Sometimes, you just don’t want a football season to end. Let’s be honest, I’m not sure any of us felt that way twelve months ago and even our Southern Combination League title-winning campaign of three years ago had probably run its course (and how could you have top the open-topped bus ride and those scenes at Pagham on the final day?). But this year is a very different proposition. Those who have regularly journeyed down to Lancing over the past eight months or so will have been blessed by witnessing some truly memorable performances from Dom Di Paola’s side that have brought us the sort of league and cup success of which we have been starved for quite some considerable time.
Where in previous years it has been possible to count a season’s highlights on the fingers of one hand, 2018/19 has brought a reverse of fortunes with disappointments very few and far between. Just as we saw with the recent tied result for Player of the Season, to ask supporters ‘what was your favourite match’ would surely elicit a wide range of opposing views; the seven goal FA Cup thriller with Heybridge Swifts perhaps, that comprehensive defeat of Premier Division Corinthian-Casuals, the 3-2 win against Phoenix Sports – one of many ‘come from behind’ victories in the first half of the campaign – the rain-soaked triumphs over champions Cray Wanderers and Hythe Town, or maybe the 6-1 drubbing of Sittingbourne away from home…the list goes on an on. With a near impeccable record at Culver Road that has seen the Hornets undefeated in the league since last August, few could argue that our final placing of second in the Bostik South East Division has been thoroughly deserved and, on any other occasion, it would have been widely celebrated. But this is non-league football and thus, before we can truly take stock of a magnificent campaign, we first need to prove ourselves the best of four promotion-chasing teams in order to take our place in the Premier Division.
Having seen off the challenge of Haywards Heath in Monday’s play-off semi-final, our final hurdle comes in the form of Ashford United who, themselves, deserve the heartiest of congratulations for their achievements this season. Horsham supporters will recall we beat the Nuts & Bolts three times last season, including a 6-0 thumping in the FA Cup, but their form has changed significantly since then. It had been, though, a bit of a slow burner for the side from Kent who, after winning their opening three fixtures to begin September at the top of the table, slipped down to thirteenth after shipping two late goals to Horsham in early November (another contender for our most memorable match, perhaps?). They went on to enjoy back-to-back successes immediately after that match but it was the installation of former Horsham favourite Tommy Warrilow as manager that provided the team with the impetus from which to climb steadily into the play-off spots, even spending two weeks in second place back in February.
Inspired by the talents of midfielder Sam Corne, labelled the best in the division by Dom Di Paola, and the attacking prowess of one-time Brentford pro Danny Parish, Ashford have gone from strength to strength. Their tally of seventy-four goals, one more than the Hornets, makes them the division’s third highest scorers and they have not dropped out of the play-off places since winning 4-0 at VCD Athletic in the first week of January, completing the season in fourth spot. Last Saturday they thrashed an understrength Haywards Heath 5-0 to set up a tense semi-final at Hastings United on Monday night in which they edged out their hosts by the odd goal in five, the winner coming from the penalty spot in the penultimate minute of extra-time via the boot of Sam Corne.
As fans of both clubs will surely know by now, a reshuffle of the football pyramid has produced a twist to this season’s play-offs with only five of the seven final winners set to be promoted, the two with the lowest points per game average missing out. While Horsham’s tally of 2.06 is enough to guarantee them the step up, should they win the tie, Ashford will need Northern Premier League Brighouse Town to upset Pontefract Collieries and Cinderford Town to beat Yate Town in the Evo-Stick final if they are to be promoted at Horsham’s expense. Plenty of ifs, buts and maybes, then, but what better way to round off a wonderful season – and to prepare for the next chapter in our long and fabulous history – than with what is effectively a cup final? Plenty of reasons for you to be part of a bumper crowd at Culver Road this evening. The match kick-off at 7.30pm and will be decided tonight, with extra-time and penalties taken if necessary.
Admission: £9 adults, £5 (seniors, U18s & students), £1 U16s
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