Above: Jamie Taylor helps Carl Rook celebrate his opening goal against Lewes in the Sussex Senior Cup Final at Eastbourne Borough
Following the disappointment of May’s play-off final defeat, Horsham manager John Maggs set about reshaping his squad to form a side capable of going one step further and claiming an automatic promotion spot to the Isthmian Premier Division for the first time in the club’s history. Consequently, the gates to the Queen Street ground became something of a revolving door during the summer months with several of the previous season’s players being released to make way for a number of exciting acquisitions. Possibly the most surprising departure was talismanic winger, Gary Charman, who ended his seven year spell with the Hornets when signing for Walton & Hersham. Joining the exodus were Luke Burton, Ryan Rummery, Joe Clark, Wes Lopez and Glen Matten while crossing the threshold in the other direction were goalkeeper Rob Frankland (from Croydon Athletic), defenders John Farley (Tonbridge Angels), Andy Howard (Broadbridge Heath) and James Cant, midfielders Matt Geard (Burgess Hill) and Mark Pulling (Worthing) and forwards Marc Whiteman (Lewes), Nigel Brake (Sutton Utd), Andy Ducille (Burgess Hill) and Dominic Hudak – a Slovakian who had been playing his football with Czech League Four side Tyrol, prompting an excited Maggs to say that the squad was the strongest assembled during his spell as the Hornets’ manager. A series of impressive pre-season results soon had supporters echoing the manager’s claims.
Horsham’s first opening day win in five years saw a see-saw match at Tooting decided by a 90th minute goal by Jamie Taylor – something that was to become a feature throughout the season. The first home game of the 2005/6 season saw fallen giants, Dover Athletic, reverse the weekend’s scoreline as the pre-season title favourites overturned a 2-1 deﬁcit. Exit from the FA Cup at Tonbridge was a major disappointment to the club, not least of which was the fact that the side had now played two of the promotion favourites – and lost them both. A bank holiday trip to Hastings saw Horsham repeat their opening day win with another last minute winner, this time from Andy Walker.
A dismal defeat against the Met Police, one of Horsham’s bogey sides, left supporters wondering if this was yet another false dawn in the history of their club but the few loyal souls who saw the league cup tie with Chalfont St Peter had their spirits lifted with a 6-1 demolition of the second division side. That result began the Hornets’ longest winning run as successive victories against Lymington (4-0), Newport (1-0), Corinthian-Casuals (1-0…another late goal!) and Whyteleafe (2-1) saw them take over the leadership of the table. But success came at a price with Frankland sustaining an injury against Lymington that threatened to keep him out of action until the new year and reserve ‘keeper, Gary Elliott, requiring stitches to a nasty injury collected at Newport. Perhaps an early indication that this would be Horsham’s year after all came when Maggs drafted in the intriguingly named Eric Pudaloff as short term cover for the stricken custodians. A clean sheet against Corinthian-Casuals was a good start for the England futsal international but his next appearance against Whyteleafe was inspired, enabling his team-mates to snatch victory from likely defeat, thanks to John Westcott’s injury time goal. Sadly, Pudaloff’s appearances for the Hornets were all too brief when university called and a half-fit Frankland was recalled for the 3-3 draw with Ashford that brought the month to a close.
A ﬁne 2-1 win at Kingstonian got October off to a good start but two demoralising losses followed. A 1-0 defeat under promotion-chasing Ramsgate‘s ineffective lights was followed by a heaviest defeat of the season as Chelmsford City knocked Horsham for six in the FA Trophy. Lymington and Arundel provided less exacting opposition as comfortable wins on the road saw league and senior cup interests maintained, although Westcott‘s injury at Arundel was a major setback to club and player. But Westcott wasn‘t the only player to suffer injury during this spell. Elliott, the slightly more mobile of the club’s ‘keepers, was struggling between the sticks and Andy Walker, Mark Hawthorne, Carlo Castrechino, Lee Carney and Matt Geard were all missing with various ailments. However, an inspired performance against Cray Wanderers saw Maggs’ side maintain their 100% record against the Kent club and only Darren Dobinson’s 89th minute equaliser prevented the Hornets from taking maximum points off Croydon Athletic.
One of Horsham’s poorest (or should that be Fleet Town’s best) performances of the season saw the Hampshire side record a victory that was far more emphatic than the single goal scoreline suggested although, once more, it was a patched up team who took to the field – albeit with the added presence of the highly rated Will Packham in goal and former Burgess Hill man Leo Day in midfield. Bonfire night was to bring a change in fortunes as a Walker goal saw us home in the big match at Tonbridge Angels but the excellent win was tinged with yet further ill-fortune as both Farley and Hudak were led from the field having suffered knocks. Farley’s unfortunate injury, coming against his former employers, gave supporters the first view of young Andy Howard and the central defender was to become an integral part of the Horsham defence for the remainder of the season.
A return visit to Billericay’s New Lodge ended in predictable defeat against Chelmsford and, with it, elimination from the Westview Cup. But Maggs would be more perturbed by his side‘s abject display in the depths of the New Forest as the team were humbled by league newcomers Lymington & New Milton and a goal from the returning Dave Flemming did little to lighten the mood among the fans although Flemming‘s second, three days later, helped Horsham to a very welcome three points against Dulwich Hamlet. The annual kidz4free day brought a bumper crowd to Queen Street to witness the debut of club mascot, Howie the Hornet, and the return of Gary Charman – scorer of both goals as Banstead Athletic left empty handed. But the back-to-back wins were soon forgotten as we struggled to a draw in our ﬁrst ever visit to Walton Casuals (Carney’s last minute penalty earning a 2-2 draw). The midfielder also found the goalscoring touch as we scraped past lowly Corinthian-Casuals to move back to the top of the table.
With many of the injured players beginning to make a return to first team action, December was a successful month with defeats of Leatherhead, Molesey and Burgess Hill whilst a point was collected from a bruising encounter at Bashley. But arguably the highlight of the festive month came on a soggy night in Horsham when Carney‘s extra-time goal sent Brighton & Hove Albion‘s second string crashing out of the Sussex Senior Cup. The New Year was seen in in less than spectacular style when Hastings United provided the opposition for the Hornets’ ﬁrst goalless draw of the season. But our excellent defensive record, that had seen just five goals conceded in ten games, was totally destroyed when ﬁve goals in sixteen second half minutes left visiting Tooting fans celebrating in front of a stunned home crowd. Hardly the best preparation, then, for one of our toughest matches of the season but a trip to the Crabble saw us return home with a point from an even encounter with Dover.
A ﬁnancial contribution from the Horsham Supporters’ Club enabled Maggs to sign Dover’s Carl Rook, shortly after the game, and the striker made an immediate impact, scoring both goals in a win over Newport to register our ﬁrst win of 2006. The former Hastings United marksman was at it again, scoring one of our eight goals, as we began our Brighton Charity Cup quest at Ringmer. However, Rook’s bright start was overshadowed when he was red-carded in a 4-1 defeat at Imber Court as the Met Police recorded their first league double over Horsham since the 1979-80 season, leaving us with just two wins in seven league games. However, the striker was able to make a telling contribution before his suspension when he grabbed two of the three goals that saw us edge out Hassocks in the Senior Cup semi-ﬁnal.
The shortest month began in sensational style as we found ourselves two goals behind inside three amazing minutes at Leatherhead’s Fetcham Grove. But the players showed their never-say-die attitude to turn the game on its head, emerging victorious with four goals of their own. The club celebrated a lucrative ground sponsorship deal with Atspeed with a comfortable win against visiting Walton Casuals before a difficult trip to Croydon Athletic rendered another point as we maintained our grip on second spot. However, the month was to end in disappointing fashion with our first ever defeat against Cray Wanderers.
The arrival of springtime heralded the ﬁrst of four huge ﬁxtures in the space of a month when a crowd of 522 saw the visit of Tonbridge Angels end in the home side’s favour thanks to Tom Graves’ 86th minute header. Carney’s marvellous goal was the highlight of a thorough display at the typically chilly Merland Rise before Graves proved his goal against the Angels was no ﬂuke, volleying home the winner against Crawley Town that sent us into a first Sussex Senior Cup Final appearance in twenty-seven years. The late introduction of Hudak helped us to an unlikely point, after trailing Kingstonian 2-0 with less than ten minutes remaining, before a much changed side lost out to high-flying Ringmer in the Brighton Charity Cup. The month was ended in style as three goals in the final three minutes helped us record an astonishing 7-0 win at Ashford Town.
As the final month of the season arrived, we sat just five points behind leaders Ramsgate, knowing that victory over the Rams would put us back in the championship driving seat. The Kent club’s visit, on April Fool’s Day, was a pulsating affair that was ultimately decided by Rook’s injury time header, sending the majority of the 707 crowd into raptures. However, we failed to build on the good work when our visit to Champion Hill saw Dulwich Hamlet race into a 2-0 lead before Eddie French pulled a goal back on the stroke of half-time. Incredibly, Rook repeated his feat from Saturday with another late goal that earned a share of the points. Former Spurs and England midﬁelder Andy Sinton tipped us to win the league after his Fleet Town side were overwhelmed 4-1, taking us into the crucial Easter programme four points behind Ramsgate with a game in hand. However, just as our promotion aspirations had faltered the season before, so did our championship dream as Whyteleafe’s dreadful pitch saw us serve up a below-par performance that we were, perhaps, fortunate in winning a point. That said, had Matt Geard’s header been six inches lower, we could have narrowed the gap to a point – for 24 hours at least. As it was, the effort crashed away off the bar and Ramsgate’s victory at Leatherhead the following day saw the Rams take a seemingly unassailable lead at the top.
Even so, another crowd in excess of ﬁve hundred assembled at the Atspeed Stadium with Burgess Hill not expected to provide the Hornets with too many problems. In the event, Ashley Jarvis‘ 90th minute goal broke the hearts of the Horsham supporters who had to wait a further week to see if their side could claim the three points now required for automatic promotion. The nerves seemed to effect the Horsham players, who fell behind to Molesey after just three minutes, and, but for a comical miss from Warren Burton, might have dropped their seventh point in three games to leave them looking anxiously over their shoulders at the chasing pack. But the introduction of Lee Carney turned the game, helping his side to three goals and the party could ﬁnally begin. Relaxed now for the visit of Bashley, the players put on a show for their supporters, destroying the Hampshire club 7-1 with substitute Florian Mateos saying farewell to the fans with a quickfire hat-trick.
And so to the bonus of the Sussex Senior Cup. A showpiece ﬁnal against arch rivals Lewes was played on a glorious May bank holiday at Eastbourne with Rook putting us ahead before being stretchered off the pitch with broken ribs. Despite a superb performance from the Hornets, the inevitable equaliser followed and, after Charman had followed his team-mate to hospital with concussion, the Rooks banged in two more goals to leave the Horsham players crestfallen. But the aim was promotion – and promotion was what they achieved – leaving us to look forward to a summer to digest what was an incredible season before looking forward to life in the Premier Division.