U23s boss: “We’re in it to win it”
A new stadium isn’t the only exciting new feature for the Hornets next season, as the club prepares to field a side at U23 level for the first time in its history. Overseeing the side, that will participate in the Isthmian Development Central League, will be Bryan O’Toole, older sibling of first team striker Rob, and his assistant Lee Hayes.
O’Toole (pictured) turned to coaching when his playing career was ended through injury at just twenty-five years of age. With spells at clubs such as Whitehawk, Peacehaven and Lancing behind him, it was Saltdean who gave him his first taste of management. “The manager was a good friend of mine and when he decided to step down, he suggested I take on the role” said O’Toole. “I was a bit reluctant at first as I was still playing – albeit struggling with Gilmore’s Groin – and was only there a short time before going back to Peacehaven. I did return to Saltdean later that season as a player and we got promoted back into senior football but it was around this time that another good friend of mine, Connor Saunders, tragically died and that hit a lot of us very hard. I had a couple of operations on the groin and when it became obvious that I couldn’t carry on playing I took some time out and started following Rob at Burgess Hill when they had that terrific season”.
Having also done some coaching at Peacehaven, O’Toole went on to have two spells as manager of Shoreham, either side of coaching Haywards Heath’s U21s, and guided the Musselmen to second place in the Southern Combination League in 2016/17 that resulted in the coastal club’s first ever appearance in the Isthmian League. When family commitments led to him stepping down from his role last summer, O’Toole took up an appointment coaching U11s and U12s twice a week at the Chelsea FC Foundation.
Thirty-six year old Hayes hails from Milton Keynes and, despite also having played the game, admits that he knew early on that he did not have the ability to reach ‘a decent grade’ so took up coaching in his late teens. “I started out with Buckingham Athletic U18s and then I was asked by a friend if I would be interested in helping out with coaching a girls’ team and that pretty much shaped my path in coaching” he revealed. “I wemt on to spend four years at Northampton Town, a year at Oxford United, was at the Arsenal girls’ Centre of Excellence and then had four years at Brighton”. In that last season, Hayes was assistant-manager and helped lead the Seagulls to promotion. “I was head coach mainly and it was the first time I’d been involved in a competitive league as development football is basically friendlies, with no leagues. We won the Southern Division and were promoted into the Women’s Super League for the first time. That was my best experience in football so far. Working in women’s football suited me as there is less commitment needed than in the men’s game, which meant I could carry on working full-time.
I’ve known Bryan for a couple of years and we spoke about getting a side together after he left Shoreham but that didn’t happen. Then when he got involved at Horsham we talked about working together and the idea really excited me as I’ve heard lots of good things about the way he does things from a number of people involved in Sussex football. I also did a bit of homework on Horsham – where they are and where they’re going – and was impressed by what I saw but the appointment of (first team coach) Jon Meeney is another huge plus for me. He was at Brighton when I was there and saw some of the things he did. He is a very good coach.”
Asked what his strengths are Hayes, who also coaches the Sussex Women’s Representative Squad, spoke of the pleasure he gets from helping develop players. “I enjoy individual coaching and helping to take players to the next level. There’s nothing better for me than seeing some of the players I’ve coached go on to succeed as they get older. Some of the girls I’ve worked with have gone on to play for England’s U15s, U16s and U17s and I would be delighted if two or three of our U23s go on to break into Horsham’s senior side. It’s great for a football club when they can develop their own local talent”.
“We’re really looking forward to the challenge at Horsham” said O’Toole. “Although Dom said there’s no pressure, it doesn’t really happen like that as I want to win it! We had a really successful trial day and there were two or three who really stood out but they were already twenty-three so I don’t know if Dom will be thinking about them for the first team. We had twenty-two turn up and I expect around a dozen of those to start pre-season, and we might include four or five from the U16s to begin with. We’re only aiming for a squad of thirteen or fourteen as there needs to be an opportunity for some of the fringe first-teamers to be able to get a game if necessary but I’ve got another five or six others to bring in so we’ll need to trim it down a bit and might look at dual-signing some with county league teams”.
First team boss Dom Di Paola was quick to acknowledge the importance of having an U23 squad at the club. “It should help us a bit and provide us with something that was missing last season” he said. “Crucially it should enable us to keep players in-house rather than letting them go out to other clubs just to get some football and the more quality coaching they get in, the better. We’ve been a bit thin on the ground in that respect. After Ian Browne left, it was pretty much Wezzo and I doing it all whereas some of the more successful clubs have four or five people in the coaching side.
It was a good turn out at the trial day but I guess the proof of the pudding will come in the friendlies. Right now it’s all about rebuilding the club as we start to prepare for moving into our new ground and the ideal scenario for us is likely to come the following season when, hopefully, we can get U18s and U23s and maybe even develop on that so that two to three years down the line we can be bringing our own players through”.
The full line-up of the of the Isthmian League Central Division is yet to be confirmed but last season consisted of the likes of Lewes, Tooting & Mitcham, Carshalton Athletic and Leatherhead. “Last season started on August 31st although we’ve not had any confirmation of when it’ll all kick-off this season yet” said O’Toole. “We’re excited that we will eventually be playing at our new ground but, until then, we are in negotiations with another club to host our home matches.”
The U23s have announced dates of two pre-season friendlies at East Preston on Thursday July 26th (ko 7.45pm) and Crawley Down Gatwick on Saturday July 28th (ko 3pm).