One of the many pleasing features of Monday night’s play-off semi-final match against Haywards Heath Town was the large number of ex-players who ventured down to Lancing in support of the team. For one of them, our former goalkeeper Duncan Green, the occasion brought back fond memories of an altogether different kind of play-off tie that threatened not only Horsham’s league status but its very existence. As we prepare for Friday’s visit of Ashford United, and the prize of a place in the Bostik Premier Division, we caught up with Duncan to talk Letchworth, late nights, and an unlikely goalscoring hero!
The 1980s were troubled times for Horsham Football Club. Financial matters had almost brought about the club’s demise at the start of the decade so it was perhaps unsurprising that the side finished in the bottom two six times in the space of ten seasons. Relegated to Isthmian League Division Two in 1980, and then to the newly-formed Division Two (South) in 1984, there was only one place they could go when left propping up the table in 1990….the County League. Already battling dwindling attendances, and with little guarantee of attracting the sort of players who might bring about a quick recovery in a tough and unforgiving league in which the once ‘mighty’ Horsham FC would be seen as a prized scalp, the Hornets were handed a chance of ending their malaise and avoiding an uncertain future with a two-legged relegation play-off. Our opponents were to be Letchworth Garden City who, in ending the 1989/90 campaign five points adrift at the foot of Division One (North), had an almost equally unimpressive record as the Hornets.
The first half of the campaign had been a disastrous one for Horsham, whose only two victories had come in the cup against lowly Oakwood and Burgess Hill, and in January manager Peter Oliver paid the price when he was replaced by ex-Steyning boss Peter Evans, who had masterminded a cup shock when leading the Barrowmen to victory at Queen Street the season before. Beaten 3-1 at home by Maidenhead United in his first game in charge, one of the first moves Evans made was to return to his former side and convince Duncan Green that his future lie at Horsham. “I took over from Jason Dumbrill, who was a very good ‘keeper but maybe a bit on the small side” recalls Duncan. “I made my debut against Malden Vale and I remember I had a very quiet game, which was handy. I kept a clean sheet and we even managed to win the game, our first in the league that season!” It was, in fact, the Hornets’ first Isthmian League success in forty attempts yet not nearly enough to impact their lowly position.
“We were rock bottom when Pete took over and I remember speaking to him at the time he signed me, telling me that he had been asked to put together a team that was better than what was already there and to try to pull us away from the bottom. He brought in guys like Steve Barber, Tony Stedman – who had been playing Sunday football after being at Steyning for a while – and Shaun Pink, but you also had lads like ‘Charlie’ (Mark Chaplin) and ‘Steppers’ (Mark Stepney) who, even then, seemed like they’d been at the club forever. Realistically I think we knew we would be facing a play-off, that scenario had been announced at the start of the season, but we obviously wanted to avoid that if we could.” The damage had been done, though, and with just three more victories under their belt before the end of the season, Horsham’s fate had long been sealed. “Our last match of the season was away to Abingdon, who always had a pretty good side, so that was going to be a tough match but we were determined to go up there and get a decent performance under our belts to give us a bit of confidence going into the Letchworth games.” And that’s precisely what Evans’ side did, returning from Oxfordshire with a point from a 1-1 draw, the match notable for a rare goal from Chaplin, who followed up after his own spot-kick was saved to net the rebound.
The first leg of the play-off final was scheduled for three days later, at Letchworth’s Baldock Ground, with the return match due to take place at Queen Street the following night on Wednesday 9th May. “We didn’t know anything about Letchworth” Duncan admits. “We hadn’t played them before and they were too far away to go and scout them so it really was a trip into the unknown. We went up in a minibus, not the executive travel you get these days, and I seem to remember that Kev Williams, our assistant-manager, drove it up to Letchworth. We couldn’t afford a minibus and a driver in those days!” Perhaps it was inevitable that the occasion would result in a nervous, tense, affair and that’s how it panned out. Stepney pulled off a vital interception to deny Kevin Cambridge, after the Letchworth man had taken the ball round Green, while Mick Bennett headed a Daren Champion header off the line. Then, a minute before the interval, Andy West raced on to Chaplin’s pass to chip in for Horsham only for the home side to equalise almost immediately through Trevor Manning. The scores remained level going into stoppage time at the end of the second half, of which there was plenty following a clash of heads between Champion and Mick Clements that resulted in the latter suffering a fractured cheekbone. And, five minutes into the fourteen added on, Bryan Glover was adjudged to have handled Mark Inker’s cross to gift Horsham a penalty. Given his missed effort at Abingdon just three days earlier, Chaplin could have been forgiven for shirking the opportunity of taking another one but he stepped forward and fired the ball straight down the middle to put the Hornets back in front. A late skirmish between Champion and Letchworth’s Lee Jacobs saw both players dismissed but it could do nothing to diminish the visitors’ joy at securing a valuable first leg lead.
“We were obviously delighted to get the win and were pretty pumped at the end but we knew it was only really half-time in the tie” added Duncan. “It was a bit odd that we should have to play the second leg the following night but I remember that the games should have been on the Tuesday and Thursday but Letchworth were going on their end of season tour that week so we had to play on successive nights. I think there were a few discussions about that with our officials but there wasn’t much that could be done about it. Unfortunately we got stuck on the motorway on the way back from the match and were still on the road at two in the morning, which is not ideal when you’ve got another match to play in less than twenty-four hours. The worst thing after an evening game is trying to get to sleep. You run the game back through your mind, wondering if you could have done things differently and going over the main events of the match, so none of us would have got to bed until at least three.”
The slender first leg advantage brought the locals out in force for the return match, with more than five hundred spectators coming through the Queen Street turnstiles, something Duncan admits took him and his team-mates by surprise. “Considering how bad we were we had a terrific crowd in, one of the biggest in a very long time at Queen Street, and it was a cracking atmosphere. I remember it was an awful game though and I don’t think I had an awful lot to do.” The goalkeeper was right, Letchworth failed to muster a worthwhile effort on goal all night but with Horsham’s propensity for conceding late goals, the tie remained on a knife-edge. Instead, though, it was the hosts who struck late, when Andy West curled a magnificent effort round Brian Sarll in the visitors’ goal for the clinching goal, sparking scenes of delirium around the ground. “I remember Andy West’s goal; he was twenty-five yards out and he mullered it. The goal was a worldy and out of context with the game, if I’m honest. It came so late in the game that we didn’t have to wait long for the final whistle and the fans all ran on to the pitch at the end. I gave my shirt to a young lad. I don’t know if I should have done that, we didn’t exactly have a lot of money, but I know I was hoping we’d get a new kit the next season! There were some great celebrations in the dressing room and in the Queen Street bar afterwards and it did get a bit messy. Great memories but it’s just scary to think it was nearly thirty years ago!”
The victory began a period of improved fortunes for Horsham under Peter Evans, reaching the final qualifying round of the FA Cup two seasons later and only narrowly missing out on promotion, but the story was rather less encouraging for Letchworth. Relegated to the South Midlands League, their decline continued until, in 2002, they folded. Would it have been a similar story for Horsham Football Club had we lost the two-legged tie? Thankfully, we shall never know.
pictured: Hornets manager Peter Evans flanked by first-leg goalscorers Andy West (L) and Mark Chaplin (R)