It is, remarkably, 27 years since our long-serving monarch reflected upon her annus horribilis – a year of personal upset and setbacks that, had her comments been made twelve months later, might well have applied to Horsham Football Club. That was 1993 and the start of two years of suffering for the Hornets faithful who had to endure some dark days, culminating in their side finishing rock bottom of the entire Isthmian League, not to mention some dismal cup results!
Fast forward to 2019 and although HRH is unlikely to be cracking open the champagne at the end of twelve months blighted by Brexit, political instability, ‘Prince Andrew-gate’ and a whole host of damaging issues, the same could not be said for our supporters who will be cock-a-hoop at what might be described as their annus terrificus. We take a look back at a quite remarkable twelve months for Horsham FC.
The year began in rather inauspicious circumstances when what appeared to be a ‘home banker’ against struggling Guernsey ended in frustration when, despite dominating, we had to settle for a share of the spoils thanks to the islanders’ 89th minute equaliser. Three points from four matches at that stage was hardly the form of a promotion contender and we were made to work hard in our next match at Faversham, another side languishing towards the nether regions of the South-East Division. But goals three minutes from the start and end of a contest that saw the hosts reduced to ten men, late in the first half, saw us home. Play-off rivals Whyteleafe were then despatched by a solitary Tyrell Richardson-Brown goal that saw us swap places with the Surrey side into 3rd, before we suffered our only loss of the month, going down 1-0 at Phoenix Sports.
A typically ill-tempered affair at home to Ramsgate brought the month to a close but any joy we felt at Rob O’Toole’s winner were overshadowed by the sending-off of Lewis Hyde and a season-ending injury for Charlie Harris. Off the field the Springboard Project benefitted to the tune of £2,000, thanks to another successful Christmas Draw, while the Supporters’ Club made a handsome donation to the Club of £5,000. Horsham Museum began an exhibition of local football through the ages, with HFC at its core, the Club retained its Charter Status and a group of Hornets’ supporters did their bit for Anglo-Spanish relations by making a trip to Vilanueva de la Concepción and cheering the local side to a rare victory.
Five unbeaten matches in February kept us in the promotion hunt but it needed a stoppage time goal from Steve Metcalf to avoid defeat in the opening fixture, at home to a strong Hastings side. Routine victories over VCD (3-1), Three Bridges (2-0) and Whitstable Town (3-0) followed before another clean sheet – however fortuitous – away to East Grinstead made it six shut-outs in nine matches for goalkeeper Josh Pelling, who would win the League’s ‘Golden Gloves’ award for January and February. Will Miles arrived to strengthen an already solid defence but sadly we had to say a permanent farewell to our former player Terry Graves after an unsuccessful fight with cancer. A fans’ bucket collection in aid of the injured Harris raised over £600.
This was the month to test our mettle, with matches against fellow high-flyers Hythe United, Ashford United and champions-elect Cray Wanderers, but we came through a tough five-game spell having suffered just the one reverse – away to the leaders – and that having played a man short for twenty minutes following the dismissal of Dan Pearse. Outplayed Hythe were rather flattered at the closeness of their 2-1 reverse, rock-bottom Greenwich Borough were beaten 2-0 in a South London maelstrom, a point was shared in a goalless draw with Ashford and a 3-1 triumph over Sevenoaks Town left us needing just one more win to guarantee our place in the play-off semi-finals. March also saw the Club’s youngsters impress, with our U12s crowned league champions and the U13s and U14s winning the League Cup. Sadly another former Club servant passed away this month, Robbie Stepney, who played 60 times for us in the 1960s.
Chris Smith scored a hat-trick as we secured both our place in the play-offs and our biggest Isthmian League away win for 13 years with a 6-1 demolition of Sittingbourne. But it was a much closer affair on our return to Kent, a week later, to face another side very much in form – Herne Bay – where twice our lead was pegged back before on-loan Kieran Lavery netted the winner. A far more comfortable success over Faversham Town (4-0) sealed home advantage in the semi-final and meant that we could all enjoy the Easter bank holiday trip to Guernsey. And enjoy it we did as Smith and Lee Harding scored in a 2-1 win that went down very well with the visiting amber-clad hordes.
There was more silverware for Horsham Youth, with the U13s winning the Arun & Chichester League title, but yet more sadness as we learned of the passing of our ex-player Ray Smith. Harvey Sparks and Rob O’Toole were named the supporters’ joint Players of the Season and both reinforced that decision when playing their part in a 3-0 win over surprise package Haywards Heath in the play-off semi to set up a clash with former Hornet Tommy Warrilow’s Ashford United for a place in the Premier Division. Our superb form led to Dom Di Paola being named as the division’s Manager of the Month.
Almost 900 spectators ignored the elements to make their way down to Lancing for the big showdown, among them an admirable following from Kent. And what an exciting contest they saw! George Hayward sent the home fans into a state of delirium when he lashed the ball home from the edge of the box to give the Hornets a 39th minute lead, only for Sam Corne to restore parity from the penalty spot on the stroke of half-time. With no more score in normal time, the match entered a tense additional thirty minutes, in the 18th of which Dylan Merchant chose the perfect moment to open his club account when heading home the winner. The heavy rain that had fallen steadily throughout the match failed to dampen the spirits as we prepared to say ‘hello again’ to the Premier Division. There were happy faces aplenty at Culver Road but no-one could have been more proud than Club President Frank King, who had shrugged off the effects of long-term illness to attend the match. Little did any of us know that it would be the final time he would watch his beloved Hornets as the news of his sudden death, barely three weeks later, left us all stunned.
From the depths of sorrow came the euphoria of the news that we had taken ownership of our new Hop Oast home and an end to our eleven year nomadic existence. So well-received was the new facility that League One Crawley Town immediately signed an agreement to use the site as their permanent training facility, something that was announced on our re-launched website.
We discovered that we would be playing at the newly-named Camping World Community Stadium and excitement continued to mount as tickets began to get snapped up for our three opening pre-season friendlies at the new ground. The historic first fixture, a test event versus Hartley Wintney, drew a crowd of 328 but that was smashed when over 1,000 attended the official ground opening versus Crawley, a match won emphatically by the Hornets with a hugely impressive display.
Preparations complete, we readied ourselves for our first match back in the Isthmian League top flight for seven years and an impressive attendance of 711 were here to see our opening day draw with Leatherhead, which would have been even sweeter had O’Toole’s last-minute header not struck the crossbar! There was an identical, and arguably even more impressive, result away to Bognor three days later before everyone’s expectations were confounded at Enfield where our understrength side beat our strongly-tipped hosts 4-1 to secure our first Premier Division win since March 2012!
The FA Cup campaign got comfortably underway in the sparse surroundings of the Mile End Stadium, in the shadows of Canary Wharf, with a 6-1 defeat of Tower Hamlets and, with our supporters still pinching themselves at the fine start to the season, we only went down to the Dripping Pan and won there too! A match involving some of the ‘legends’ from our past kept the positive vibes flowing but the month was to end in slight disappointment as Folkestone Invicta, aided by a last minute penalty miss from Chris Smith, brought our unbeaten record to an end.
‘Smudge’ quickly redeemed himself with six goals in four matches at the start of September, including the winner in our replayed FA Cup tie with the Met Police and a hat-trick in a 4-0 triumph at Brightlingsea, but he – and just about everyone – was unable to find a way past Dartford’s excellent ‘keeper Mark Smith as we exited the FA Cup in front of a sweltering 900+ crowd. At the end of the month we were given a helping hand by Cheshunt, who not only had two players sent-off but also scored the only goal of the game – in their own net – to send us up to third. Our eye-catching form was not lost on the league’s hierarchy, who voted Dom and George Bentley the Premier Division’s Manager and Goalkeeper of the month. Away from the first team, our newly-formed U23s enjoyed an excellent month, winning their first two leagues matches and trouncing Arundel in the County Cup with teenager Archie Goddard bagging eight goals in the process.
Nothing quite beats a last-gasp winner on the road and that’s precisely how we got October underway when, on a filthy night in Tolworth, we trailed Corinthian-Casuals 1-0 with three minutes left on the clock only for Jack Brivio and Kieran Lavery to seals the points in the most dramatic of styles. But from struggling to overcome the basement side, we then took on fellow high-flyers Hornchurch and beat them to go top of the league for the first time in 13 years! We remained there until the following Saturday, despite being held to an entertaining midweek draw by Carshalton Athletic, but then produced one of our poorest displays of the year in going down at inconsistent Bishop’s Stortford.
The hangover of that 2-0 reverse was soon cured by a 4-0 defeat of lowly Merstham, whose woes were compounded by a missed penalty, and we consolidated our position with a draw from a surprisingly fractious meeting with last season’s South-East champions Cray Wanderers. Our final outing of the month came at Haringey Borough where, a week after the North Londoners’ Cameroonian goalkeeper Valery Pajetat had been subjected to alleged racist abuse by a group of Yeovil Town followers, our players put on a display of solidarity by sporting ‘United Against Racism’ warm-up shirts. Sadly the strength of our bonhomie continued after the opening whistle as we were comfortably beaten 3-0 to bow out of the FA Trophy at the first hurdle. Hayward, goalscoring hero of our play-off success, elected to move on while a year that had taken so many former servants of the club claimed yet another, this time our one-time Athenian League full-back Rodney Ralfe.
Our younger sides continued to impress, with the U11s capturing the Arun & Chichester League Autumn Cup, our U12s, U13s, U14s, U15s and U16s competing well in their respective leagues and our U23s, despite defeats to Tooting & Mitcham and Hastings United, thumped Ramsgate 5-1 and edged past Broadbridge Heath in the County Cup.
November began as October had ended, with a trip to Coles Park where, this time and with a much- strengthened squad, Kieron Pamment scored a last-kick-of-the-game winner to take all three points. Smith’s second treble of the season helped see off a dismal Bowers & Pitsea to put us back on top but we nearly came a cropper in the County Cup where we needed extra-time to see off Newhaven. We have made a habit of scoring late goals this year and that was in evidence again as two goals in the last four minutes saw off Potters Bar but we were unable to muster any at all in a disappointing ninety minutes against Margate, who returned to Kent with a 3-0 win under their belts. Off the pitch, the Club launched a new social membership scheme and announced the appointment of former Crawley boss Craig Brewster as its Director of Football.
On the face of it, and in comparison to what had gone before, December was one of a struggle. Yet we made progress in the Senior Cup (albeit thanks to the penalty-saving heroics of George Bentley) and Velocity Trophy and picked up our 12th three-point haul of the season with victory over East Thurrock United. Defeats at Folkestone Invicta and Worthing left a slightly disappointing taste but few among us would complain at ending a quite superb year in 3rd place in the Isthmian League top flight, just four points off the top. Whatever 2020 brings, it will have to be something special to surpass these extraordinary last twelve months.
This article also appeared in the programme versus Lewes on 1.1.2020