Just under two weeks on from securing a second promotion in four seasons at the club, manager Dom Di Paola probably deserves a well earned break. However, instead, he found time to catch up with club committee man and matchday reporter Matt Dale to give his views on our incredible season, his early preparations for life in the Bostik Premier, and what it means to him as he prepares to lead his side out for the first time when we fling the doors open to our first competitive game at Hop Oast.
MD: The first couple of seasons after we regained promotion to the Isthmian League saw rather lofty ambitions that the club might finish in the play-offs. It’s fair to argue we had a bit of a reality check when we achieved respectable mid-table finishes last season and the year before, and thus even before a ball was kicked this season, expectations had been adjusted in accordance at the start of this campaign with most supporters believing a top ten finish was more likely. What do you think has made this achievement possible and when did you start to believe that promotion was a very likely possibility given that you spoke earlier in the season about taking each game as it comes?
DDP: I think it’s fair to say that anyone who thought we could get in the playoffs the previous two seasons was very optimistic! It was always a case of stabilising at the level and in doing so, allowing us to then have a bit of profile and attract the kind of players needed to challenge. The boys we had in the previous two seasons did a great job in establishing the club at Step 4. In the summer we expected to go into the new ground during this season and I think location wise it meant we could go a bit further afield to bring players in. It’s a credit to the players (especially the ones travelling in from further afield) that when the ground plans were delayed, they all stayed and committed themselves to the club, despite a lot of extra travel down to Lancing. I think we always took the games as they came.
We could see even from the opening few games where results didn’t quite go according to plan that we had a team that could hold their own. I think it was only around February time that we felt we could get into the playoffs but you know they are two cup games and anything can happen. We have had a really close nit group this season and they get on so well. I take my hat off to Jim (Jimmy Punter) and Wezzo (Adam Westwood) who play such a key part in preparing the side and creating a great atmosphere that the boys enjoy being a part of and Steph (Apps) who keeps them on the pitch – they listen to her and she has their best interests at heart.
They are the unsung heroes really. Jim has grown massively as the season has gone on and is taking on more responsibility. He even got us the win down at Herne Bay with his tactical tweak so I look forward to seeing him continue to develop. He will be a great coach when he gets a bit more experience and will probably end up manager at this club in the future! Wezzo brings so much to the table, not least putting up with my endless calls in between games! He is very different to me and sometimes simplifies the game, whereas I have a habit of over complicating things! He is the glue that keeps the boys together and they all love him, especially on coach journeys! When things were tough last season, he pretty much kept us going single handedly and some of his ideas on shape and ways to play against certain teams have without doubt won us plenty of games this season. I think the boys love his team talks and his manner compliments what we do so well. Without him we would be lost.
MD: For you personally, this must rank up amongst your best managerial achievements, and will no doubt feel you’ve proved a point to a few people at this level. For myself, seeing Horsham win the play-offs was more enjoyable than winning the County League as there was little to no expectation that we could do it at the start of the season. Do you think this is your greatest managerial
moment so far?
DDP: I think we – by that I mean myself and background staff – have been very lucky down the years to have so many great players and brilliant teams and each one where we have had success has had its own special feel to it – seven promotions in eleven seasons shows we have always had great players sign for us. The group this season has been special in so many ways and their togetherness and determination is so obvious in the way they take on the challenges that are asked of them. I think it was the best night/one off match we have ever had – it was so tense and the relief when it was over was something else! The celebrations were unbelievable and will live with us forever. It was great to get promotion that way, but I am not sure you could have too many nights like that if you want to stay healthy!
MD: A few supporters I spoke to after the Ashford United game mentioned that what you’ve achieved at the club can be compared to what former boss John Maggs managed – albeit you done it on a much tighter budget. You (and your background staff) must be quite proud to be held in such high regard with the fans at the club, so what drives you to do what you do and give this club the success it’s missed out on for so long?
DDP: First of all, It is great that the supporters feel that way. I think the fans look back on those days with such fond memories and not many coach journeys go by without mention of Swansea, John Maggs, Lee Carney, Jamie Taylor, Eddie French etc. I think its brilliant that the fans have these club legends and I think in ten years from now, the boys we have at the club currently will be thought of in the same way. Two promotions in four seasons at a time where financially it has been hard and not having our own home to play at means it is an incredible achievement. I am told we had the best points per game total at this level in the club’s history and so that is another first! I am looking forward to fast forwarding a few years and getting on one of the coaches and the supporters start talking about the great team of 2018-19!
I have had some plaudits recently but the work done by Wezzo and Jim to get us where we got this season cannot be underestimated. They work so hard, week in week out. Watching video, preparing sessions, trying to get any sort of edge we can, working with the players and getting good responses. So yes, it’s fantastic to hear all these nice things, but I have to emphasise the fact it’s a team effort but it’s wonderful to know we have made our own history at the club and are making a mark with the supporters.
I don’t know why we do it to be honest – it’s strange as its very hard work! I suppose it is a bit of a drug and it grips you. You are always striving for more success and to achieve things – it is a labour of love but nights like the playoffs make all the stress and worries worthwhile
MD: There has been quite a few stand out moments this season, and results. What has been your favourite this season?
DDP: How long have you got mate?! There’s been so many!! Ashford United when we came back from 2-0 down to win 2-3 away from home, Heybridge Swifts at home, Bury Town away, Sittingbourne away, Cray at home, Haywards Heath semi-final, Potters Bar, Corinthian Casuals, Whitstable at home, Faversham at home, Poole away even though we lost but we gave it everything we had – the list is endless!
But if you have to push me for an answer, I have to say for me, the best, barring the play off final, was Hythe away. They had not lost at home in a year and for the majority of the game I thought we were brilliant and so relentless in how we took the game to them, with Charlie’s goal the icing on the cake.
MD: Horsham fans this season have been treated to some of the best football we’ve seen in a long time with some of the most talented bunch of players we’ve had. No doubt you’ll be quite keen to retain a lot of the lads for next season. There’s no doubt they’re all a great bunch of lads on and off
the pitch, but how does the bunch of lads we have had this season compare to the title winning squad we had in 2015?
DDP: I think the county winning side were brilliant in the way they handled being massive favourites for the title, week in week out and the huge pressures that came with it. They were very good at managing that as it can affect performances and we rarely slipped up. They were a brilliant group, Al D (Alex Duncan), Chaz (Charlie Farmer), Ash (Ashley Jones), Kneesy (Mark Knee), Jord (Jordan Clarke), Brad (Bradley Lewis), Evan (Archibald), Hunty (Adam Hunt), Bozzy (Darren Boswell), Kev (Kevin Keehan), Biff (Joe Shelley), Pammy (Kieran Pamment), Doddsy (Terry Dodd) etc. – all players that the supporters took to and will be remembered for a long time.
I think it’s the same this season, all the boys have played their part and stepped up to the plate at different times and produced the goods. I think any successful side has to put the team first and be in it together and both these sides have that in abundance. I think this years team were a bit special though, they had both sides of the coin, ability and physicality and we needed both often this season. It’s been a privilege to be involved with them. I hope they all stay and give it a go next season – they’ve worked so hard to get in that league, they should have a crack at it. One of my saddest moments was when we went into Step Four and lost a big chunk of the team that got us there very quickly or before the season started for various reasons (Keehan, Knee, Pamment, Shelley, Clark, Archibald, Storrie etc). I think the team that went up would have done well but unfortunately, we had to do a big rebuild and it takes time to then get going again. I hope this time the players we have are with us this time next year!
MD: 2019/20 will be your first ever campaign in the Bostik Premier, and the first time Horsham have played at that level in thirteen years. What are you expecting from next season and how are you starting to prepare for it?
DDP: Well firstly we know physically it will be tougher and there will be lots of powerful sides. We think dead ball will be even more important and we know some of the clubs are massive in terms of status and the calibre of player we will be up against will go up a few notches. We will need to improve our fitness and learn how to manage the fall out of not winning every week with a group used to that – that can be challenging as when you’re used to winning games regularly, it can be quite a change to the mentality of team when they have to get ‘used’ to losing a bit more than we’d like.
I think we need a bit more depth to the squad, we operated with around fifteen at the end of the season and that won’t be enough to sustain performances Saturday and on a Tuesday week in, week out. A big problem when we came into Step Four was needing more squad depth and we need to make sure we cover this, if possible. We have some experience now of going up a level and the challenges that entails – Step 5 to 4 was a big jump and we know this will be an even bigger one – it’s exciting though and playing the Bognor’s, Lewes’ and Worthing’s is where Horsham should be!
MD: It’ll no doubt be tougher next season and with increased travel and a higher standard of football. Where do you think we might end up in the league by next year?
DDP: I actually think the travel aspect of the Bostik Premier looks really good – I had a look at a few of the predicted leagues and if correct, I think the travel will be similar to this season. Our aims are always the same really, we have to now stabilise again at this next level. We are under no illusions just how hard that will be, particularly considering the financial might some of the teams have and you only need to look at Burgess Hill Town who struggled and Whitehawk who came down, that’s despite them having a more than competitive budget – I’m not going to lie, it’s going to be a challenge! Like I said earlier though, the boys who got us up this season deserve the opportunity to show their talents at this level and we will be doing everything to ensure they are prepared well.
MD: Horsham fans couldn’t have asked for much more next season as they finally will get to go home in their new ground a league higher. How excited are you now at the prospect of leading the lads out at the new ground?
DDP: Yeah it should be amazing. The facility will be the best in Sussex non-league and if managed correctly will hopefully give us some revenue streams that can assist with finances to support the first team. We need to get some structure in place around a “club” – something we have never been able to do before and we need to start bringing through our own players –that just hasn’t happened enough down the years. This facility means we have no excuses for that side of things. The chance for our group to play there next season is another brilliant reward for the hard work they have done this season and I am so pleased we have been able to hang in there over the last few seasons to see the day finally happen as at times it has felt like it would never come and the challenge was just too hard to keep things going. It’ll be great for Jim, Wezzo and Steph as well, as they don’t get it easy at times and to have a physio room, somewhere to change, somewhere to leave their stuff on matchday – they deserve it! It will be a great honour to walk out on that first game and we hope we can continue to do the club proud in the new home!