On April 19th 2008 UK broadsheet newspapers were worried about problems at the Royal Bank of Scotland, which- it was rumoured- was about to ask investors for ten billion pounds to stave off calamity. The tabloids were running stories about a terrible smell drifting across the channel- dubbed “Eurowhiff”- which forced a man from Portsmouth to complain that his house smelt like a dead rat, although nobody thought to point out to him that Portsmouth always smelt like that. Catherine Tate had just started playing Doctor Who’s Assistant, and one red-top wanted to know whether viewers were “bovvered,” whilst a rise in violent crime- perhaps fights over the health benefits of deep-fried mars bars- had led statisticians to decide that Glasgow was less safe than New York. Additionally, scientists had learned to control the brains of flies, a skill which they are still unable to practice on politicians, more’s the pity. Elsewhere, a couple of local Sussex papers thought to mention that Horsham FC were about to play the final competitive match at their Queen Street Ground.
Four thousand, one hundred and thirty days later, the Hornets were finally about to return home. We were there to help them celebrate.
The Camping World Community Stadium is not Queen Street. There are just over two miles of distance between Horsham’s old stadium and their new one, but light years between them in terms of design and technology. Those who long for the venerable old grounds of yesteryear and see the world in shades of sepia may not be too enamoured with the new ground, but it’s marvellous for those who like good facilities, good sightlines, an excellent bar, easy access by road and toilets that you can uncover your bottom in without the danger of catching some contagious disease.
Welcome to the Camping World Community Stadium
Some of you will undoubtedly point out that the Hornets have played in the stadium three times already, defeating Crawley Town, Haywards Heath Town and Hartley Wintney (a town apparently not named after a stuffed hare from 1970’s children’s TV show Pipkins). You’d be right, too. But this was the first competitive fixture, so we shall hypothesise that none of the others really counted. This was the day that Horsham fans had been waiting for during eleven long years of trudging down the A24 to Worthing or Lancing, and even whilst sharing with Horsham YMCA, no more than a long goal kick from the site of their former stadium. This was the day that they’d looked forward to as they fell from the Isthmian Premier to the Isthmian South, as they fell from the Isthmian South into County League football, and then, under the guidance of Dom Di Paola, as they forced their way back to kick off once more at Step Three.
The work done by Di Paola over these five years should not be understated. Since he was announced as the new Hornets manager on 8th April 2015 – too late to save the club from relegation to the Southern Combination- he has overseen two promotions and two seasons of midtable consolidation, the second of these with an injury list so long at one point that he was having to borrow players from across Sussex just to be able to field a team. That record is impressive on its own, but it doesn’t tell the entire story. Prior to his current tenure he steered little-fancied East Preston to the Sussex County Championship, and but for ground grading issues would have been an Isthmian League manager much earlier. That particular season also saw his side win one cup, lose in the final of another and get to the last sixteen of the FA Vase. He left East Preston for a short-lived period at Hastings United, departing Pilot Field after three months, but it is as the head Hornet that he has really shown his metal. He is a legend to the Lardy Army, and rightly so.
We caught up with him before today’s game. In his programme notes he had written about “going into the unknown,” and pointed out that he’d be happy to finish fourth bottom. Was that just an attempt to dampen down expectations after last season’s success? He gave assurances that this wasn’t the case, just a realism that his side would be competing at a different level and would need time to adjust. Questioned about the positive pre-season, he expressed the opinion that “the results were better than the performances.” He was also very respectful of today’s opposition, Leatherhead, “a very good side who came very close to the playoffs last time around.” At this he wandered off to start his pre-match preparations.
Even though kick off was almost two hours away a number of Leatherhead fans had already taken up position in the fabulously well-appointed clubhouse, watching today’s offering from the Premier League on the big screen. One of their number, however, was outside taking a look at the ground and ignoring the persistent drizzle. Tony, who explained he had been a supporter since 1970 and waxed lyrical about the famous cup run from that era, was as cautious in his predictions about the season as the Horsham manager- perhaps they’d been sharing notes.
“The problem is consistency,” he explained. “Last season we lost much of the squad as they followed Sammy Moore out of the club, and this season we’ve still only kept around half of the team that finished last season so well. A player comes here and does well, someone with more money than we’ve got notices that, and off they go. We only spend what we can afford- and that’s not a bad thing- but some other clubs can afford more or aren’t as careful.
Pre-season hasn’t gone all that well, but last year’s pre-season was worse and we almost got into the playoffs. High mid-table should be realistic.”
In the hour before the game we had three seasons in one day. The wind blew, the rain hammered down, the sun shone, the rain hammered down once more, and the spectators in the rapidly filling stand moved repeatedly from front to back to avoid getting wet. The PA Announcer advised the throng that good quality umbrellas were available in the club shop- never one to miss the opportunity for a sale. The teams were announced, and the Tanners had only three subs, but we don’t believe that the other two had been purchased by rivals following a good showing in the warm up- although you never know.
As the Tanners prepared to kick off the sun came out, then a moment later went in again and the rain began once more. Craig McGee passed the ball back into the drizzle, and we were away; Horsham in all yellow, Leatherhead in all green. “We all follow the yellow and green,” sang the Lardy Army, who couldn’t quite fit under the small covered terrace they were occupying.
The first few minutes resembled a game of head tennis without a winner, and then, controversy. A poor clearance gave Leatherhead possession in a dangerous area, Eddie Dsane moved into the box, and Joe Shelley dived in to challenge. He got the ball, and it seemed an excellent tackle, but the referee must have seen something amiss and pointed immediately to the spot. Dsane got up and fired it home, despite slipping as he connected. The Tanners were a goal to the good after eight minutes, the Hornets rather disgruntled.
A collection of Tanners- and the odd Hornet- watch the far less important football
Horsham almost struck back three minutes later, Chris Smith the next player to slip as he shot just over the bar, but we then had another period of stalemate until John Ufuah showed his class, moving his side forward with panache in a move which ended in a free kick right on the edge of the Hornets box. Luckily for the home side, Calvin Ekpiteta’s effort was closer to the woodland behind the goal than the back of the net. The new netting erected around the ground had protected the local wildlife, and the local golfers.
The Tanners continued to pose most of the questions as we reached the half way point of the first half. The ball was spending far too much time in the air, however, which seemed a little peculiar given the blustery conditions- and even more so when you considered that these are two teams who aren’t noted for playing aerial football. As a spectacle it wasn’t enormously pretty, nor enormously effective. Horsham then decided to get the ball down and pass it, and immediately looked more threatening, a well worked move ending in a pass from Chris Smith to Steve Metcalf which might have ended in danger for Leatherhead had Metcalf not become the latest player to slip whilst shooting.
We’d just entered the thirty ninth minute when the home side drew level. It had been coming. A ball was sent towards towards the near post, and there was the predatory Rob O’Toole waiting to pounce. The gap was narrow, but he managed to find it nonetheless, guiding the ball home past Tanners keeper Zaki Oualah. A minute later and another ball from the right almost found the unmarked Smith, but Oualah was able to grab this one and put an end to the danger.
The Tanners should have regained their lead as we approached half time. A period of green pressure saw the ball fall to Dsane ten yards out, and he quickly aimed it towards the goal. It looked a dead cert, but Hornets keeper George Bentley instinctively stuck out a foot and brilliantly diverted the ball for a corner, as Dsane held his head. The striker could have done no more, but the keeper was better. The half time whistle blew, and the crowd headed off to search for refreshment.
The new club shop
The first few minutes of the second half were without incident, as both sides eased their way back into the game. The Hornets had the first chance six minutes in, a lovely cross from Jerry O’Sullivan aimed towards O’Toole at the back post, the striker shaping to shoot when a Tanners head diverted it away. Leatherhead then did some threatening of their own, a foul on Dsane earning them a free kick at the right hand corner of the box. “Attack the ball,” shouted an away fan, perhaps concerned lest his favourites decided just to watch it float by whilst having a nice chat. Which to some extent is what they did, although a misplaced Horsham header gave them a corner nonetheless.
Horsham then got a corner of their own, and Joe Shelley headed it goalwards only to see a green shirted figure rise to head it off the line. We approached the hour mark, and the last half hour had been much, much better than the first one. The Hornets kept up their pressure, and a shot from Shelley was charged down only for Kieran Lavery to put the follow up wide, off balance as he connected. Shortly afterwards Zack Newton was booked for simulation after going to ground under pressure, much to his disgust. Another attack, set up by great work from substitute Charlie Harris, saw Smith curl a shot over the bar, and the traffic was one way. “Start playing football Leatherhead,” shouted a member of the green army, but at this point Horsham weren’t allowing that.
In the 74th minute the Tanners, who had hardly had a look in all half, should have taken the lead. A ball across the box found Jerry Nnamani unmarked, but he couldn’t quite finish. The ball was sent straight back up the other end, and a tackle on Smith on the edge of the box saw the home fans claim a penalty, but this time the referee was unmoved. To be fair, it looked as much of a penalty as the first one had. Back at the other end and again a cross found Nnamani, his header glanced just wide, and then Smith earned the Hornets a corner, and a header goalwards found the arms of the pink-shirted Oualah. We headed towards the last ten minutes with the match finely balanced, and the seven hundred and eleven in attendance unable to take their eyes off it. Would we get a late winner?
Another excellent O’Sullivan cross saw Horsham get the next chance, O’Toole trying a diving header which connected only with the Tanners keeper, who got the ball. O’Toole was left with a head injury for the second time today, and needed lengthy treatment. He was able to leave the field under his own steam and was quickly back in play.
Tony the Tanner
Three minutes from time a Hornets attack broke down at the hands- or rather, feet- of the immovable Will Salmon, and the Tanners charged forward. Daniel Gallagher got the ball at the edge of the box, and his shot forced a flying fingertip save from Bentley. A minute later and a cross met the head of Will Seager at the far post and was glanced wide, but a corner was given and Gallagher once more got to it first, curling an effort wide as the Tanners finished the stronger.
And then we almost got the fairytale finish. Another excellent cross from the right and up went O’Toole, meeting the ball with his forehead. It crashed off the bar, Brivio couldn’tconvert the rebound, and the whistle went. Honours even, a thoroughly entertaining game, and probably a fair result.
Tomorrow manager Di Paola leads out a Horsham Legends side here in a charity match. Today’s Hornets might not quite have legendary status yet, but should they continue this season in the way they finished the last, they won’t be far away- and today showed that they have real potential.
Their manager, however, should already be a contender to have his hands and feet immortalised in clay at the Swan Walk shopping centre.
Horsham- main stand