It’s been another long, hard season for Horsham supporters.
The 2017-18 campaign opened with life at a new ground at Sussex FA Headquarters in Lancing, with supporters accepting a short stay away from the town while our new ground is built back home. While things continue to be built off the pitch, manager Dom Di Paola has done his best to keep things going on it, and it can be said he, and the players have taken well to the new surroundings and have ultimately improved upon last season’s sixteenth placed finish, even if it is just one further place in the league table.
While there might be much to be said about celebrating mid-table mediocrity, we all knew this season would be tough, and for many Hornets fans, this campaign, and the early stages of next season – will be seen as something of a necessary evil in which we have to rally behind and get on with until we can formally open the gates at the new ground. The club is on the verge of building something both on, and off the pitch, but it’s safe to say that until we get the keys to Hop Oast, that our ambition on the field might just have to wait a little while longer. Thus, it is important to remember that while the history books of the future might look at this campaign as a bit of a damp squib, it hopefully will provide the bedrock of better things to come in the not-so-distant future.
Understandably, in front of lower attendances than at Gorings Mead, in unfamiliar surroundings, and plagued all season with injuries and departures of players, it’s testimony to Dom’s managerial ability that he’s managed to keep a team together this season and improve upon last season’s finish. In all the time I’ve followed this club, I can’t recall so many players ending up with season ending injuries, but in speaking to the likes of Adam Hunt, Alex Duncan and Lewis Hyde (to name just a few), it is great to see them supporting the lads from the side-lines as well as showing how determined they are to bounce back and get fit and ready for the new season.
Di Paola also had to contend with losing his right-hand man Ian Browne midway through the campaign, with Adam Westwood stepping into the role, while new physio Steph Apps picked up the magic sponge from Andi Marfleet who departed at the end of last season. All of the management staff deserve a huge thank you for what they have achieved this season.
“The club is on the verge of building something both on, and off the pitch, but it’s safe to say that until we get the keys to Hop Oast, that our ambition on the field might just have to wait a little while longer.”
Off the pitch, a huge thank you should, and must be directed at the staff at Culver Road who have made the stay as comfortable as possible for us all connected with Horsham, as well as the tireless work of Club Secretary and Director Jeff Barrett for making everything as seamless as possible, serving as the go-between between the club, and the Sussex FA as we slowly found our feet in Lancing. For me personally, it has been a rather bizarre season, with both Horsham, and Tottenham playing their home grounds at different venues and I’m sure I’m not alone in having thought “just get this campaign over with” as we count down the days until we can ply our trade back in our home town.
The 2017-18 campaign was Horsham’s second full campaign back in the Isthmian league since gaining promotion back to it in 2015. Of notable discussion, was the revelation of the league’s new sponsors, as the Ryman League became the Bostik League. It was just one of many things that would ultimately keep supporters ‘glued’ to the action as supporters quickly going through an assortment of poor quality jokes as they pondered on how long the new sponsors might stick around….
On the pitch, manager Dom Di Paola prepared for his third full season at the club. Having won promotion to the Isthmian League in his first full campaign, Dom’s personal ambition would have surely have been to improve upon last season’s finish and so he set about quickly identifying the players he wanted to bring in as we began life on the Sussex coast.
Familiar faces were quickly confirmed, with Alex Duncan, Darren Boswell, Adam Hunt and Charlie Farmer retained from the title winning squad of 2015, while many of last season’s crop returned including Lewis Hyde, Scott Kirkwood and Steve Metcalf. Di Paola also introduced dedicated squad numbers for his team, with his top priority identifying his #10 with prolific striker Rob O’Toole announced from Shoreham, Josh James in between the sticks from Burgess Hill Town, while also re-joining the club was Darren Budd who had left Bognor Regis Town during the summer.
The signings brought an infectious buzz of excitement to the club with pre-season optimism amongst the players all indicating that the club had the ability to potentially make the play-offs, however Di Paola was quick to play things down, adding that while he felt it was achievable, the task would be incredibly difficult given his side would have to adjust to life away from the town and against clubs competing with bigger resources than his own. Ultimately, the manager’s prophecy proved correct, although no doubt privately at least, he would have been rather frustrated his side failed to break into the top ten at any point during the course of the campaign, when his side appeared so full of potential.
After a tough pre-season that included some encouraging results against higher league opposition including wins against Burgess Hill Town and Worthing, there was a slight hiccup in Di Paola’s preparations as former landlords surprised The Hornets with a 3-1 win at Gorings Mead, before the real thing began two weeks later as we headed to Molesey for the curtain raiser.
It was something of an anti-climax then that Horsham fell to a 2-1 loss, although there would be a familiar pattern throughout the season with Molesey ultimately ending up second from bottom and The Hornets frequently dropping points to lower league opposition as inconsistency became something of an unwanted hallmark of Horsham’s campaign.
A first win of the season quickly followed in their follow up match, as Horsham dismantled league whipping boys Shoreham 3-0 in their first competitive fixture at Culver Road, while they safeguarded their passage through to the next round of the FA Cup with a trip to Chertsey Town, winning 3-1 with a brace from O’Toole setting us on our way.
A 5-0 thrashing away at Thamesmead quickly reminded Hornets fans of the rigours of the Bostik League, but as August turned to September, Horsham enjoyed their biggest win of the season, with a 6-0 rout of Ashford United as we turned our attentions back to the FA Cup. There was however an interesting talking point as Horsham found themselves again in the press with both sides unusually playing in similar strips with the visitors turning up in yellow against the Hornets’ amber. With no change strip available, match referee Jim Paterson had the unenviable task of deciding whether to go ahead with the game or call it off. It proved a wise move to go ahead, with The Hornets thrashing the visitors in what proved to be our biggest win of the season with Horsham’s players certainly not suffering from any confusion as to who was who on the pitch.
With prolific striker Rob O’ Toole and goalkeeper Josh James departing the club, wins against Burgess Hill Town in the Velocity Cup and against basement side Shoreham in the league offered some respite to Horsham’s patchy form, yet a nightmare was to unfold at Hayes Lane in the FA Trophy.
However, progress in the FA Cup was short lived, as Horsham endured a miserable run throughout September and October, that began with our elimination from the world’s oldest cup competition as Herne Bay dumped Di Paola’s side out thanks to a 5-2 drubbing at Culver Road, while Horsham then conceded five more goals in their next fixture, losing 5-0 at home to Sittingbourne as injuries began to bite Horsham’s squad.
Having lost 3-0 at home to high flying Cray Wanderers, the Hornets took on the Wanderers a week later looking for revenge. What they received was one of their heaviest defeats in over thirty years as Cray took no mercy and ripped Di Paola’s side to shreds dumping them out thanks to an 8-0 thrashing.
The return of former Player of the Season Joe Shelley helped Horsham steady things at the back as gradually Horsham began to get their season on track. A thriller at Hastings United saw Horsham emerge with a point after a pulsating 3-3 draw, while wins against Molesey, Newhaven (in the Sussex Senior Cup), and Faversham Town lifted Horsham up the table.
There was frustration in the Velocity Trophy as, despite beating Walton Casuals 3-1 away from home, the tie was ordered to be replayed due to an unfortunate technicality that resulted in a player being ineligible and the replay subsequently saw Horsham exit the competition. Yet a further twist would emerge with Casuals themselves playing an unregistered player in both the original and the replayed fixture, but the league’s decision to allow next round opponents Dulwich Hamlet a bye meant both sides would be eliminated instead.
Consistency continued to plague the squad, despite an excellent win away at Greenwich Borough, results against sides closer to ourselves in the league were the source of frustration to Hornets supporters as Christmas began to approach.
Arguably the biggest talking point when the fixtures were drawn during the summer, was Horsham’s Boxing Day clash away at Guernsey. The fixture has become something of a staple in the Lardy Boys calendar, with Hornets fans traditionally travelling to the Channel Island in good numbers, but the inconvenience of the scheduling had left many Horsham supporters unwilling, or unable to make the arduous journey over, while Di Paola couldn’t hide his own personal frustrations as he struggled to confirm a team for the occasion. For secretary Jeff Barrett, the issue had, by his own admission, caused him to have a few restless nights, as the two clubs discussed the possibility of rearranging the match for another date, but ultimately managing to overcome the logistics by fulfilling the fixture with both men working hard behind the scenes to make it happen. The ultimate reward of course, came on the pitch, with an excellent 3-1 win at Footes Lane with a brace from Tony Nwachukwu and Darren Boswell ensuring all three points returned back to the mainland. There was further cheer as Horsham welcomed in 2018 on New Year’s Day with a game against our Sussex rivals Lewes. Despite The Rooks sitting pretty at the top of the league, goals from Charlie Harris and Hakeem Adelakun ensured it would be The Hornets taking home the bragging rights as we recorded a 2-1 victory. Further victories against VCD Athletic and away at Whyteleafe and then Sittingbourne during the early stages of the new year helped Horsham climb up to the lofty heights of eleventh yet it would prove to be Horsham’s highest league position all season as they failed to capitalise on their impressive run and failed to break into the top ten. Defeat at home to Greenwich Borough – gaining revenge from earlier in the season – saw Horsham enter a slump in form that was followed up with a disappointing performance at County League side Pagham in the Sussex Senior Cup. Vying for a place in the semi-finals, a rampant Lions side outfought and outperformed their higher league opposition despite playing the majority of the game with ten men as they thoroughly deserved their 3-0 win.
With just their league position to concern themselves about, Horsham’s final push looked set to be for a place in the top ten, however, they gained eleven points from their final thirteen matches, as inconsistency once again crept in and the team began to gradually slide down the table as other clubs also played their games in hand around us.
But while the first team’s end of season slump appeared to take hold, there was better luck for the club’s burgeoning Youth set ups. At the end of March, our Under 12s secured the Arun and Chichester League Challenge Cup Final at Arundel with a 4-3 win on penalties against Bognor Regis Town’s U12s, but Bognor gained revenge through their U16s, as they beat Horsham’s U16s in the Invitation Cup Final at Nyewood Lane by a goal to nil.
For manager Dom Di Paola the focus for him now will be to prepare his side for next season, and with the club expected to move into their new ground at some point during the forthcoming campaign it already promises to be a memorable one, both on, and off the pitch.
To all Horsham supporters far and wide, enjoy your summer. We’ll do it all again in a few months!
Review by Matt Dale