Like them or not, there is one enormous positive about a 3G pitch. Barring a Worthing-like catastrophe, it guarantees you football. Today’s Bostik Matchday Feature should have been a bottom of the table clash between Shoreham and Guernsey at Middle Road, but the Musselmen’s pitch, always prone to being a little damp, saw the match postponed a full 22 hours before it was due to have kicked off. So off we went to nearby Lancing, the home of the Sussex FA, Lancing FC and- for one season only- the Hornets of Horsham.
Horsham are undoubtedly glad that Culver Road is a one season wonder, for two reasons. The first is that Lancing patently isn’t Horsham; indeed it’s twenty four miles away, which might not sound very far but can be an enormous distance when you have to use the A27 and A24 to get there. Both can be a traffic disaster, the lack of any direct rail link makes that road journey a necessity, and the Hornets crowds are down by more than a third this season, rather unsurprisingly. The second reason is that, after ten years as wandering nomads they have a home of their own on the horizon, after the local council last March finally approved the construction of an out of town stadium for the club.
From left to right- interloper, Dave, Cliff, Mick and Kerry of Borough!
The last time we covered a Horsham match, back in early October, manager Dom Di Paola had the look of a man about to face a firing squad. His side were due to take on Carshalton Athletic- a match they lost by a solitary goal- but as he explained after the match, his worries were mainly confined to the treatment room. “It was ok tonight, we only had nine players out injured. On Saturday (the Hornets had been beaten 8-0 by Cray Wanderers) it was eleven.” No club in our league would cope with having an entire team missing, but Dom looked far more cheerful today, and with good reason. Not only were his side in good form, up to eleventh place and with five wins from the last seven, this week he’d signed three players- Tom Tolfrey and Anthony Oaks on loan from Dorking Wanderers, Henry Watson on loan from Worthing- to add to the two (George Landais and Alfie Rogers) who had joined last week. He now had a strength in depth which he could only have dreamed of four months ago, and although his side sat fifteen points from the playoff places there is usually one team that makes a late run and little reason why Horsham couldn’t be that side. Mind you, before the game Dom was honest enough to think that impossible, although delighted with recent form and optimistic about the future.
Their opponents today already sat firmly in the playoff places, and had ambitions of going higher still. Greenwich Borough, everyone’s favourites for promotion at the start of the season, started in fourth place, four points (albeit with an inferior goal difference) off a promotion spot, and are the form side in the division at the moment, with seven wins from the last ten. Indeed, the last time they lost was in mid-November. The victors that day? Horsham, quite obviously.
Perhaps the biggest surprise about Borough has been that the side has pushed on incredibly well since the departure of managerial due Gary Alexander and John Mackie. The two left just under a month ago, and Alexander, speaking to this website, spoke frankly of budget cuts and forced player departures- undoubtedly referring to then skipper Mark Phillips and striker Charlie MacDonald. Tom Beere joined the list of the departed shortly afterwards, but new manager Paul Barnes arrived from Ashford United (rather ironically Alexander soon replaced him) and has more than steadied the ship; indeed he came into this match with a 100% record, and with much sought after striker Jack Barham having committed himself to the club for the rest of the season earlier this week, despite firm interest from clubs much higher up the pyramid. Whatever their troubles may be off the pitch- if indeed there are any- on it they are a force to be reckoned with.
Speaking to Barham’s father and grandfather- Kerry and Mick- before the match, it soon became clear just how much interest there had been in the Borough number 9. He’d spent time with Millwall, Newport County and Cambridge United in recent months, and, as Kerry explained, “the phone hasn’t stopped ringing- but although he’s ambitious he doesn’t want to let his team mates down by leaving now.” “And he’s not motivated by money, so he won’t leave until the move is the right one,” added Mick. Now you’d expect them to be biased, but these words echoed those used by Gary Alexander last month- and they were then backed up by Cliff, the Under 18’s coach. “Jack carries himself really well, works hard, and doesn’t get turned by the attention. Even during our sticky period recently he’s not let his head drop for one minute- and he hasn’t stopped scoring, either.” They predicted 2-0 victories for their side today, before Dave the Borough photographer arrived and predicted 3-0.
The- sadly sparsely populated- main stand at Culver Road
On the basis of the forty-five minutes that followed you’d have thought they were a tad optimistic. By the ninetieth minute, not so much.
Culver Road sits in a residential area and looks across at the great green bulk of the South Downs; although the views are somewhat spoiled by the mile and a half of late twentieth century housing in the way. It has one fairly substantial stand but no covered terraces, only hard standing around the perimeter of the pitch, so it was no surprise that in todays drizzle most of the crowd opted to sit- although even then it was hardly full. That said, Lancing High Street was similarly devoid of people, so it seemed as if the good folk of the town had not been seduced by the green and yellow charmers in their midst, nor attracted by the folk from the Royal Borough. That might have been partly because Brighton & Hove Albion were at home to West Ham United a few miles away, and it might have been partly because, in the main, the folk of Lancing don’t even turn out to watch their own side in the Southern Combination Football League a level below this fixture. Perhaps Lancing just isn’t a football town- although the local urchin swearing and kicking a Coke can outside the Co-op seemed fairly useful with his feet.
It’s a shame that the ground is so poorly visited, as it is well maintained, the bar is decent, the catering good, and the people- whether Lancing or Horsham are at home- friendly and welcoming (it also has a contender for the world’s smallest hand drier in the gents- indeed it is so small that you can only dry both hands at once if you are a child or Donald Trump). The Lardy Army who follow Horsham- so called because their favourite song is a take on the hymn ‘Give Me Joy in my Heart,’ only with the word ‘joy’ replaced by the word ‘lard’- may be boisterous but their hearts are very much in the right place (if apparently close to cardiac arrest). They were rather quiet today, although to be fair it’s difficult to make a noise carry when you’re standing on a narrow strip of footpath with no cover to keep the sound in. But, as one of the home fans pointed out when asked about how they were enjoying their time at Culver Road, “we’re not. It’s got no soul and it’s a nightmare to get to. Every game is an away game.” To be fair, that was the only thing they were negative about, being happy about progress this season and delighted at the prospect of having a new ground “by September or October.” One of them then realised he’d won the 50/50 draw so their mood improved even further.
The first half wasn’t awful. It was just, as a home supporter stated loudly as the referee blew the whistle to end it, “not a half that will linger in the memory.” He was entirely right. The home side had probably shaded possession and chances, but it was difficult to recall a single save that Michael McEntegart, in the Borough goal, had needed to make- although Horsham forward Tony Nwachukwu had been lively. The home keeper, Josh Pelling, had also made only one significant save, getting far too easily behind a free kick from Kaka Dembele. So far as incident goes, that was about it; indeed the most animated that the home fans got was when questioning the away keeper about whether his shorts needed to be “quite that tight.”
The second half, thankfully, was rather different.
Borough were out a full five minutes before their opponents to warm up, and whether their immediate improvement was down to elaborate stretching or something the manager had said to them at half time, it was immediately noticeable and saw them ahead in the 49th minute. Horsham had been on the attack but were then caught cold, far too slow to sense danger as Barham whipped in a lovely cross to find the onrushing Chinedu McKenzie entirely unmarked. The striker took it cleanly and was soon celebrating by the corner flag.
At this Borough took complete control, and for ten minutes Horsham hardly saw the ball. This brought an immediate reaction from Di Paola, who was readying a double substitution as McKenzie forced a good save from Pelling. Curtis Gaylor and Tom Tolfrey came on, and the Hornets immediately looked brighter, but within four minutes they were hit by a sucker punch. Barham ran at the defence but looked to be too far wide to get in a shot, however he was upended by Hornets skipper Scott Kirkwood and the referee thought for a moment and then pointed to the spot. Barham himself took the ball, and fired home what must be a contender for the perfect penalty kick, low and unstoppable into the bottom corner of the Horsham net.
The home side didn’t give up, and Di Paola must have been delighted at their efforts. Nwachukwu, always dangerous, charged down the right and delivered a cross that just needed someone to meet it- sadly he’d outpaced his team mates- before a volley from Tolfrey was palmed away for a corner as their momentum increased. Tolfrey was then fouled by Callum McGeehan, a challenge which earned the Borough centre back a yellow card as the away side looked rattled for the first time. Josh Street pulled a shot wide, Gayler did the same, before Nwachukwu once more was the main source of concern to the Greenwich defence, just failing to get on the end of a cross at the back post. Try as they might, however, the Hornets couldn’t get on the scoresheet, and the game petered out to give Borough the points and move them within four points of leaders Lewes.
On the balance of play the result was the correct one. Greenwich had shown exceptional passing and movement in spells during the second half, and Barham, despite having a relatively quiet game by his standards, had still managed to create one goal and score another.
A Horsham free kick
Before the match Di Paola spoke about the high standard of competition in the division. “Apart from one or two clubs,” he explained, “this is a league with clubs who are all capable of beating each other- the gap between success and failure is incredibly small.” Today had shown exactly that. His Horsham side had competed with the title favourites for perhaps seventy out of ninety minutes, perhaps bested them for some of the match- particularly in the first half but also in spells after going 2-0 down- but overall the quality of Paul Barnes’ side had just been enough to earn them the points.
Asked about promotion before the match, Under 18’s coach Cliff had been clear that the matches against Lewes- in a fortnight- and Cray Wanderers on Easter Monday may hold the key to whether his side finish in the top two or the playoffs, but stated quite clearly that “this side is good enough to still win the league.”
His other prediction of the day had been entirely correct. This one doesn’t look outlandish, either.