Horsham’s promotion push took another knock as Carlos Canha hit an 89th minute equaliser to earn Guernsey a share of the points in front of the Hornets’ biggest league gate of the season.
After an impressive run of results, two defeats in the last three games had seen Dom Di Paola’s side drop from second place to fifth in the Bostik South East Division but the visit of the lowly Channel Islanders, who lost 3-0 at home to mid-table Three Bridges last time out, should have provided them with the ideal opportunity to get back on track and get 2019 off to a winning start. However, despite enjoying plenty of possession, the home side were largely wasteful in front of goal and it was their failure to kill the game off, after Rob O’Toole’s thirteenth goal of the season had given them the lead, that ultimately proved decisive.
The Hornets made two changes to the side beaten 2-0 at Haywards Heath, ten days earlier, with Dean Lovegrove replacing the suspended Joe Shelley and Charlie Harris coming back in the midfield following a bout of tonsillitis in place of Kieran Lavery, whose loan spell from Dorking Wanderers had come to an end. It didn’t take long for Horsham to blow away the cobwebs from their rare festive break when, with just five minutes gone, Smith’s goalbound shot was well blocked by Matt Loaring after some good approach play by Harris. But, as the ball got cleared, a speedy counter-attack ended with Seb Skillen volleying Loaring’s left-wing cross over the top of Josh Pelling’s goal. O’Toole sent a right-footer wide of the target from twenty-two yards before Tyrell Richardson-Brown showed Jamie Dodd a clean pair of heels only to see his low cross cleared. It was to be an early sign of things to come.
On the quarter hour mark Smith saw his near post strike deflected behind after O’Toole had dispossessed the full-back and, from the resulting corner, O’Toole’s knock down reached George Hayward who put a low daisy-cutter (or its 3G equivalent!) just past the upright. A strong run by Steve Metcalf took him to the edge of the Guernsey penalty area where he was tackled just in time as he looked to set up Smith as the Guernsey defence continued to stand firm. Ten minutes later and the Smith/O’Toole partnership looked to flourish once again when, this time, Tom De La Mare dallied and Smith nipped in to win the ball and find O’Toole who took his shot early, sending the ball straight down the throat of ‘keeper Callum Stanton. At the other end, Paris Pereira provided a near-immediate riposte when doing the same with, this time, Pelling the grateful recipient of a shot that was too straight and well hit to find the net.
The deadlock ought to have been broken when a terrific sweeping pass by Harris saw Richardson-Brown take advantage of a slip by the defender to get to the byeline and cut the ball back to the feet of O’Toole. His shot was deflected and fell into the path of Smith who, under pressure from a couple of white shirts, mishit the ball to give Stanton a relatively comfortable save on his goal-line. An underhit backpass then gave Smith another sight of goal but, as he rushed in to challenge Stanton, it was the Green Lions’ ‘keeper that got there fractionally first to hack the ball clear.
Horsham’s goal had a lucky let-off on twenty-eight minutes when Canha made his way inside the box only to see the ball come back off Pelling’s left-hand post, courtesy of a vital touch off the goalkeeper’s body. But it was another piece of sloppy play by the Guernsey defence that let in Horsham again, two minutes later, when Charlton Gauvain was caught by O’Toole, trying to bring the ball out from the back, but Harris could only send the ball over the crossbar from twenty yards. Despite looking comfortable in possession, and enjoying plenty of space on their home pitch, the Hornets continued to spurn good openings with a wasteful final pass or a poor first touch in crucial areas and they might have fallen to a sucker punch, ten minutes before the break, when Canha’s header was cleared off the line by Metcalf.
Lovegrove, impressive throughout, put a header harmlessly wide from a high, hanging, corner by Harris and another cheaply conceded flag kick saw Harris this time find the head of Jack Brivio with the same result. Some patient build-up play by the Hornets was ruined by an O’Toole effort that lacked power and direction to worry Stanton and then a good interception by Harvey Sparks paved the way for O’Toole to help the ball on for Smith who curled a left-footer just beyond the far upright. But Guernsey twice went close to taking the lead in the closing moments of the half. First, Loaring cut inside and played the ball out to the dangerous Gauvain who wasn’t far away from finding the net and then a fine move by the visitors saw the ball chipped into the area where Gauvain’s swinging volley flashed across the face of goal.
H/T Horsham 0 Guernsey 0
The second half was barely two minutes old when Lovegrove’s long pass picked out Sparks and his lay-off saw Harris’ powerful effort take a hefty deflection that sent the ball behind Stanton’s goal, with referee Ian Bennett surprising all inside the ground by awarding a goal kick. Guernsey were still causing a few worries of their own and Gauvain’s shot needed to be watched all the way by Pelling, who got down well to save, and then came a troubling moment for Horsham when Tom Dodds’ deep cross was held up and Canha swung a boot at the ball but was unable to steer it across the line.
It was a good spell of pressure from the visitors and it needed a timely challenge by Dylan Merchant to prevent Pereira from having an unimpeded run into the penalty area. However, Horsham really ought to have drawn first blood when Richardson-Brown’s low cross was missed by Stanton and a defender but Smith, taken by surprise, could only scoop the ball over the bar on the stretch. The game was becoming stretched and O’Toole looped a header on to the roof of the net and was then crowded out by a mass of white-shirted bodies after the striker had raced away from Simon Geall.
Half-hearted penalty appeals came from behind Stanton’s goal when Brivio was muscled off the ball following a strong run by Lovegrove but play was allowed to continue and Richardson-Brown smashed the loose ball wastefully high over the top from an angle. The Hornets were beginning to turn the screw but the Guernsey defence remained solid, if a little fortunate at times, although profligate finishing continued to dog the home team. Another example befell Hayward who blasted the ball a good ten yards over the top after O’Toole’s terrific jump had provided the basis for Smith and Richardson-Brown to work the opening.
Yet another chance went begging when Horsham had numbers up in attack but Richardson-Brown elected to shoot right-footed, sending the ball fizzing low beyond the far post and out for a goal-kick. Then substitute Joey Taylor, on for Brivio, combined with Sparks for O’Toole to play the ball to Hayward whose shooting, once again, left something to be desired. It took a superb reaction save from Pelling to keep Guernsey at bay, twenty minutes from time, when Kieran Mahon did superbly to get into the box and cut the ball back for Pereira who must have thought his first-time shot had given his side the lead only for Pelling to throw himself bravely in the way to push the ball away.
An uncontested run through the midfield by Harris warranted a better finish than a tame side-footed effort by Richardson-Brown, after Harris had drawn two defenders to leave his team-mate in the clear, but that latest spurned opportunity was forgotten two minutes later when the deadlock was finally beaten. A Guernsey pass was cut out by Metcalf who instantly fed Lee Harding, who had been on the pitch just four minutes after replacing Smith. He picked out Harris and his lovely low ball saw Stanton and Jacob Fallaise collide, leaving O’Toole with a simple tap-in.
In reply, sub Will Fazackerley flashed a header over the top from a corner before a long range attempt by Harris was rather more comfortably dealt with this time by Stanton. Richardson-Brown made way for James McElligott with seven minutes to go and the substitute was immediately in the action, putting over a low cross that, this time, Hayward connected with perfectly only for Stanton to pull off an excellent stop. Guernsey went in search of the equaliser, leaving Horsham with so much space on the pitch, but the hosts missed another chance to settle the contest when O’Toole did tremendously well to hold the ball up and find Harding, whose pass set up Harris to fire one in that was well saved.
But, perhaps inevitably in the eyes of some onlookers, Guernsey punished their wasteful opponents with a late leveller. Just a minute of the regulation ninety remained when Fazackerley found space inside the Horsham penalty area to cross to the far post where the diving Canha headed powerfully past Pelling to a roar of approval from the sizeable away following. In the four minutes of stoppage time that remained, the Hornets laid siege to Stanton’s goal and Harding hit the base of the side netting with a scrambled effort with one wickedly curling free-kick by Harris needing just a touch to surely secure a late, late winner. But it was not to be and Horsham and Guernsey were left to share the points for only the second time in nine meetings.