“We shall do our best to come out of it with honour. We are leaving nothing to chance in our determination to show that we are fully capable of organising a function like this.”

These were the words of Horsham chairman Leslie Hale ahead of his side’s FA Cup first round tie with Third Division Swindon Town and, although the Football League side emerged fairly comfortable 3-0 winners, he could be happy that Horsham Football Club had put on a good show.

It was exactly fifty years ago that the Robins made the journey from Wiltshire to take on Pat Tobin’s Athenian League part-timers, and cup fever had the sleepy market town well and truly in its grip. More than three thousand had filed through the Queen Street turnstiles to watch the fourth qualifying round match against Hastings United but the excitement that this second-ever appearance in the first round generated was even greater. The club had been there before, of course, in 1947 when they took on a Tommy Lawton-inspired Notts County, but this was the first time Horsham had hosted a team from the Football League in a competitive fixture and Mr Hale was determined to make it an occasion of which the whole community could be proud.

“My father, Joe, was on the HFC committee at the time and I can remember going down to the ground most evenings that week to help with preparations in main stand” ~ Paul Dixon

In the five weeks leading up to the tie, he had barely a moment’s peace. Many hours were spent answering queries and leading his committeemen and helpers in making the complicated arrangements for dealing with this unique event. In addition to the fact that he had to return in the evenings to catch up with his job as managing director of his local engineering firm, he had several sleepless nights as his mind continued to churn over his day’s problems. For Mr Hale, the priority was to ensure that as many of the local townsfolk as possible could watch the match and temporary stands were brought in to raise the ground capacity to eight thousand. Seats were installed along the perimeter of the pitch and behind the goal at the old car park end of the ground, where 2,500 would be seated in ten-tier stands. Seated tickets were priced at 6s, with those wishing to watch from in front of the main stand paying 5s and 4s for general ground admission, with a thousand half-price tickets made available to pensioners and under 16s. A total of fifteen hundred were allocated to Swindon Town and a further five hundred to Horsham’s committee members, supporters association members, and those most closely connected to the club.

“I was one of a couple of program sellers for Horsham and sold them on that day. l was only thirteen and remember it being a great day and seeing those temporary stands up was quite something” ~ Andrew Lawson

To alleviate matchday congestion, the railway goods yard, commuters’ car park, the YMCA and Horsham UDC were turned over for supporters’ cars and coaches and, as a result, the town centre was kept relatively clear, to the obvious delight of Saturday afternoon shoppers.

There was some surprise, and frustration, when Swindon officials demanded that Queen Street’s newly-installed floodlights be strengthened in order to facilitate a 3pm kick-off. The lights had been introduced just over twelve months earlier, at a cost of £5,000, and were initially claimed to have been of ‘Football League standard’ but, at the behest of the visitors, eight additional lights were added to the four corner pylons and the bulbs upgraded. But, still unhappy with the work that had been done, Swindon refused to accept the mid-afternoon start and the match was brought forward to 2.15pm!

The queues form outside Queen Street ahead of the big kick-off

“I was there with some other friends from Collyers, mainly to cheer (or jeer) our Geography teacher Brian Hardcastle” ~ Frank Gilbert

The match itself had all the ingredients for a cup upset. As former Swindon goalkeeper Ted Nash admitted, the Swindon players would hate playing at Queen Street, where the crowd would be on top of them. Horsham were also in mightily impressive form going into the tie, having gone undefeated in seventeen games from the start of the season before understandably taking their eye off the ball in the two games immediately before Swindon’s visit, going down to defeat against Eastbourne United and Windsor & Eton. By contrast, the Robins had won only one of their first twelve matches but had rediscovered some form in the weeks leading up to their trip to West Sussex, winning four out of five including a 5-1 thrashing of Orient. Ironically, the only occasion on which they lost during that period was at Gillingham, a match watched by Horsham first team manager Pat Tobin. Quite what information Pat took from that game remained a secret between himself, his management team and players, but one local reporter who was also present declared that Don Rogers had the potential to be Swindon’s matchwinner versus Horsham. His prediction turned out to be impressively accurate, the England U23 international being directly involved in all three Swindon goals. “Don Rogers was a class above everyone else” recalled supporter Ken Cullern.

Everything was in place for the big day. A special ‘glossy’ souvenir programme was commissioned, ticket sales had been trouble-free, the latest pop records purchased to entertain supporters before kick-off, ‘specials’ were drafted in alongside the local constabulary to assist with directing those making their first visit to Queen Street, and queues began to grow along Brighton Road as early arrivals sought to secure the best vantage points. Yet concerns were growing that Horsham Secretary Fred Sparkes’ ill health might force him to miss arguably the biggest game in the club’s history. Fred’s long association with his local club had begun during the reign of Queen Victoria when, as a nine year old, he was bought his first season ticket. He went on to play for the club and made his goalkeeping debut in 1907, remaining on the playing staff until 1920, and later spent more than forty years as club secretary.

“Walking through the town, many of the shops were decked out in the club’s colours, with flags and bunting, and a massive crowd of people were descending on Queen Street” ~ Jim Bravery

It was, then, inconceivable that he might not be present on Horsham’s big day but, unable to walk the short distance from the car park or climb the stairs in to the stand, that looked increasingly likely. But as his granddaughter Helen Richardson explains, it was going to take more than illness to keep this club stalwart away. “It became obvious that his wish to be present over-rode all his problems, so a plan was hatched. The only vehicle to be allowed into or anywhere near the Queen Street ground would be that of St John’s Ambulance. The brigade quickly became the most willing conspirators and, an hour before kick-off, Fred and his GP, Dr John Dew, were secreted aboard the ambulance at his house and driven, unseen, to the very entrance of the West Stand from where he was lifted and helped to his seat. By the kindness of the committee, Dr Dew was allowed to be next to him from where not only could he watch and enjoy the football, but could also witness Fred’s immense satisfaction and happiness in being part of the scene.”

Hope and expectation builds inside the packed ground

Fred would have been delighted, not only at the sight of a full house, but also at the start Horsham made to the tie. They were certainly not overawed at facing their professional opponents and attacked Swindon down the slope in the first half with centre-half John Trollope needing all his experience to clear an early raid by John Gregory. Mick Streeter’s shot lacked sufficient power to trouble goalkeeper Peter Downsborough and Don Hollands was only just too high with a header from Keith Wellham’s corner-kick. Swindon naturally carried their own threat and Willie Penman just failed to put them in front with a good diving header from Don Rogers’ centre, with Ian Page saving from Joe Butler from another Rogers ‘assist’ and Bruce Walker blasting a good chance wide. Despite the attacking intent of both teams, it was a defensive error that gifted Swindon their controversial opener when Page’s short free-kick to Wilf Hugill was intercepted by Rogers who walked the ball into the net. Home fans and players argued that the ball had failed to clear the penalty area but referee Reg Paine was unmoved and the Robins had the psychological advantage of scoring the game’s first goal. But the home side were not downhearted and continued to press forward but Downsborough was relatively untroubled in the Swindon goal while Page saved well from Walker and Dennis “Bullets” Brown. Rogers’ goal was all that separated the sides at the break with Horsham, although slightly outclassed, remaining in the tie by virtue of their great fighting spirit.

Don Rogers scores Swindon’s controversial opening goal

“Such was the demand for tickets that I could not get one so, like many other local lads, I climbed over the fence and got in for nothing” ~ Clive Williams

They continued to enjoy plenty of good possession in the second half but found the Swindon defence, that had conceded just three times in the previous five games, in formidable mood. At the other end, shots continued to pepper Page’s goal although it was the crowd that seemed in more danger from the visitors’ wayward shooting. “A Swindon player let one loose and it whistled over the goal and hit a guy in the chest who was sitting just a few seats away from us” recalled Ray Sharpe. “Poor bugger was winded for several minutes!” Even when Penman found the net, just after the hour mark, his goal was disallowed for a foul on Page. However there was no disputing the validity of Swindon’s second goal, scored on seventy minutes by Welsh international Mel Nurse who rose to head home another dangerous Rogers free-kick. Horsham continued to play good football after this but just lacked the strength and know-how to pierce Town’s rearguard, although Downsborough did well to tip a clever effort by Brian Griffin over the bar. Brown made certain of the win, four minutes from time, when he applied the finishing touch to Rogers’ clever run and cross.

It wasn’t the result the majority of the 7,134 crowd might have wanted but nobody could fault the effort of the Horsham players. Swindon manager, Danny Williams, was complimentary of Pat Tobin’s side after the match, saying “Horsham played much better than when I saw them before. They made us fight hard. It just shows that nothing is easy in football” while Swindon’s ‘Football Pink’ newspaper led with the headline “Spirited amateurs go down fighting”. There was praise, too, for events off the pitch as Horsham’s police Chief Inspector Ronald Littler commented “There was no trouble of any kind throughout the afternoon. It was remarkable how very smoothly everything went”

“There was a truly party atmosphere at the match and the Gardner’s arms pub was packed solid after the game. You couldn’t get near the bar” ~ Roy Lawrence

Despite the loss, Horsham supporters celebrated the occasion long into the night, as Roy Lawrence recalls. “There was a truly party atmosphere at the match and the Gardner’s arms pub was packed solid after the game. You couldn’t get near the bar.” The final word goes to Jim Bravery, who was also at Queen Street to watch Horsham’s second round appearance against Swansea City in 2007, and perhaps summed up the feelings of all those Horsham supporters who were there five decades ago when he said “It’s great to look back fifty years and say I was a part of Horsham’s record crowd on another notable day in the club’s history.”

The teams:
Horsham: Ian Page, Geoff Crowther, Wilf Hugill, Ron Philpott, Brian Riggs, Don Hollands, John Gregory, John Tomlinson, Mick Streeter, Brian Griffin, Keith Wellham  Sub: Brian Hardcastle

Swindon Town: Peter Downsborough, Rod Thomas, John Trollope, Roger Smart, Mel Nurse, Stan Harland, Don Rogers, Dennis Brown, Willie Penman, Joe Butler, Bruce Walker  Sub: Ken Skeen

Referee: Reg Paine

After the defeat of Horsham, Swindon went on to record their best FA Cup run for 42 years when reaching the fifth round, beating Ashford Town, West Ham United, and Bury before bowing out 3-0 to Nottingham Forest in front of 53,000 fans at Villa Park, after two drawn matches. Three years later, seven of the Swindon side were in the eleven who famously beat Arsenal 3-1 in the League Cup Final at Wembley Stadium.

Did you know? The official match programme carried ‘pen pics’ of just three Swindon Town players; Rogers, Nurse and Brown. All three went on to share Town’s three goals!

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