WE ARE GOING UP!!
Horsham Football Club will start life in the 2019/20 season with a new ground, and a place in the Bostik Premier Division after a 2-1 win after extra time in front of a packed Culver Road.
Horsham were last in the Bostik Premier in 2012. Since then, the fall and subsequent rebuilding project, both on and off the pitch has seen the club fall into the County League and rise back up under the helm of Dom Di Paola, while uncertainty surrounded the prospect of their very existence as the club as the club finally secured planning permission to build their new ground at Hop Oast.
Fast forward to 2019, and what a way for Horsham to open their new ground as play-off winners and runners up in the Bostik League South East. This has been a campaign in which Horsham outperformed in all expectations of them. Having finished fifteenth last season, few would have bet on The Hornets finishing inside the play-off places, let alone ending up as runners up and subsequently gaining promotion. Yet Horsham achieved just that in a night that will be remembered long in the memories of the loyal Hornets fans who embraced each other after the final whistle. It is fair to argue their joy was well deserved after enduring the bad times together and making the arduous trip to Lancing for two years.
This was essentially the fairy-tale ending. The club, homeless for ten years, needing to win to gain promotion in their final game during their two-year groundshare at Sussex FA Headquarters in Lancing, it just required Ashford United to stick to the script.
Despite the visitors facing uncertainty in not knowing if they would be promoted due to the points played table, The Nuts and Bolts were determined to throw a spanner in the works of Horsham’s promotion aspirations. Managed by former Hornets player and Assistant Manager Tommy Warrilow, the Kent side’s own campaign also deserves much praise for they way they turned their fortunes around. Last season, they flirted with relegation eventually finishing twenty-first, and despite a poor start to the season, they relentlessly forced their way into the top five, finishing in a very credible fourth place. They would certainly have something to say after beating Hastings United at The Pilot Field in the other semi-final on Monday evening.
The Hornets made just one change from the squad that defeated Haywards Heath 3-0 on Monday evening, with defender Will Miles sacrificed for the eventual match winner Dylan Merchant, who had passed a fitness test late on and would go on to play the entire 120 minutes. The visitors meanwhile stuck with the same side that had seen them through to the final despite having to endure extra time on the East Sussex coast.
Despite the two semi-finals yielding eight goals between them on Monday, the first half of this match was rather cagey with neither team willing to probe too much for fear of making an unforced error, with the first real chance of note coming on ten minutes. Striker Chris Smith set about on a powerful driving run managing to get just outside the box where he booted into Afolabi Coker, but with the home support in numbers behind the goal making a half-hearted appeal for a handball, the referee Joel Mannix, quite correctly, showed no interest.
Soon after, a searching cross from Tyrell Richardson-Brown proved too deep for both Rob O’Toole and Lee Harding connect, but the first real chance came on nineteen minutes to the home side. A header downwards inside the box was lashed over the bar by O’Toole who reacted quickest to the loose ball but was always going to miss leaning backwards.
With the conditions beginning to worsen as wind and rain began to set in, could have been forgiven for thinking they were in for a night where the football might be as bad as the weather as neither side really looked like testing the other, but when on twenty-seven minutes Lee Harding threaded the ball for Smith to latch onto, the home supporters felt they would see an opener, only for Sam Mott to make a decent save as the Hornets hitman went for the near post when a little bit more composure would have put his side in front.
With the quality of football on offer poor for a cup final, the game badly needed a goal to spark it into life and on thirty-nine minutes, Horsham duly obliged. From a freekick out wide, Harding curled into the box, it was headed away by Ashford, but as the ball fell back out to the onrushing George Hayward, the play-maker scored with a stunning half-volley at the first time of asking.
Almost immediately, Ashford responded. Prolific striker Danny Parish created space for himself inside the area to glance a header backwards from Jerald Aboagye’s cross that went inches wide, while the Kent side somehow failed to draw level with their next attack. Parish once more was at the heart of the action when his first-time low shot was saved superbly by Josh Pelling, yet Jay May’s follow up failed to cross the line when he crashed off the underside of the bar, and Horsham hooked the ball clear.
However, with an additional five minutes of injury time played due to several stoppages earlier in the half, Horsham were unable to make it to the break with their lead intact. A bouncing ball inside the Horsham penalty area resulted in Josh Wisson being taken out giving the referee little option but to point to the spot. Despite Pelling getting a glove on Sam Corne’s low effort, he was unable to prevent it rolling backwards into the net off the inside of the post.
H/T: Horsham 1 Ashford United 1
It was game on for the second half, as United emerged the more invigorated, however Mott was called into action early on when he was quick out of his traps to prevent Smith reaching a hopeful ball as he smothered the danger away.
Later on, Toby Ayaja whipped in a freekick into the mix that caused the home side all kinds of problems as Pelling dived to make a save, and as The Nuts and Bolts followed that up with a corner, the home support breathed a sigh of relief when Coker’s attempt to sweep the loose ball in curled just wide.
Yet with just over fifteen minutes of normal time remaining, Horsham were offered a massive chance to retake the lead when O’Toole was needlessly hauled down by Aboagye inside the box. It was a blatant penalty and a massive gift offered up by Ashford to their hosts. Yet Aboagye’s blushes were to be spared by a super save from Mott who correctly guessed the right way to beat away O’Toole’s spot kick with both palms despite straying a good yard off his line.
Horsham fans feared it was an opportunity lost, as Ashford peppered Pelling’s goal with a couple of shots, first as Laurent Mendy fizzed a drive wide across goal, while Abdul Anidugbe poked straight at Pelling who made a comfortable save.
Both teams however were determined to avoid extra time, yet couldn’t make their chances count. Joe Shelley’s deep cross seemed to evade everyone inside the box when a mere touch would have given Horsham the lead late on, while Richardson-Brown failed to control the ball at the crucial moment inside the box, instead getting it stuck between his feet as the guests poached it back off him and cleared.
At the other end, a menacing counter attack from Ashford nearly saw them take the lead as Parish tricked his way through and fired low down but agonisingly wide.
With three minutes of added on time shown, Horsham felt they should have had a second penalty in the closing stages when Mott fisted away a corner, and as the ball fell to O’Toole, the protests from the home side fell on deaf ears despite Coker appearing to lean into the shot arm first yet instead, an additional thirty minutes was on the way.
F/T: Horsham 1 Ashford United 1
With tiredness creeping in for the players on the pitch, everyone in the 880 strong crowd prepared themselves to do their bit to carry their team of choice over the line. Horsham went closest with the first chance in extra time when Lavery stood over a dangerous freekick some twenty-five yards out from goal. His attempt was delivered around the wall where it could only be parried back out, but with the rebound coming straight out to Merchant, the defender’s header was plucked out by the Kent based ‘keeper who was thankful it wasn’t guided elsewhere.
For Ashford, Anidugbe almost stole the glory just before half time in extra time with a fierce driven effort that needed a firm block by Pelling as still the deadlock continued and penalties loomed large.
H/T E/T Horsham 1 Ashford United 1
Warrilow’s side brought on a pair of fresh legs in the form of Trey Williams and Lee Prescott for Parish and Coker respectively for the final fifteen minutes, and the move nearly paid off when a quick break was worked to Wililams as Merchant and Joe Shelley found themselves stretched at the back with their pace, yet he wasted the chance, smashing well wide.
How Williams would rue that miss as Horsham scored the decisive goal with twelve minutes of extra time to go. Montserratian international Joey Taylor had only been on the pitch less than five minutes, yet when he stood over and delivered a perfectly weighted freekick into the box, it was met by the head of Merchant, who rose highest to meet the ball in the air and score his first ever goal for the club in the most dramatic fashion. As he wheeled away in celebration, his team mates mobbed him, and he sparked scenes of delirium amongst Hornets fans who had packed out all available room behind the goal.
Horsham would have to endure a nervy final few moments as they threw every ounce of support behind their team to see the job through but when the final moment came as Joel Mannix blew his whistle to seal a famous night in Horsham’s history.
Reporter: Matt Dale
Match photos by Kyle Hemsley
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