Prior to defeat against Chipstead ten days ago, South Park manager Malcolm Porter gave the following opinion on Carshalton Athletic.
"Anyone who finishes above Carshalton this season will win the league."
This was an opinion which chimed perfectly with those given by supporters of all the teams in the Division during the summer. When the final prediction table was calculated, Athletic were placed in the second automatic promotion slot, just behind Greenwich Borough.
The obligatory corner flag shot!
Over the past few weeks there had only been one problem with these predictions, and that was that nobody seemed to have told Carshalton Athletic. The Robins had been maddeningly inconsistent of late, on a run which included only one victory in the last seven, four defeats and two draws- including an unlikely 4-4 at Ramsgate recently. On Saturday they were knocked out of the FA Trophy at high-performing North Division Heybridge Swifts, and last Tuesday night were on the Sussex coast losing to Hastings United. It would seem that they don't like playing teams that start with H- something which perhaps might have given a little optimism to tonight's opponents, Horsham.
And, to be frank, Horsham needed all the optimism that they could get.
The Hornets started the season with great hope, and seemed to be attempting to rebuild the Burgess Hill Town title winning side from three seasons ago. Josh James, Joe Keehan, Scott Kirkwood, Darren Budd, Rob O'Toole- it seemed that all manager Dom Di Paola had to do was entice Greg Luer from Hull City and he'd be well on his way to a full set. A new ground finally on the horizon- next season if all goes to plan- a groundsharing agreement with the Sussex FA at Lancing in place, the world looked a positive place for the club- and goodness knows, after years as wandering nomads they deserved some positivity. Six games into the season, four of them won, a 6-0 victory over Ashford United in the bag, and there was a good feeling around Culver Road.
Since then, sadly, the wheels had rather fallen off. With perhaps the exception of a win over Shoreham last Tuesday night, The Hornets had been in incredibly poor form. O'Toole, scorer of six goals in twelve matches, had gone to County League Saltdean, perhaps in the hope of yet another promotion and a boost to his plastering business. James had decided to 'take time out from football,' whatever that may mean. But in truth, the loss of two players wasn't the issue. As Di Paola explained before the game, it's not too bad today, we only have nine missing. At the weekend it was eleven." He had the look of a man with the world on his shoulders, and that wasn't a surprise- in their last seven matches Horsham had conceded a remarkable twenty six goals, including eleven to a Cray Wanderers side who have been very good of late, but perhaps not so good as to allow anyone to predict their 8-0 FA Trophy whitewash on Saturday. All that said, no side in our league could afford to have nine senior players out injured. Well, perhaps one could, but you get the gist.
Putting all of this together, then, what did it mean?
Perhaps that anybody attempting to predict the outcome of tonight's match at Culver Road would have needed the combined powers of Russell Grant and Nostradamus.
Horsham started like a side determined not to be on the end of another thrashing. Every time Carshalton got the ball they found an entire team behind it, defending manfully. With the Hornets in yellow and Athletic in white there was a hint of Lithuania v England about the initial exchanges, with the away side forming pretty passing triangles without really penetrating and Horsham looking to catch them on the break. The difference between the two games, however, was that both sides playing on this artificial pitch looked as if the outcome was actually important to them.
Then, with a quarter of an hour gone, the home side began to demonstrate a confidence lacking from their play recently. A fluid passing move led to a Scott Kirkwood piledriver, tipped around the post by Billy Bishop, and that was followed soon afterwards by a shot from winger Jack Hartley, wearing number five, which was blocked and deflected for a corner. Debutant Will Robinson then got into the act, firing what could have been described as a grass cutter if only Culver Road had grass, once again forcing Bishop into a save. The yellows weren't playing like a side in crisis, with another debutant, forward Liam MacDevitt, particularly impressive- his hard running troubling the Athletic back line.
It certainly wasn't one way traffic, however. Athletic were very good going forward, with the interplay between Tommy Bradford- scorer of a hat trick the last time these sides met- and Ricky Korboa a delight. You felt a goal was coming, and that it could come at either end. Unfortunately for the home side it came at their end, eight minutes before half time. A good turn on the edge of the Horsham box, a great cross to the back post, and there was Mickel Miller to head home. The speed of Miller caused more trouble as the half came to an end, his mazy run being ended by a clumsy challenge from Joe Shelley on the edge of the box which brought a yellow card. The free kick was headed narrowly wide by Mekhail McLaughlin, and the whistle went. Horsham were behind at half time, and that perhaps wasn't unusual, but on this occasion they could count themselves a little unfortunate.
The Robins came out in the second half as if they wanted to get the game wrapped up quickly, and the Hornets struggled to keep up. First a fabulous pass from Peter Adeniyi set up Miller, but the ball cannoned back off the bar to safety. Four minutes later, and with the home side shouting for offside, a cross from Bobby Price found Bradford free ten yards out, but the striker could only fire wide, then a great run from Korboa ended in a shot and save from Fernandes. The Horsham keeper, another debutant having signed from Arundel, also had to save from Bradford as the game became rather one sided. Horsham just couldn't get out of their own half long enough to apply any sustained pressure. Seventy minutes in and MacDevitt, up front on his own, had been given hardly a touch since the restart.
Seventy three minutes had gone before Horsham got their first chance of the half. Substitute Toby House, on for less than sixty seconds, got away down the right and pulled the ball back for George Landais. The striker needed to shoot first time but elected to take the ball around the onrushing defender before firing goalward, allowing Bishop to charge out and save with his feet. For all of Carshalton's pressure, they were still only one goal to the good, and suddenly the lead looked precarious. Sadly for the home side, however, this wasn't only their best chance of the match, it was also their last. The match petered out amongst a raft of substitutions, with no further goals and little to get anyone excited.
As the 149 souls who had braved the awful A24 and dreadful A27 to get here tonight drifted off into the autumn evening, both sets of supporters seemed fairly content. For the Hornets, nobody likes to lose, but with their current difficulties a 1-0 defeat can almost be thought of as a moral victory. For Athletic, whilst they are still to find consistency there was a great deal of encouraging approach play and solid defending to be- if not excited by- at least content with, as well as the not small matter of three more points.