Horsham produced a performance of real character to come from behind to defeat third-placed Phoenix Sports and collect only their third league victory of the campaign. They’ve done it before, of course, as recently as ten days ago when they overcame a two goal deficit to see off Heybridge Swifts in that epic FA Cup tie. But few could have anticipated a repeat showing after the visitors strolled in to a 2-0 lead inside twenty minutes against a Horsham side that was without Rob O’Toole, Lewis Hyde, Lee Harding, Charlie Harris and Chris Smith.
Smith was an unused substitute as he rested his injured knee ahead of Saturday’s big cup clash with Poole Town but that the other benchwarmers included the recalled Alex Duncan and goalkeeping coach Jimmy Punter tells the story of how stretched Dom Di Paola’s squad has become – and how impressive a display this was by the men in yellow.
Central to the home side’s fightback was Joe Shelley, who was presented with a salver before the match by commercial director Paul Osborn in recognition of reaching one hundred appearances for the club. Playing in midfield to accommodate makeshift central defensive pairing Dean Lovegrove and Dylan Merchant, ‘Biff’ was the perfect foil for the excellent Will Hoare and the tireless George Hayward, both of whom deservedly registered their first goals in Horsham colours in a first half that produced four goals.
It was the Hornets who had the first genuine chance of the match on eleven minutes when Merchant sent the ball down the line where it was kept in by Jack Brivio. He laid it back for Joey Taylor to send in a decent cross that was flicked on by James McElligott but Tyrell Richardson-Brown was unable to steer his shot on target at the far post. Phoenix, though, were looking the more comfortable on the ball and were playing it around crisply on the artificial surface and, but for a linesman’s flag, might have gone ahead when Kyren Mundel-Smith was put through on goal.
They didn’t have long to wait, however, when a ball was played towards the edge of the Horsham penalty area and Conrad Lee somehow burst through a couple of challenges before stroking a confident left-footed shot low into the bottom corner of Josh Pelling’s net. But the home side responded well to the setback and when Hoare won the ball in midfield and sent McElligott scampering free, his deep cross was headed into the arms of Phoenix ‘keeper and captain, Steven Phillips. But no sooner had they threatened at one end than they went further behind when Pelling came out of his goal to clear a ball over the top and succeeded only in scuffing it straight to Mundel-Smith who sent it straight into the back of the net, despite the diving ‘keeper getting a strong contact to the ball.
It was twenty-six minutes before Horsham had their first corner and, two minutes later, they created a terrific chance from open play with Hoare at the heart of it. Picking up a cute return pass from Brivio, Hoare jinked his way into the box only to see his shot hit a defender and then, when the ball was recycled back to the midfielder, he was once again thwarted by Tony Robinson. Picking up the loose ball, Steve Metcalf slipped a pass into McElligott whose shot fizzed across the face of goal. More trickery from Hoare saw him brought down as he attempted to nip between two Phoenix defenders and Lovegrove’s well-struck free-kick was turned behind by Phillips with Lovegrove unable to capitalise on Shelley’s nod down from the resulting corner.
Despite their two-goal cushion, and having been comfortably in control for the opening twenty minutes, Phoenix were looking decidedly jittery as another misplaced pass out of defence fell to a yellow shirt but Hoare was unable to apply full punishment as he volleyed Taylor’s cleared cross spectacularly over the goal and into a neighbouring garden. But then, six minutes from the break, the Hornets got the break their efforts merited when Brivio again held the ball up well before setting it up for Hoare to mishit his shot, the ball running invitingly for Hayward whose first time shot beat Phillips on its way inside the bottom for corner of the net.
A high boot by Phoenix’s Zak Bryon finally brought the game’s first caution, after referee Conall Bartlett had elected to administer a stern warning for a couple of earlier indiscretions by the visitors, most seriously on the lively Hoare. But Bryon had far more serious things to worry about when, as the first cry of ‘yellows’ went up from a handful of supporters behind the goal, Horsham drew level. Just a minute remained when Taylor won his side a corner that was cleared to the edge of the box. Richardson-Brown clipped the ball back towards the far post where Hoare was in acres of space and managed to stab the ball past Phillips for a well-deserved goal.
H/T Horsham 2 Phoenix Sports 2
Phoenix went close to getting their noses back in front, two minutes into the second half, when Bryon’s low strike had Pelling scrambling across his goal-line before watching it go inches wide of his right-hand post. The visitors had clearly been read the riot act at half-time as it needed a crucial interception by Merchant to prevent Jeff Duah-Kessie from adding to his season’s tally of fourteen goals in all competitions. But, where it had been Horsham who had threatened before conceding in the first half, so it was Phoenix who were made to pay for not converting their chances when the Hornets completed their stunning comeback on fifty-seven minutes. And what a goal it was! A great spell of possession eventually saw the ball played out right to Metcalf and his superb diagonal cross was headed home at the far post by the diving Brivio.
Hayward might have added to the lead when, following more determined play by the hosts, Hoare’s powerful header invited Richardson-Brown to outpace the full-back and cut the ball back but Hayward, at full stretch, could only put the ball wide. Horsham were very much in the ascendancy by now, their steadfast defence forcing errors from the usually potent Phoenix attack, but they nearly conceded an equaliser when Ashley Proberts blasted a twenty-five yard free-kick wide of Pelling’s near post.
A feature of Horsham’s play was how hard they were working to win the ball back when not in possession and this never-say-die attitude presented a shooting opportunity for Richardson-Brown, who sent a fierce shot not far wide after good work from McElligott and Metcalf tight to the near touchline. Richardson-Brown, such a threat during the weekend victory at Bury, was clearly enjoying his night and he was the recipient of some intelligent refereeing by Mr Bartlett when he allowed play to continue following a foul and the former Walton Casuals man raced on before off-loading to Hoare who shot into the side-netting from a tight angle.
We almost saw a near carbon copy of Horsham’s third goal on seventy-four minutes when Metcalf picked out Brivio at the far post once more but, this time, Phillips was out quickly and stood up well to block Brivio’s shot. Phoenix substitute Kehinde Alieru then made an instant impact after coming on for Mundel-Smith when clattering into Lovegrove and picking up a yellow card, less than thirty seconds after leaving the bench.
The Hornets had several chances to clinch the win in the final seven minutes, first when Brivio was put clear of the defence only to chip the ball straight at Phillips with the unmarked McElligott screaming for a pass alongside him. Then Harvey Sparks, a late replacement for Brivio, had an even better opening when Richardson-Brown ran half the length of the pitch before laying the ball off to his team-mate but, having skipped past the exposed Phillips, Sparks took too long to get his shot away and the ball was cleared. Thankfully the late profligacy counted for nothing as Horsham managed to see the remaining minutes out in some comfort before celebrating a fifth victory in six league and cup matches.