After a goalless first half, Thursday night’s Sussex County Under 23’s Challenge Cup tie sparked into life after the break and provided a terrific spectacle for the spectators with five goals, including a stoppage time winner for the home team.
With the young Hornets facing their second match of the week, and without injured players Archie Goddard and Kieran Britland, manager Mark Hawthorne had to make a number of changes to his starting 11. But, on the plus side he was able to include the experienced Charlie Harris who is currently suspended from first team involvement. For the Bears, visiting manager Graham Shergold was able to put out a strong team with 4 players having tasted first team action this season.
The opening period was rather subdued, with both sides fairly cautious, trying to probe and keep the ball but with very little end product. The only decent attempt on goal was a speculative shot from distance which skimmed the top of the bar on its way over, much to the relief of Hornets keeper Lewis Blane, who appeared to have misjudged the flight of the ball. Horsham’s first chance of any note came in the 20th minute when winger Kieran Holmes made a good long run past several defenders and found himself clear in the box. But, having done the hard part, he could only manage a scuffed shot straight at the advancing ‘keeper.
The Bears went close in the 37th minute when Zac Massey hit a fierce low shot from the wide left position which Blaney did well to block with his feet. The ball went straight back out to the advancing Massey who, this time, zipped it back low across the face of goal where it failed to get a touch from a team-mate. Just after, a good one-two interchange between Louis Blake and Massey saw the latter go clear through on goal but, fortunately for Horsham, he shot wide. The Hornets finished the half with a Harris free-kick which beautifully teed up Harry Brooker but, with the goal at his mercy, he misjudged his header and the ball flew high over the bar.
H/T Horsham 0 Broadbridge Heath 0
Within just two minutes of the restart, the ‘Heath took the lead when a mix-up in the Horsham defence saw the ball fall to Blake who made no mistake with a drilled low shot into the net. Just after, another good move, once again involving the combination of Blake and Massey, ended with Blaney blocking the shot and a follow-up effort – a venomous strike from Sam Jobbins – was headed away for a corner.
With the visitors now on the front foot, and starting to get on top, the Hornets manager had seen enough and made two decisive substitutions; Sam Karl replaced Harry Brooker in the 51st minute, shortly followed by Alex Parsons on for Lewis Kelly. With Parsons settling in well alongside Harris, Horsham started to gain a little more composure and control in midfield and it was not long before the young Hornets were level. A ball was fed through from midfield to Karl who made no mistake, putting the ball away with aplomb.
Horsham’s third and final substitution, the combative Matieus Mulugeta for Holmes, wrestled even more midfield control for the Hornets and they enjoyed their best period of the match. In the 72nd minute, Harris’ shot from distance was saved by Bears ‘keeper Conor Evento who allowed the ball to spill out of his hands and was fortunate to be rescued by an alert defender. From the resulting corner, Horsham’s Trent Fawcett went close with his header which was somehow cleared just as the ball was about to cross the line, high up between the angle of the post and crossbar.
It was no more than the Hornets deserved when they took the lead in the 74th minute, and what a goal it was ! Harris picked the ball up just inside his own half and, spotting Evento off his line, he went for precision over power and lofted his shot in ‘Beckham style’ high over the ‘keeper’s head, the strike ‘programmed’ perfectly to come down at exactly the right time and bounce into the visitors’ unguarded net. Almost embarrassed by his goal, the midfielder took the plaudits from his mesmerised young team-mates.
Another chance came Horsham’s way from a good run and cross from Will Gordon but Mulugeta could not quite get on the end of it. But, after a period in which they were seemingly in control of the match, the Hornets were punished in the 81st minute for another sloppy defensive mistake when the visitors ‘Ollie Joels popped up in the Horsham box to poke home from close range. The goal galvanised the Bears and, just after, Tom Fuller shot wide when he really should have done better.
It was anyone’s game now as the contest went into the final minutes, and it looked like the Hornets were beaten when Louis Blake burst through on goal, had his shot saved, but followed up to put the rebound past the helpless Blaney. However, the assistant referee had flagged for offside and the goal was chalked off, much to the relief of the Hornets and their supporters. With both sides going all out for a winner, it made for an exciting climax. Harris put Karl in on goal but the angle was too tight and he fired wide and then, just after, Mulugeta smashed a volley on target that was defended bravely and headed away for a corner
With the game entering the final of 5 added on minutes, it looked certain that the game was destined for extra- time but in a dramatic finale, Will Gordon became the hero of the night when scoring with a low finish with just seconds remaining on the clock. But would it count? The referee had spotted a raised flag so was another goal going to be disallowed? He ran over to his assistant and, after a few seconds’ deliberation, and with the teams and spectators frozen in anticipation, he pointed to the centre circle. Game over, 3-2 to Horsham!
It was a pulsating end to the game, with the young Bears side understandably gutted but the relieved Hornets progress to the quarter-final of the competition with the game scheduled for December 6th.
Horsham: Lewis Blaney, Sam Gallagher, Joel Mann (C), Trent Fawcett, Ned Pierre, Lewis Kelly (Alex Parsons), Charlie Harris, Harry Law, Will Gordon, Kieran Holmes (Matieus Mulugeta), Harry Brooker (Sam Karl) Unused Sub: Jack Gunn (GK)