing game” of a side who have banged in a phenomenal 99 goals in 30 Sydenhams Premier games this term.
Early on it looked as if the pace of winger Marvin McLean might unlock Eastbourne’s stubborn defence and it was no surprise to see the visitors withdraw bamboozled right-back Pete Featherstone at half-time.
But, for all McLean’s nifty footwork, the opening goal emanated from the opposite flank with Ray heading past his own keeper under pressure from Sholing skipper Byron Mason after good work by Carter and Ashley Jarvis on the right.
Boatmen’s ’keeper Brown, who had already had to deal with one powerful McBride shot, was then tested by an even better strike by Tate, which he smartly tipped over for a corner.
Joe Dryer’s flag kick sparked mayhem in the Sholing area and, after a succession of frantic blocks and a goalline clearance from Ray’s header, Broadstone ref Justin Amey pointed to the spot when Byron Mason brought down Loft.
Brown guessed the right way and got a hand to Tate’s penalty, but couldn’t keep it out.
There was little doing early in the second half, bar a half-chance apiece from left-backs Jack Divall and Diaper, until Eastbourne went ahead thanks to the sheer strength and tenacity of McBride.
With Castle desperately trying to hold him up, he managed to escape the attentions of the big defender, turn well and seek out the far bottom corner via the inside of the post.
It was a huge blow for Sholing to absorb, but they came off the canvas with arguably their most threatening phase of the game.
Jarvis was once again sacrificed, athletic skipper Byron Mason joined Wort up front, while subs Tyronne Bowers and Kev Brewster slotted into central midfield and right-back respectively.
With McLean and Barry Mason still providing width, Eastbourne’s defence suddenly had more to think about and was breached in the 83rd minute when McLean set up the unstoppable Carter to jubilantly rifle home a timely right-foot leveller from just inside the box. Castle’s central defensive partner Lee Bright could have won it in stoppage time, but his low shot took a deflection and skewed just past the post.
Looking back on the second half, Diaper Jnr said: “Pete (Castle) was disappointed with their goal but, at the same time, someone else could have closed their player down while Pete held him up. No one’s blaming Pete. It was just one of those things.
“The lads were quiet in the changing room afterwards because it felt like a bit of a loss. “But it’s a one-off game now and it’s no different to drawing Eastbourne away in a one-legged semi-final.
“We’re not bad away from home and we’ve certainly got nothing to fear.”