At 6PM last Monday evening the main car park in Lancing town centre was rather deserted. A few solitary shoppers and one solitary football reporter occupied the spaces, and the fact that an important football match was scheduled to get underway just around the corner ninety minutes later would not have been easily noticed. There were more people heading to the Co-op.
At 6PM tonight, that solitary football reporter had to dodge a large number of people in yellow and green scarves, a fair few in green and white, and drive right to the far end of the car park to find a space. Isn’t it wonderful what a Playoff Final can do to motivate an irregular supporter to get out of their armchair?
Culver Road was already busy. The visitors tonight, Ashford United, had just arrived, and a number of their fans were watching them disembark from their coach. Inside, there was a queue for programmes, a queue for burgers, a queue for the bar, and an air of expectation. The visitors went quickly to take a look at the pitch- 3G, just like theirs- whilst the home side, Horsham, were soon out to join them. Manager Dom Di Paola watched them from a distance, perhaps collecting his thoughts for the pre-match team talk or simply contemplating the occasion. It was an occasion worthy of contemplation.
Ashford inspect the Culver Road pitch
The journey of Horsham under Di Paola is one of success. Joining the club after relegation from the Isthmian League to Step Five was confirmed, he quickly masterminded an upturn in their fortunes, got them promoted, and tonight stood on the cusp of doing the same again. When you consider that Horsham have been homeless for that entire period, having to share first with Horsham YMCA and now with the Sussex County FA (and Lancing FC)- and indeed that the Hornets have been homeless for eleven years in total- the success is even more remarkable. That homelessness will not last much longer; a new ground in the Hop Oast area outside their home town will be open for the new season. This would be their last home match at Culver Road. Perhaps their next one wouldn’t just be in a new ground, but in a new division.
The Nuts and Bolts weren’t just going to turn up and roll over, however. Finishing in fourth place, whilst Horsham were rather easily taking Haywards Heath Town to pieces on Monday night they were taking on Hastings United at Pilot Field. Their triumph took a little longer, the winner coming in minute one hundred and nineteen after the sides had earlier shared four goals. The match promised to be close, and the fact that the Hornets had taken four points from their encounters earlier this season didn’t tell the whole story- there had been but one goal between them.
Half an hour before kick off the home fans found their voices. We had songs of love and lard, the visitors responded, and it was like the Bostikvision Song Contest, only without the sequins- although we did have a man dressed like a yellow Spiderman. Hornetman, perhaps. The teams arrived to a cacophony of noise. If what we were about to receive on the field was of the quality that the fans were delivering, we were going to have a match to remember.
The visitors got us underway, kicking from left to right, but it was the home team who were quickly on the attack, without looking particularly threatening. It took ten minutes for the first shot to arrive, Chris Smith for the Hornets walloping the ball against a defender, and Ashford, whilst their defending was resolute, were struggling to get the ball out of their own half. Two lengthy stoppages, for injuries to Danny Parish and Steve Metcalf, prevented the game from developing any kind of pattern, and the atmosphere became rather flat. And then, in the nineteenth minute we had our first real chance, a shot from Rob O’Toole being deflected for a corner. A second corner followed, the home fans behind Sam Mott’s goal found their voices once more, and then the rain started to fall. A third corner, could Horsham capitalise? No. Hoods and umbrellas began to go up around the ground, more that three-quarters of which is uncovered. Then the wind got up, and the one-quarter which is covered found that it wasn’t covered quite enough. A Kentish pressman produced a tea towel to dry his laptop, and the rest of the pressbox wondered why they hadn’t brought their own small square of Egyptian cotton for just such an eventuality.
Early arrivals enjoy lard, beer and song
As we entered the twenty seventh minute, Horsham created the best chance so far. A ball was played through by Lee Harding- perhaps man of the match on Monday night- and Sam Mott in the Ashford goal looked favourite, then slipped. Chris Smith was onto the ball, but Mott was quickly up and managed to make a save. “Lardy Army,” chorused the home fans, who had resorted to using their flags as a kind of self-service gazebo.
Ashford then put together their first concerted attack of the match, but a cross from Parish down the left found only defenders and the ball was cleared. Another period of stalemate followed. If ever a game needed a goal, it was this one.
It then got one, and it was special.
In the thirty-ninth minute, a Horsham free kick was cleared to George Hayward on the edge of the box. He watched it fall, and then struck it sweetly, and it flew into the net, giving Mott no chance whatsoever. The home fans erupted with joy, and perhaps the game would come to life.
Happy Harry Hornet
Ashford tried to respond. A cross from Jerald Aboagye found the head of Parish, and the ball dropped, agonisingly, just beyond the far post. The same combination then set up Parish for a shot which Josh Pelling saved well, the rebound being fired back by Jay May and seeming to bounce on the line before being hacked clear.
We got four added minutes, and then a few more after Horsham skipper Jack Brivio picked up an injury which required significant treatment. And then Ashford drew level. A bouncing ball in the Horsham box saw Josh Wisson and a yellow defender converge. The man in green got there fractionally before his opponent and got the ball, the defender got only Wisson. Penalty! Sam Corne, who scored the winner at Hastings from the spot, stepped up and beat Pelling- but the home keeper will be disappointed as he almost kept it out, diving to his right. Half time, and we were level once more.
Ashford were quickest out of the blocks after the break, but only great- and brave- goalkeeping from Mott stopped Chris Smith from putting the Hornets ahead once more, the keeper charging out of his goal to be first to a 50/50 ball. Smith must have been sick of the sight of him, being thwarted for a second time in a similar situation.
At the other end, a free kick whipped in by Toby Ajala forced Pelling into a full length save, and from the corner Afolabi Coker turned and fired a shot just wide, as the home fans held their breath and the visiting support willed the ball a foot to the left. More Ashford pressure followed, and a desperate hack clear after good work from May at the edge of the box brought another corner, headed clear as we reached the hour mark. The match now had the intensity it had lacked for most of the first half.
With twenty minutes to go, Horsham made the first change. Off went Chris Smith, and on came Kieran Lavery. But it was the Nuts and Bolts who remained on top, and May seemed rather unlucky to be penalised for a foul on Pelling as another cross was whipped in from the right. And then Horsham got lucky once more. A bouncing ball in the Ashford box saw a defender with his arm around O’Toole’s neck, and the Hornets striker fell to the floor. The challenge was unnecessary, the decision correct. Penalty- and O’Toole got up to take it. He fired it to the keepers left, but Mott threw himself full length and made a tremendous save, whilst the Hornets striker looked on, aghast.
We charged from end to end. Aboagye made a critical tackle in one box, then Laurent Mendy curled a shot wide in the other. Neither side was playing for extra time, and we had excitement galore, but a shortage of clear-cut chances until the eighty-fifth minute, when Abdul Anidugbe perhaps should have done better with a scuffed effort from the edge of the box that didn’t cause Pelling too much trouble. Parish came closer still two minutes later, a fast Ashford break catching the home defence out and the pace of the striker allowing him to shoot just past the post. Straight back up the other end the game went, a desperate clearance from Aboagye conceding a corner, from which Dylan Merchant hooked a shot well over the bar. A run from Lavery earned a corner in the last minute, and five yellow shirts climbed, but not one could connect with the ball. Three minutes were added, and the Hornets got another corner, which Coker headed clear- but a handball then gave Horsham a free kick just outside the box. When it was overhit, the groans from the home fans could have been heard in Brighton. One minute remained.
We moved into added time on top of the added time, and Horsham got another corner. Mott couldn’t get it away, and as it was fired back the home side claimed a penalty. The ref gave another corner instead. And then we had thirty more minutes to look forward to. Ashford had done this once already this week- would they tire?
The pace of the game slowed once more, so perhaps both sides were struggling for energy a little. The fans weren’t flagging, however, both sets still in good voice.
In the 101st minute, Horsham got what seemed a rather fortunate free kick. Joe Shelley seemed just to overplay the ball, but the referee saw an infringement and both Harding and Lavery stood over it. It was the latter who hit it, and Mott saved but couldn’t hold, the ball flying onto the head of Merchant. Once again Mott got up and made a save, frustrating Horsham almost single-handedly. Then, almost immediately, the other keeper was in action, making a good save from Anidugbe. In added time at the end of the first period of extra time, Mo Kamara found himself in the book for a foul on Tyrell Richardson-Brown, and the ball was sent into the Ashford box once more, but after a game of head tennis and another wild shot the whistle blew. We were fifteen minutes from penalties.
Two minutes after the latest interval, Ashford got a breakaway. Three players, including two substitutes, showed what fresh legs could do, and the ball was worked at pace to Trey Williams in the box. His shot, sadly, was so high and wide he almost found Worthing. Then, at the other end, pandemonium. A Horsham free kick was taken by another substitute, Joey Taylor. It was perfect, and up went Dylan Merchant. Up, up he soared, and the header was crashed home. Could the Hornets hold out for the next eleven minutes? “Give me lard in my heart, give me Horsham,” sang the home faithful. “All you need is Lard, lard- lard is all you need” they followed up, as Lennon and McCartney would undoubtedly have written had they been musical butchers.
With six minutes to go, two Horsham players went down with cramp. They were soon up again, but there were no shortage of tired legs on both sides. “We’re going home, we’re going home, Horsham’s going home,” rang out from behind the goal. Whatever the result tonight, that was worthy of celebration on its own.
We moved into the last two minutes, and Mott hoofed the ball towards the edge of the Horsham box. If there was one Ashford player who didn’t deserve to be on the losing side tonight, the keeper would be the one, delivering his usual magnificent performance- but his long ball was cleared, and those two minutes came to an end only for the referee to add two more. Home fans in the main stand began to climb the walls. Twenty second remained, and Merchant gave away a free kick, on the right, thirty five yards out. Every player in green went forward, and one in blue, the keeper joining in, but the ball didn’t find any of them. The goal kick was taken, and finally, finally, the whistle went.
A large set of Nuts and Bolts
A new ground, and a new Division. Horsham had reached the promised land, at the same time as they had reached the promised land.