If cup runs and promotion challenges are the mark of a successful season, then it is fair to say that Horsham’s 2009/10 campaign was something of a disappointment. Knocked out of the ‘big three’ competitions at the first hurdle, we were shorn of the local and nationwide exposure and financial rewards we had become accustomed to in recent times. For a while, we flirted with achieving a promotion play-off place but our usual catalogue of injuries and player departures left us short and a mid-table finish was, in hindsight, perhaps the best we might have expected during this period of homelessness and uncertainty. However the more realistic, and simplistic, remit for boss John Maggs ahead of his 10th full season in charge was to maintain Ryman Premier Division football for Horsham. It wouldn’t be easy. Back in the town after a season in exile at Worthing, Horsham YMCA’s Gorings Mead ground wasn’t to prove to be everyone’s cup of tea and attendances, although increased over the previous term, were modest in comparison with the club’s previous tenure ‘over the fence’ at Queen Street.
An unspectacular pre-season campaign did little to suggest that title favourites Dartford would have much to fear as we began our 14th consecutive season on the road at the excellent Princes Park stadium. Yet, for the sizeable travelling contingent, there was plenty of encouragement as the yellow and green shirted visitors pinged the ball around impressively and deservedly led at the break, through Russell Eldridge’s well-struck free-kick. The post prevented Claude Seanla from making it 2-0, straight after the interval, before the Darts awoke from their slumbers and fired in three goals in next to no time. The Lardy Army were rewarded for their fantastic vocal support when new signing Pat Harding got his season up and running with a poacher’s goal at the death but we would have to wait until the Tuesday before celebrating a first victory of the new campaign.
Sutton United would be another side to feature heavily in the 2009/10 promotion race but Seanla made ours a winning Gorings Mead debut with the only goal in front of what would prove to be our biggest crowd of the season. The Ivorian was the star of the show in the early games, picking up the Player of the Month award after netting one of our two unanswered goals that saw off Harrow Borough and converting a penalty at Tonbridge where we were denied all three points only by Carl Rook’s injury time leveller. The early momentum stalled when we fell to defeat against Canvey Island and Hastings United but an inspired display from Tony Nwachukwu helped us claw back a 2-0 deficit at home to Carshalton Athletic and earn a point ahead of our FA Cup trip to Tooting & Mitcham.
Tooting has long been one of our more successful hunting grounds but what followed was something of a horror show from the Hornets. Seemingly heading back to Horsham with a 2-2 draw, a rush of blood to the head from Rob Tolfrey saw the goalkeeper dismissed a minute from time to enable the hosts to take the lead from the penalty spot before adding a fourth, deep into stoppage time. It was a bitter pill for the fans to take after the successes of the previous two seasons but the players would quickly bounce back, courtesy of a 3-1 win at Margate.
Next up, a Monday night trip to Kingstonian to face a Ks side that had undergone sweeping changes after a dismal start that had seen them ship nineteen goals in their first four games. However, it was Alan Dowson’s side who took the points despite another laudable performance from Horsham that, at times, had Dowson contemplating asking for another ball for his side to play with, such was the visitors’ high possession rate. Arguably one of the most entertaining matches of the season ended in a rather unjust scoreline of 2-1 in favour of the hosts but the result became almost a side issue when Mark Knee ended the night in hospital, having suffered a sickening blow to the head.
Having been knocked out of the FA Cup at the first hurdle, our attentions turned to the Sussex Senior Cup but our luck was out again as we went down 3-2 to struggling Bognor Regis, losing James Nicholls to a red card just two minutes after his introduction as a second half substitute. Two wonderful strikes from Boreham Wood’s Chris Watters were the unwanted highlights of another defeat as October began with a 3-1 home loss but it looked as though we might finally enjoy some cup success when, after an encouraging league win over Maidstone United, we somehow contrived to let slip a 4-1 lead to bow out of the FA Trophy against Southern League whipping boys Barton Rovers, whose combined total of eight goals was one too many for us after an astonishing couple of games. Morale on and off the pitch was in decline but a thumping friendly triumph over YMCA restored a little confidence and gave us the impetus to embark upon an unbeaten run of seven games that helped propel us back into the promotion play-off places.
However, we were dealt a major blow when Tolfrey announced he was quitting the club in favour of a move to Kingstonian and his departure began a bizarre sequence that saw Horsham field a different goalkeeper in five successive matches. Eric Pudaloff returned for his first appearance in almost five years for the visit of Cray Wanderers as he and former Leatherhead midfield debutant Steve Sargent enjoyed a winning debut with our Kent visitors comfortably beaten 4-0, and Alex Haddow’s thumping volley was the stand out feature of our League Cup success over Sutton United, not that too many of the 144 crowd were able to enjoy it as they peered through the thick fog that enveloped Gorings Mead. Promising loanee Josh Pelling received the plaudits for his display between the sticks, as we gained some revenge for our FA Cup exit with a 2-0 win at the Imperial Fields, but his subsequent recall by injury-hit Brighton & Hove Albion meant a debut for one-time cage fighter Craig Bradshaw as we prepared to host Hastings United at the end of November.
A pulsating ‘derby’ went our way, courtesy of a thrilling 4-2 success over a side featuring Russell Eldridge, who had rejoined his former club earlier in the season, but the next six weeks became a period of huge frustration for the Horsham faithful who witnessed their side collect just five points, suffer a flurry of postponements and lose two of the club’s modern day ‘legends’. December began well enough, with Tom Lyons’ debut penalty kick earning us a respectable draw at Hendon but the night was marred by an horrendous facial injury to Gary Charman that had our long serving midfielder contemplating premature retirement as he struggled to recover from the physical and mental scars that would end his season. That we overcame the loss of our inspirational talisman to pick up maximum points at Canvey Island, four days later, was a testament to the players’ new found spirit (and the unseen ‘hand of Claude’).
But, as quickly as our fine form had taken over than it dissolved once more with a humiliating League Cup exit at the hands of our landlords, and successive 2-1 defeats at Aveley and Wealdstone made for a miserable Christmas for John Maggs, whose despair was heightened by a burst waterpipe that flooded his home. There was even worse news to come for the supporters when the rumoured departure of the hugely talented Lee Carney were confirmed and the midfielder made his farewell in a disappointing Boxing Day draw at basement side Bognor before setting off for his new life in the County League.
It would be more than three weeks before Maggs would see how his charges would fare without the midfield maestro as five matches were lost to the weather. During the enforced lay-off, we also lost the Lyons brothers, Jack and Tom, who could be forgiven for making the decision to swap the rain, ice and snow of the UK for the delights of an Antipodean summer as they accepted an invitation to head down under to Australia. Our overdue return to action came at Billericay where Haddow’s injury time winner gave us a rare piece of good cheer but our Jekyll and Hyde character was there for all to see when we threw away a 3-1 lead against struggling Margate who returned to Kent with a valuable point from a 3-3 draw. A schoolboy error from Bradshaw made for an unnecessarily nervy win over relegation bound Waltham Abbey, a team described by Maggs as “the worst we’ve played all season”, but we capitulated badly against high-flying Boreham Wood who recorded a league double over us with a comprehensive 4-0 win in Hertfordshire. Maggs’ decision to field youngsters Nwachukwu and Adam Hutchings against Kingstonian may not have reaped the full rewards their enterprising performances deserved, the Ks victorious by 1-0, but it ensured their places in the starting XI for the midweek visit of Ashford Town whose twelve match unbeaten run was blown away inside the opening eleven minutes with both teenagers amongst the goals in a 4-1 win.
Our fine home record was maintained with successes over Hendon and, finally, Bognor as we stayed in the frame for the play-offs only for March to yield a disastrous run of results that saw us tumble down the table. Six defeats in seven effectively ended our promotion challenge for another year with the rot starting at rock bottom Waltham Abbey, who took great delight in making Maggs eat his words with only their 6th win of what would prove a mere season long sojourn in the Ryman Premier Division. Tooting, Sutton, Hornchurch, Dartford and Billericay all prevailed against our eminently demoralised side, only Maidstone missing out on the rich pickings that were to be had by being held to a 1-1 draw.
Signs of a late recovery were made as we gained our revenge over the Urchins, and overcame a 2-0 deficit to collect a first point at Harrow since 1978, before a thumping effort from recent arrival Hassan Nyang helped condemn free-falling Ashford to a fifth successive defeat. It was a disappointing display that followed, though, as we reserved arguably our poorest performance of the season for the visit of Tommy Warrilow’s Tonbridge Angels who reinforced their own play-off aspirations with an untroubled 3-0 success. We fared better against struggling Carshalton, three days later, when we kept up our recent good record at Colston Avenue with a 2-1 win but that was to prove our final success of the season. Wealdstone followed Tonbridge in scoring three times at Gorings Mead, a match notable from a Horsham viewpoint only for Harding’s 26th goal of the season, and, with our final ‘home’ match of the season gazumped by a meeting of the National Blood Service, Aveley’s march in to the play-offs was secured with a 2-0 win at Crawley’s Broadfield Stadium.
Yet it was with good cheer and revelry that the fans gathered at Hayes Lane, Bromley, to bring the curtain down on a frustrating, occasionally exciting, but never dull campaign. Almost poetically, the meeting with tenants Cray Wanderers provided a reasonable summary of our season. A decent start, an indifferent middle, and a brief flurry towards the end only to suffer the disappointment of late heartache in the early Summer sunshine.
Most league appearances: (37)
Most league goals: Pat Harding (23)
Number of players used: (league only) (all competitions)
Played 42 Won 16 Drew 8 Lost 18 Goals For 65 Goals against 67 Points 56 Position 11th
Played 60 Won 28 Drew 9 Lost 23 Goals For 104 Goals against 99
FA Cup: 1st Qualifying round replay (lost 2-4 v Tooting & Mitcham United)
FA Trophy: 1st Qualifying round replay (lost 3-4 v Barton Rovers)
Sussex Senior Cup: 2nd round (lost 2-3 v Bognor Regis Town)
Championship Manager Cup: 2nd round (lost 0-2 v Horsham YMCA)
Brighton Charity Cup: 2nd round (lost 2-3 v Chichester City United)
SUPPORTERS’ PLAYER OF THE SEASON
4-0 v Cray Wanderers (Ryman League)
0-4 v Boreham Wood (Ryman League)
441 v Sutton United (Ryman League)
144 v Sutton United (Championship Manager Cup)
164 v AFC Hornchurch (Ryman League)
6,245 (Ryman League) Average: 297
6,784 (All competitions) Average: 283