LONDON, Jan 9 (Reuters) - Eastleigh FC were just three minutes away from causing an FA Cup sensation when an old pal of the minor league side’s goalkeeper ruined the prospect of a third round fairytale on Saturday.
Ross Flitney had been in dazzling form, making save after exceptional save to put the southern side -- from the National League and fifth tier of the English footballing pyramid -- in sight of a famous win over four-time winners Bolton Wanderers.
With glory beckoning at the little Hampshire club’s soggy Ten Acres home, reality intruded cruelly as Flitney’s former Fulham teammate Darren Pratley bundled home an equaliser for the Championship (second tier) strugglers.
The 1-1 draw meant deflation for the full house of 5,025 crammed into Eastleigh’s stadium, named after local scrap dealers Silverlake, but left the not inconsiderable consolation of a replay.
It had felt like a minor miracle that the game was played on a bog-like pitch following weeks of heavy rain, with referee Iain Williamson only deciding it could go ahead after three pitch inspections.
Bolton, desperate for a chink of light in a dark season which has seen the club plunge into financial disarray while suffering at the foot of the Championship, had appeared to be heading out following Dorian Dervite’s own goal shortly after halftime.
Yet after Pratley’s late equaliser, Flitney was left to reflect ruefully to the BBC about the intervention of the man he played alongside at Fulham more than a decade ago.
“I really did think we were going to hang on. It was an old mate of mine who got the equaliser, which hurts a bit more,” Flitney said.
“We’ve worked so hard to prepare this week for the game on a difficult pitch for both teams. It looks like a cow field.”
The cow field nearly became a field of dreams, with Eastleigh’s club chairman Stewart Donald having suggested that he might fly his players to Las Vegas if they won.
Eastleigh’s lively manager Chris Todd, who has sidelined as an actor, singer and author, reckoned his side had done enough to earn a famous win.
“It’s quite emotional, the players have put in an unbelievable performance,” he said. “But we’re still in the draw for the fourth round so we’re happy overall.”
So were Bolton, who are 172 million pounds ($249.68 million) in debt and have struggled to pay their players’ wages while looking for a new buyer.
“We’re still a football club and we still have a beating heart. This shows there is still life in this club,” said Bolton’s manager Neil Lennon. ($1 = 0.6889 pounds) (Reporting by Ian Chadband, editing by Alan Baldwin)