When you’re beaten at home in your first match of the season, promotion is probably the furthest thing from your mind. But to be fair, not too many of us were even contemplating such an event back in August despite some exciting summer signings and an encouraging pre-season, albeit – in the main – against rather modest opposition. After all, just three years ago Horsham Football Club was playing County League football after suffering two relegations in three seasons and very few trees were torn down on our way to successive sixteenth and fifteenth place finishes in the Isthmian League. So Sittingbourne’s 2-1 opening day success at Culver Road wouldn’t have raised too many eyebrows from those with an interest in the new Bostik League South East Division, neither would it have done when we went to newly-promoted Sevenoaks Town a week later and reversed that scoreline, making it an inglorious first appearance at Step 4 for the Kent club.
And then, like a cat toys with a mouse, having allowed us to level things up, they pounced for the kill with a stoppage time winner.
The stand-out result of the opening month was undoubtedly our fantastic 1-0 triumph at last season’s champions Carshalton Athletic in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup, sealed by a wonderful late free-kick by Charlie Harris.But, as the Good Lord giveth with one hand, so he takes with the other, and we were quickly brought back down to earth when visiting Haywards Heath – against whom we’d enjoyed an emphatic League Cup success just six days earlier – allowed us the comfort of an early three goal lead only to reply with four of their own. And then, like a cat toys with a mouse, having allowed us to level things up, they pounced for the kill with a stoppage time winner.
It took a while for us all, players, supporters and officials, to get that result out of our system and two more defeats followed at Whyteleafe and, in the League Cup, Bracknell before we made the journey to Gay Dawn Farm for an FA Cup date with Corinthian FC of the Southern Counties East League. Easy pickings, easy money, or so some may have thought. But, on a difficult pitch, the Hornets needed the help of a defender’s head to take a first half lead and, after much huffing and puffing, that looked to be the decisive action of a poor game until stoppage time when that same defender, Jack Bath, thrashed home an equaliser. Complacency no longer an option, we despatched our opponents 5-0 in the midweek replay and, from that night on, the team suddenly clicked. A Chris Smith goal was enough to see off Herne Bay but it was the FA Cup that was continuing to provide us with all the excitement, none more so than the visit of Heybridge Swifts.
Cup tie football at its dramatic best!
Two nil down after less than quarter of an hour, and the rain lashing down, our expectant supporters might have been excused for wishing they’d stayed at home. But Steve Metcalf and Joe Shelley got us back on terms before half-time, only for Swifts’ Nicolas Brown and then Rob O’Toole to take us to 3-3 before Smudge bundled in the winner. There was even a sending-off towards the end. Cup tie football at its dramatic best!
High-flying Hastings proved an altogether different proposition, enjoying a comfortable 2-0 midweek success at the Pilot Field (why always midweek when these two sides meet?) to leave us languishing in fourteenth place but that was as low as we would fall. Even the FA Trophy, so often bereft of success for Horsham teams of the past, provided us with good cheer this season, starting with a fine 2-1 triumph at Bury Town, and our new-found resolve was again in evidence when we took on form side Phoenix Sports in the league. Trailing 2-0 after nineteen minutes, we were level by half-time thanks to first club goals from George Hayward and Will Hoare and from thereon in there was only one likely winner and it came from the head of Jack Brivio, spectacularly converting at the far post. The third qualifying round of the FA Cup dealt us another home tie, and arguably our toughest test to date, against Southern League Premier Poole Town on an afternoon on which the rain swept in with no-one but those who sensibly opted to remain in the clubhouse spared a soaking. But it was an absorbing tie from which the very least we merited was a second shot at the men from Dorset. And that’s what we got after a typically fearless header by Biff cancelled out our opponents’ second minute opener. But courage and talent alone are not always enough to carry you through and, when you lack that little bit of luck, sometimes nothing you can do can change the outcome of a match. Already ahead in the replay, thanks to Harvey Sparks’ goal, Rob’s shot was deflected onto the crossbar before being cleared and, with two goals in six minutes either side of half-time, it was Poole who went on to an ultimately unsuccessful meeting with Bostik Premier Division promotion hopefuls Haringey Borough.
Having seen off Ware and East Grinstead by the same 3-1 scoreline in the Trophy and League respectively, we hosted Premier Division Corinthian-Casuals in the Trophy – the same Corinthian-Casuals that had inflicted 4-1 and 2-0 defeats on us last season on their way to promotion – and we destroyed them! In what was one of the best of any number of outstanding displays this season, we dominated the tie and had it won by the half hour mark with Biff, maintaining his predilection for scoring in cup ties, and Rob getting the goals before Briv put the icing on the very profitable cake with a stoppage time third. Frustrations at a disallowed goal away to Ramsgate at the end of October paled into insignificance when we trailed struggling Ashford 2-0 with twenty-five minutes to go at Homelands and even when Smudge halved the deficit it would have been a brave move to bet on anything but a home win. But Tyrell Richardson-Brown thought otherwise, scoring twice in the last ten minutes including a winner in the last of six added on to send the three points back to Sussex.
It had, though, been a great run in non-league football’s premier national cup competition and only the second time in more than four decades that we had reached the third qualifying round.
Two further cup ties were negotiated without much of a scare, although it took an eighty-eighth minute strike from Smudge to see off Potters Bar after our understrength side had earlier knocked plucky Storrington out of the Sussex Senior. Eight games unbeaten, then, going into our next huge match – a Buildbase FA Trophy tie with Bath City of the National League South. Forty-six places separated the two teams at the start of this Sunday afternoon meeting and, by the end, it was only a superb curling effort by Sean Rigg that divided them after Charlie had earlier cancelled out Jack Batten’s opener. It had, though, been a great run in non-league football’s premier national cup competition and only the second time in more than four decades that we had reached the third qualifying round.
As December arrived, our participation in just one knockout competition remained but that duly came and went in the guise of Eastbourne Borough, who secured their Sussex Senior Cup passage with a goal scored via the final kick of the match after being forced to play the final twenty-five minutes with only ten men following the dismissal of newly-joined Dorking Wanderers loanee Kieran Lavery. No matter. After swallowing our disappointment, we were now free to concentrate on all things Bostik League and, having already comfortably seen off the limited challenge of Greenwich and Whitstable prior to that reverse, we suddenly found ourselves occupying the final play-off berth. Two places higher up the table sat Hythe Town, our next opponents. Unbeaten at Reachfields all year, it was a daunting test for our players but one that they passed with flying colours. Battered by the elements they might have been but a powerful opening saw us two goals to the good before the hosts somehow and, dare I say it, undeservedly got themselves level by the midway point of the second half. But then an ‘oggie’ from Hythe’s Nathan Daly and a simply sensational free-kick from Charlie that eclipsed even his effort at Carshalton, in altogether more testing conditions, sealed a quite magnificent 4-2 victory. But the festive month served up an equal share of the sublime and the ridiculous as we crashed to a 2-1 reverse at lowly Three Bridges just three days later before ending the division’s only unbeaten run by dishing out another 4-2 defeat, this time on runaway leaders Cray Wanderers.
Cock-a-hoop at this result we went to Haywards Heath before Christmas, confident of putting three points between ourselves and our equally surprising play-off rivals. However, goals from ex-Hornet Karl Akehurst, a late pen from Callum Saunders, and a referee lacking in festive cheer sent our ten men to defeat and we ended a notable 2018 in fourth spot. Guernsey shouldn’t have provided us with too many problems on New Year’s Day, and they didn’t. Finding the back of the net did, however, and our profligacy proved costly as Carlos Canha hit an equaliser a minute from time for one of the most one-sided draws of this or any season. Normal service was resumed away to Faversham and at home to Whyteleafe but goals were becoming hard to come by and Phoenix’s Alex Teniola, scorer of a hat-trick for Thamesmead against the Hornets last season, scored the only goal of the game to check our stride at The Mayplace Ground. Rob and Mets scored the singular goals that earned us four points from the back-to-back visits of Ramsgate – during which an injury to Charlie ruled him out for the remainder of the campaign – and Hastings as January morphed into February and then we hit a purple patch of four wins and a draw in the next five fixtures versus VCD, Three Bridges, Whitstable, East Grinstead and Hythe but the return match with Cray was a step too far as the hosts, and champions-elect, scored a goal in each half to emerge victorious from a wind-spoilt match.
Storm Hannah and a side facing up to the very real threat of relegation awaited us on our visit to Greenwich’s DGS Marine Stadium, a challenge we came through unscathed, before the first of five matches against Kent opposition threw up promotion rivals Ashford United. Once again Josh Pelling and our superb defence completed a thirteenth league shut-out of the campaign, albeit enabling Hastings to leapfrog us both, a lead they maintained despite our routine defeat of Sevenoaks. That all changed in emphatic style when our trek to Sittingbourne returned six goals, three points, and a best Step 4 away win for thirteen years, taking us back up to second where we would stay for the remainder of the campaign.
The annual supporters’ fancy dress ‘away day’ could barely have been scripted better
We were pushed hard by Herne Bay, eventually edging them out by the odd goal in five, and with Thamesmead having ‘gone to the wall’ back in October we concluded our home programme with an untroubled 4-0 demolition of visiting Faversham Town, presenting them with an Easter Monday trip to Guernsey, safe in the knowledge that our place in the play-offs had long since been confirmed. With Hastings and Ashford meeting at the Pilot Field that same day, we knew we had merely to match Hastings’ result to finish second and secure home advantage but we went one better, defeating the Green Lions 2-1 while honours ended even in East Sussex. The loss of the aforementioned Thamesmead meant we could all put our feet up on the final Saturday while the identity of our semi-final opponents was being decided at Ashford where the hosts slammed five unanswered goals past a hugely understrength Haywards Heath to send the latter off to Culver Road two days later.
Would our opponents suffer from playing twice in little more than forty-eight hours? Would we be sluggish after a seven day ‘break’? Would those two league victories at our expense play on the minds of those in the amber jersey? And would Heath’s Kenny Pogue, for so long the Hornets’ nemesis, derail our hopes yet again? More than five hundred came to Lancing looking for answers but, from the moment Lee Harding put us ahead midway through the first half, there was only one way this tie was going. Rob added a second, at a similar stage of the second half, and Ty added the cherry in stoppage time for a thoroughly convincing victory. Over at the Pilot Field Hastings and Ashford were doing battle for the second time in ten days and, just as in the league game, things were similarly close-fought with Ashford emerging victorious courtesy of a penalty in the dying moments of extra-time.
It had taken seven years to return to the top flight of Isthmian League football but, boy, was it worth the wait!
And so the scene was set for a showdown between the Hornets and Ashford, managed by former Horsham favourite Tommy Warrilow. Although reliant not just on a victory in the final but an unlikely set of results in the other play-offs in order to secure promotion, Ashford arrived strong in both team and support as our highest post-Queen Street attendance gathered in excited anticipation of a match-up between two of the division’s most entertaining sides. A cagey first half offered little to support the pre-match feelings held by both sets of supporters although even a heavy downpour failed to dampen the fervent home support, even if it did send those from Kent scurrying hastily for the sanctuary of the stand. A huge roar accompanied George’s thunderbolt of an opener, that gave the Hornets the lead, but when the same player was penalised in the opposite penalty box on the stroke of half-time, Sam Corne sent United in to the break on level terms. A hatful of chances came both teams’ way after the break with the best of them, a penalty to the hosts, spurned when Rob saw his spot-kick palmed away by the excellent Sam Mott. Into the first period of extra-time we went, and then to the second with neither side able to break the deadlock. But then, with just twelve minutes remaining, Dylan Merchant – Horsham’s only regular outfield player yet to score a goal this season – rose to meet Joey Taylor’s free-kick and Horsham had done it. Former players, hitherto absent supporters, club officials, players, management and the loyal faithful embraced as Briv was presented with the trophy that confirmed Horsham would be playing Premier Division football in their NEW HOME in 2019/20.
The 2018/19 campaign was unquestionably one of the most successful and enjoyable seasons for many a year. Thank you Dom, Wezzo, Punts, Daz and Steph. Thank you board of directors, thank you committee, thank you fellow supporters, thank you Lancing but, above all, thank you to the players for providing so many fantastic memories of following this great club throughout an unforgettable season.
Final league position: 2nd (Isthmian League best since 2005/6)
Number of league victories: 23 (Isthmian League best since 2005/6)
Average points per game: 2.06 (Isthmian League best since 2001/2)
Goals conceded: 38 (Isthmian League best since 1973/74)
Top scorer: Chris Smith (23 – all competitions)
Player of the season: Rob O’Toole/Harvey Sparks (shared)
In winning their final seven matches, the team recorded our second best finish to a campaign since 1938!
Pictured: The goal that started it all? Charlie Harris’ free-kick wins our FA Cup tie at Carshalton back in August