As the Hornets U23s’ prepare to face Loxwood tomorrow for a place in the final of the Sussex U23 Challenge Cup, we caught up with manager Mark Hawthorne to get his thoughts on how the campaign has gone so far.

“We’re really enjoying it” said the former Crawley Town and Torquay United midfielder. “Don’t forget that it’s very much a case of self-development for the management team, too, but after the headaches of scratching around to put a team out for our first match, things have gone relatively smoothly. Our new facilities are fantastic, the lads are enjoying training and playing on the 3G, and I think the visiting teams like coming here too. We can’t complain at how things have gone, even though we’re still at the stage where we’re walking before we can run but I think that goes for the whole club while we continue to get used to things.

“The whole structure of the thing has been an eye opener for everyone but the lads are loving the experience. We get great turn-outs at training because the players want to be coached and want to improve and there’s no negativity around the place. It’s important that we keep the sessions enjoyable and I think we’ve done that but it has also been great to have (Director of Football) Craig Brewster taking a few sessions as he has lots of really good ideas that we can pick up on to improve things going forwards.”

After last season’s disastrous campaign, that saw the U23s withdraw from the league after just a handful of matches, this season has surpassed expectations with the Hornets sitting pretty in fourth, just a point behind the leaders. There has been no shortage of excitement in their matches either, with their 11 league matches to date averaging five goals, the latest of which was last week’s 3-3 thriller with South Park, the sixth time we have scored three or more goals in a league match this campaign.

“We want testing matches as that’s the only way the team, and players as individuals, are going to improve. It’s no good going out and winning 8-0 every week as you don’t learn anything that way. That’s why I’ve always said that the results aren’t the primary concern. Don’t get me wrong, if we won every match at this level then I’d be delighted but if we were to lose them all between now and the end of the season, but were able to take positives from each performance and improve each time, then that’s just as important. The object for us is to improve them all as footballers. We’ve had some really good matches this season, which has been great for spectators. Last Tuesday was our second 3-3 of the season and we’ve also had a couple of 3-2s, a 4-3 and even a 6-4, but we don’t necessarily set-up to be expansive or entertaining every game. The trouble is that when you’re young, you want to go out and show what you can do and so team patterns and style of play can often go out of the window so we try to impress the importance of that on them.

“I suppose the million pound question is how do you stop leaking goals? I think it’s easier to coach a team to defend than it is to attack and that’s what we will continue to work on. Thankfully we’re scoring lots of goals at the other end so it’s not such an issue, but things like positioning and awareness of what’s going on around you are the sort of things we need to coach the lads.”

One player to have caught the eye this season is striker Archie Goddard, whose 21 goals have twice earned him calls to the senior squad, for whom he made his debut as a late substitute in last month’s defeat at Folkestone Invicta. But Mark is quick to play down the impact the 17 year old has made since his arrival at the club. “Archie is a promising player but he’s young so there are still plenty of aspects of his game that need improving. Just because you’re scoring goals at this level doesn’t mean you’re going to continue doing it at the step above so you have to make sure you improve your all-round game. But that’s the same for all the lads. We’re very much aware of everyone’s strengths but also where they need to improve. It’s also important that they want to improve. That might sound obvious but unless you’ve got that desire and drive to better yourself then you’re not going to kick on. Look at the players at the very top level. They’ve all worked extremely hard to get to where they are now.

“What’s great is that we’ve got plenty of interest in the team now and have a squad of 24 players signed on, which is important at this level because lots of the boys have other commitments and aren’t always available. Our three new starters on Tuesday were a Zambian U20 and U23 international, a South African currently working here in the UK and a young lad who got in touch with us and is from just down the road in Shoreham, so we’re getting a wide mix of players. Ideally we want to work with the boys for a good couple of years and hopefully get them to the stage that, by the age of 21, they’re knocking on the first team door. The most important characteristic anyone can have is the right attitude and if they’ve got that then we will do all we can to try and help them on the path to bigger and better things, whether that’s the Football League, Horsham or the County League.”

Darryl Jacob’s preview of tomorrow’s Sussex U23s Challenge Cup semi-final between Loxwood and Horsham will appear on this website later this evening.

Photo: Mark Hawthorne and assistant Sam Jones

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