Mention of Cray Wanderers last summer would have evoked plenty of unwanted memories for Horsham’s supporters. Beaten twice in the league and thumped a record-breaking 8-0 by the Hayes Lane club in the FA Trophy, it’s probably fair to say that there would have been few tears shed in West Sussex had the Wands been promoted via the play-offs rather than beaten by eventual winners Walton Casuals. But fast forward to March 2019 and although Cray look to be romping towards the league title, the Hornets are now tucked in behind the South Londoners in second place and the only team to have taken three points off Tony Russell’s side this campaign. We asked boss Dom Di Paola to what he attributes this stark change in fortunes.

“That 8-0 was the culmination of a lot of bad stuff that was happening last season,” he said, “but it became a bit of a turning point for us as we felt nothing could have got any worse than that. We knew it was going to be a tough game because we had so many players out, but we just felt that if we could get through the match without getting tonked or losing any more players to injury then we’d see it as a positive. Unfortunately we got thrashed and it was actually the closest I’ve come to throwing in the towel. I’d gone out with a few old mates that night and the following day I just had it in my mind that I couldn’t see any way of getting out of it. It was early October and me and Wezzo sat down and said if we can get a couple of players in then we’d give it until the end of the month and see if we could turn it around. The only plus to come out of the match was that we’d been able to give Al Duncan a few minutes at the end, which was important because it began his return to the team after a long injury, and after that we got a few others back, brought a couple of new faces in and let some go and we started to pick up a few points over the next few weeks which enabled us to stabilise. It was probably the hardest time I’ve had in football up to that point because we just didn’t have any players.”

Referencing Manchester United’s terrific win in Paris this week, Dom was in no doubt as to what has made the difference to his side this campaign. “Togetherness! You can see what a difference it makes when players are all in it together and that’s half the battle. You can have all the good players you like but if there’s no togetherness then you’re not going to get the results. We have a lot more quality in the squad this season but they’re a great bunch of lads who all get on and that’s a good combination to have. We’ve competed well with everyone this season, even in defeat, and that’s a huge difference to twelve months ago.”

Never can that have been better highlighted than in Cray’s visit to Culver Road in December, when a hat-trick by Rob O’Toole contributed towards the Hornets ending Wanderers’ fifteen match unbeaten league run. “I don’t think we were actually better than Cray on the day, we just managed the conditions better and worked hard for each other” suggested Di Paola, rather downplaying the achievement. “To be honest, Cray have had the cigar in their mouths all season and are in that fortunate position where they can play without any pressure. They’re so far ahead (thirteen points) that they can afford to lose a couple of games and not worry about it. I’ve not done the maths but I’d imagine that if they beat us on Saturday then they’d probably only need another couple of wins to guarantee the title so we expect them to be playing with a lot of freedom tomorrow. But both sides seem to enjoy playing on the 3G so it should be a good game.”

With just five points separating Horsham and fifth-placed Hastings United, does Dom see this as a ‘must win’ game to avoid potentially slipping down the play-off rankings? “Not really. They’ve been the best team in our league this season by a country mile and, as far as I’m concerned, no-one expects us to win so it’s a free hit for us. We have a two point cushion over Haywards Heath but there’s seven more matches after Saturday and you’d expect points to be dropped along the way by all the teams. We’ll go up there and enjoy it and give it our best.”

So what of Cray? Well, since that pre-Christmas blip at Lancing only Faversham (1-1) and Ramsgate (2-2) have managed to prevent the leaders from taking maximum points and only three, Phoenix Sports, Ramsgate, and Whyteleafe have taken anything from this season’s visits to Hayes Lane where the Wands boast one of only four unbeaten home records throughout the four divisions of the Bostik League. With sixty-one goals, they are the division’s top scorers but, remarkably, only Junior Dadson (with ten) has reached double figures. Despite their dominance in the league, their supporters have been starved of any cup successess this season, bowing out of the FA Cup at the 1st Qualifying Round stage, the FA Trophy in the Preliminary round and the Kent Senior Cup at the first hurdle albeit against a team from Charlton Athletic. Their average league attendance is a fraction under two hundred, with their highest (345) coming against Hastings United in November. Their biggest victory came with last month’s 6-0 hammering of Herne Bay, although they also recorded a 7-2 win against Faversham back in October, while at the other end they have kept eleven clean sheets, the most recent coming last Saturday in a 1-0 success at Phoenix Sports.

Will Miles and long-term casualty Charlie Harris aside, the Hornets should be at full strength for the trip with Steve Metcalf back in contention after missing the last two matches.

Kick-off is 3pm and admission is £10 adults and £5 concessions (and U16s). Hayes Lane is located approximately one mile from Bromley South station, to where there are regular services from London’s Victoria station, but for those unable to make the trip we hope to provide our usual regular matchday updates through our social media feeds.

Main picture: Jack Brivio celebrates our fourth goal in the December victory over Cray Wanderers

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