No-one was under any illusions as to the size of the task that awaited the Hornets at the start of the 2008/9 season. Forced to play their home games more than twenty miles away at Worthing’s Woodside Road, with a budget based on inevitably falling attendances and a virtually new squad, and it was clear that John Maggs was facing one of the most testing of his eight years in charge of the club.
Yet as the season entered its final month, Maggs had somehow taken his side to within touching distance of the promotion play-offs, to the semi-finals of both the Sussex Senior and Brighton Charity Cups and, earlier, to within nine minutes of a visit to Leicester City in the First Round of the FA Cup. But it was a crippling injury list that was to prove the Hornets’ undoing as they limped over the finishing line, fighting off the threat of relegation to end up a respectable thirteenth place with the manager readily admitting that his side “would have been in trouble if the season had gone on another fortnight”.
Pre-season changes in personnel are nothing new in the world of non-league football and the player merry-go-round was in full swing during the summer with no less than eight of the side who faced Heybridge Swifts in the final league game of the 2007/8 campaign deciding that their careers lay away from Horsham. The lure of Lewes’ ill-fated debut in the Nationwide Conference proved too much for Tom Graves and Matt Geard and they were joined through the ‘out’ door by the likes of Lewis Taylor, Simon Austin, Stuart Myall, Kevin Hemsley, Dwain Clarke, Gavin Bolger, Nigel Brake, Danny Davis and Dean Lovegrove. Maggs, though, was unconcerned as he went about reconstructing his squad and produced what he believed to be one of the best since he took over in 2000.
Alex Haddow (Bognor), Mark Knee (Worthing), Lee Carey and Russell Eldridge (both Hastings United) arrived to add their experience to the side and Maggs’ long chase was rewarded when he finally landed the signatures of the highly rated Page brothers, Sam and Jack, the former being instantly handed the captain’s armband. The Eastbourne clubs provided a couple of youthful additions to the attack with Town’s hotshot Liam Baitup joined, on the eve of the season, by Borough’s largely unknown Evan Archibald.
Horsham got the new season underway by taking to the road, predictably, and a trip to the Essex coast where newly promoted Canvey Island were crushed 4-2 in an exciting start that saw the Hornets record their biggest opening day win in eight years with both Baitup and Archibald among the goals. Highly fancied Staines were also defeated, thanks to Russell Eldridge’s late deflected free-kick, but the match was marked by a horrendous freak injury to club stalwart Eddie French who suffered a broken tibia, dislocated ankle and damaged ligaments that was to keep him out for the rest of the season. Archibald was on the scoresheet again as a dismal Heybridge Swifts gave an early indication of what was to be a season of struggle for them and the 100% record continued with a Bank Holiday excursion to Carshalton where the hosts’ own perfect start was undone in devastating fashion as the Hornets ran in five goals. Jacob Mingle made his first appearance of the season as Harlow Town came to Worthing on the last day of August but his introduction off the bench was to prove a decisive one for the Hawks when he conceded the penalty that enabled the visitors to take a 2-1 lead and, by 5pm, Horsham’s terrific start was lost to a 4-1 scoreline.
September began with an early top of the table clash as Maggs took his players to title favourites Dover Athletic and, although Mingle made amends for his weekend aberration with a superb opener, it was the home side who emerged victorious to continue their unbeaten record against Horsham. A smash and grab raid by Sutton found the points heading back to Surrey, thanks to Gavin McCallum’s 90th minute winner, and a similar blow was to befall the Hornets when they made the long trip to Ramsgate from where they returned from a typically bruising contest with a single point and Gary Charman on crutches. The injuries began to stack up, resulting in a shock return for veteran striker Gavin Geddes for the FA Cup tie with Colliers Wood as Knee sat out the game, won in unconvincing style by Archibald’s lone strike, while Charman and Lee Carney were sidelined for several weeks and more ill-luck was to follow when Sam Page was stretchered out of the 4-0 loss at Dartford with a dislocated shoulder. Hastings took full advantage of Horsham’s patched up squad to record a 2-0 win at Woodside Road so it was something of a surprise when the Hornets returned from Folkestone with a 2-1 win to make further progress in the FA Cup.
Our former striker Carl Rook hit a first half hat-trick as October began with another 4-0 defeat, this time at Tonbridge, but the temporary signing of Jean-Michel Sigere signalled an upturn in the club’s fortunes and we embarked on a five match unbeaten run. “A calculated risk” was Maggs’ assessment of the Frenchman’s loan signing from Eastbourne Borough but he instantly repaid the manager’s trust (and financial outlay) with the decisive penalty that secured passage to the final qualifying round of the FA Cup, and a further £7500 in the club’s coffers, with a win over Paulton Rovers. In-form Maidstone were sent back to Kent with a 3-1 defeat but their landlords, Sittingbourne, provided something of a scare when they arrived for a Sunday FA Trophy tie and scored twice inside a minute to take a two goal lead only for the Hornets to level before half-time. The game marked a personal milestone for Carney who was making his 300th appearance for the club but it was a young teenage substitute who was to steal the headlines as Tony Nwachukwu announced his arrival in style with an injury time goal that was celebrated with his trademark acrobatics. A tricky looking Senior Cup tie at Ringmer was safely navigated without further injury ahead of the weekend trip to Stevenage Borough, and the 4th Qualifying Round of the FA Cup. Graves was brought back from Lewes to bolster the defence but Maggs pulled off something of a coup on the Friday before the match when he convinced former Cardiff City starlet Anthony Acheampong to choose Horsham over a host of other clubs and he impressed as the Hornets held their Conference opponents to a memorable 2-2 draw. With the added incentive of a First Round tie at Leicester awaiting the winners, there were unreserved scenes of joy at the A2B Stadium when Carney gave Horsham a deserved lead but that was as good as it got as Stevenage replied with four second half goals to end our dreams of cup glory.
Although Sam Page returned to the side, the cup hangover continued as Cray claimed a 2-1 win at a soggy Woodside Road to bring the FA Trophy run to an early conclusion before Paul Seuke dropped a bombshell with news of his premature retirement from the game. Fittingly, the popular goalkeeper marked his farewell appearance with a clean sheet in a comfortable win against Margate and incoming replacement Rob Tolfrey did the same as Boreham Wood were defeated by an identical 2-0 scoreline the following weekend. Williams Peauroux became the second arrival in the space of a week, joining from Ebbsfleet United, but it was adieu to defender Andy Howard who dropped in to the County League with Three Bridges. A below-par performance saw Wealdstone take the points at Worthing in the first of three barren matches in front of goal as we hovered around the mid-table mark and the month was to end in a stunning defeat at perpetual party-poopers Harrow Borough that prompted an unreserved apology from the manager to the club’s supporters.
Fate drew Worthing and Horsham together in the Isthmian League Cup and it was the Hornets who claimed the honours but not before their spirited landlords had threatened an upset only for Sam Page to apply the killer blow with the last kick of extra-time. The first weekend of December saw a hardy band of supporters draw attention to the Club’s homeless plight by making the twenty mile trek from Horsham to Woodside Road on foot and they were rewarded for their efforts with a terrific win against fourth placed Canvey. Sadly the fans’ walk failed to inspire others to follow as a paltry 79 attended the Senior Cup win against Three Bridges, a match in which former Hornet Dean Wright scored, and was sent off, for the County Leaguers. Midfielder Darren Budd arrived from Eastbourne Borough but torrential rain delayed his debut for our return match with Staines so it was the Swans’ promotion rivals Dover who were next up and they continued to storm ahead at the top of the table with a 2-1 success against a Hornets side now without the departed Lee Farrell, despite falling behind to Sigere’s early penalty. But it was another penalty, this time converted by Peauroux, that set us up for a 2-0 win at Tooting & Mitcham as the year was seen out on a winning note.
More uncompromising weather heralded the start of the New Year and it was almost three weeks before the lads were in action again where a first ever league visit to Gander Green Lane saw Sutton undeservedly repeat their narrow success from earlier in the season. Horsham were to gain some revenge, though, with more cup success as new signing Claude Seanla (in for the released Sigere) helped himself to a hat-trick against the U’s to give us a rare League Cup 4th round appearance. Back in the league, Dartford completed the double with a 3-0 win at Worthing but an inspired display from Carney ensured that the Sussex derby went Horsham’s way, reversing the earlier 2-0 scoreline at Hastings’ Pilot Field.
There was more local rivalry to follow when troubled Lewes arrived for a Senior Cup quarter-final tie and the Hornets, despite being hit by the departure of Mingle and Archibald to Eastbourne Borough, blew their more senior opponents away with two goals inside the opening ten minutes. The Conference club reduced the arrears, and Horsham had Tolfrey to thank for a 68th minute penalty save, before Seanla wrapped things up with his fifth goal in three games to record a famous victory. Carey, despite having just helped his new team-mates to victory over his previous employers, returned to Hastings in early February but another new arrival, the much travelled Reggie Savage, opened his account with the only goal as Ramsgate were made to pay for an ill-disciplined display in which they lost not only the points but the plot as Brown and Minshull were dismissed along with manager Jim Ward while Carshalton Athletic showed just why they were among the contenders for a play-off place with a sparkling performance in one of the most entertaining games of the season. The Robins struck the woodwork four times before avenging their August defeat with a 3-2 win. Minshull returned a week later with new side Tonbridge Angels, this time keeping out of trouble during a match in which the Hornets’ rearguard kept the division’s second highest scorers to a goalless stalemate.
A trip to Pagham gave the cream of the youth squad chance to show their worth as the Brighton Charity Cup competition kicked off with a 3-1 success over the Lions and we finally breached the Dartford defence, three times as it turned out, to move into the League Cup quarter-finals for the first time in our history with a thrilling extra-time win. Budd struck the winning goal at Billericay, to make it seven wins and a draw from nine games, but back came perennial spoilers Harrow Borough to end our hopes of a League Cup semi-final. It was left to the SAS combination of Savage and Seanla to see off the challenge of Ashford Town as we ended the month in eighth place, our highest position since mid September.
Seanla made it two in two games with a controversial equaliser at Sittingbourne, where Maidstone were held to a 1-1 draw, but he was rested as a makeshift side continued to make progress in the Brighton Charity Cup with an early brace from Steve Davies setting up a comfortable 3-0 victory at Wick. Our outside hopes of clinching a play-off spot remained after Savage’s expert finish was enough to take the points at Margate but that was pretty much as good as the season was to get as the Hornets were to suffer a spate of injuries and pick up just two more wins before the season’s end. Visiting Brighton & Hove Albion ended any hopes of a Sussex Senior Cup final appearance with a comprehensive, if rather flattering, 4-1 score and Hendon repeated their last gasp success of the previous season with a 90th minute winner in a match that was to be Sam Page’s last of the season after picking up a knee injury. A creditable goalless draw at promotion chasing Staines kept us in the hunt, despite the absence of the crocked trio of Page, Carney and Peauroux, but a weakened side that included five U18s and 35 year old coach Mark Hawthorne saw Shoreham claim a Brighton Charity Cup Final spot at our expense before single goal defeats at Wealdstone and bottom of the league Heybridge left some casting an anxious eye towards the bottom of the table rather than the top.
The points were shared with Boreham Wood in a 2-2 draw at Worthing, with Acheampong scoring his second goal of the season (the first coming against the Hertfordshire side back in November), but a relegation dogfight became a distinct possibility when we crashed to a 3-0 loss at struggling Ashford Town. Another injury setback, this time to Yinka Salaam, meant we limped into the Easter programme in desperate need of a change in fortune with just five games remaining. Our trip to Harlow saw the surprise return of Charman and his contribution, as so often in the past, proved vital as the local hero bagged his 100th career goal for the Hornets while Tolfrey and his defenders stifled the home attack to record a vital victory. Two days later, a drab 0-0 draw with Tooting & Mitcham was enough to make us mathematically safe from relegation and a sigh of relief was breathed.
A sorry record in front of goal – just four scored in nine matches – gave clear indication as to why our promotion aspirations had fallen so dramatically away but surely few sides in the division could have coped with such staggering ill-luck with injuries, and our fortunes were summed up with another 3-0 reverse, this time at Hornchurch, where Acheampong was forced to don the goalkeeping gloves to replace the concussed Tolfrey. Davies, one of the successes of the closing weeks of the season, gave us the lead at Hendon in our final away match of the campaign only for the Greens to hit back with three in reply to secure their own Premier Division survival for a record 47th year and so it was left to Harrow to come to Worthing and take the points on the final weekend. But our brief tenancy of Woodside Road was to end in good spirits as Budd’s curling free-kick somehow found its way in to the net for a rare victory against the Middlesex club to send supporters away in buoyant mood, ready to mark off the 112 days until they could once again put themselves through the rigours of a season in support of Horsham Football Club.
Most league appearances: Russell Eldridge (40)
Most league goals: Evan Archibald / Gary Charman (6)
Number of players used: 30 (league only) 44 (all competitions)
Played 42 Won 16 Drew 7 Lost 19 Goals For 49 Goals against 60 Points 55 Position 13th
Played 60 Won 28 Drew 20 Lost 24 Goals For 87 Goals against 92
FA Cup: 4th Qualifying round replay (lost 1-4 v Stevenage Borough)
FA Trophy: 2nd Qualifying round (lost 1-2 v Cray Wanderers)
Sussex Senior Cup: Semi-final (lost 1-4 v Brighton & Hove Albion)
Ryman League Cup: Quarter-Final (lost 1-4 v Harrow Borough)
Brighton Charity Cup: Semi-Final (lost 2-3 v Shoreham)
SUPPORTERS’ PLAYER OF THE SEASON
5-1 v Carshalton Athletic (Ryman League)
1-6 v Harrow Borough (Ryman League)
641 v Stevenage Borough (FA Cup)
418 v Dartford (Ryman League)
79 v Three Bridges (Sussex Senior cup)
109 v Carshalton Athletic (Ryman League)
5,252 (Ryman League) Average: 250
7,228 (All competitions) Average: 249