Horsham booked their place in the Bostik South East Play-Off Final on Friday evening against Kent side Ashford United, thanks to a resounding win over Sussex rivals Haywards Heath Town this evening in front of a pulsating Culver Road crowd.
Despite the visitors knowing that should they win the play-offs, they would not be promoted, the concern amongst Horsham supporters ahead of the game was that the guests would be free to play without fear with nothing to play for other than pride and local bragging rights. However, Horsham supporters needed not worry as Heath rarely threatened with Josh Pelling untroubled throughout the contest.
The 2017/18 Sussex Combination Premier Division Champions have enjoyed a fine maiden campaign at Step Four this season that included a league double over The Hornets and with a glut of former Horsham players in the starting line-up for Heath, the danger they possessed to potentially spoil Horsham’s parade had an air of familiarity as Horsham the fans turned out in numbers to record our biggest ever attendance during our two season stay at Culver Road.
Having enjoyed a break on Saturday due to our game against Thamemead being cancelled after their demise earlier this season, Horsham entered the game more refreshed, with Heath enduring a 5-0 thrashing away at Ashford United – who themselves were in action in the other semi-final at Hastings United’s Pilot Field. The visitors – unable to name a regular goalkeeper in that game – were able to recall former Hornet shot-stopper Anthony Ender in between the sticks, while Bryon Napper, Tom Graves, Karl Akehurst and Alex Laing all lined up against their former side.
Horsham made three changes from the squad that faced Guernsey two weeks previous. In came regular goalkeeper Josh Pelling as Joe Mant took his place on the bench, Tyrell Richardson-Brown came in for Kieran Lavery and Joe Shelley was brought back to the starting line up with Dylan Merchant struggling with a hip injury.
The first shot in anger came five minutes into the game, as joint Player of the Season Harvey Sparks fizzed an effort just wide of the goal in an early attempt, while on twelve minutes, Horsham won a free kick in a dangerous position on the right flank. Lee Harding throw himself at the ball, yet couldn’t connect as the ball took a touch off Will Miles and out for a goal kick.
Three minutes later, Haywards Heath Town conceded another set-piece, this time more centrally. Harding delivered a delicate cross into the danger area that was met at the far post by the outstretched leg of Rob O’Toole, but the Hornets hitman lofted high and over.
With the home side asking all the questions, Heath nearly fell behind with Horsham’s next attack. Harding drove into the box and unselfishly pulled back for O’Toole, but the striker’s clipped effort took a deflection on the way out and went out for a corner that came to nothing.
But Horsham would take the lead mid-way through the half regardless. Richardson-Brown’s cross into the mix tested Ender in goal as he struggled to deal with the ball and the imposing figure of O’Toole who launched himself in the air, despite neither of them getting there, the ball fell back out to Harding, and the forward calmly composed himself to break the deadlock with his fifth goal in four games.
Some slack defending then nearly presented Horsham with a chance to double their lead two minutes later, with Smith on the ball the supporting run of O’Toole was not capitalised upon, and as Heath’s defence got back, The Horsham number ten was forced to shoot straight at Ender who gathered comfortably.
Heath were forced into a substitution just before the half hour mark when full-back Kieran Rowe sustained an injury and was replaced by Vincent Follea, but the pattern of the game continued on with Horsham controlling proceedings. A fantastic bit of interplay between Horsham’s front men allowed them to launch a quick counter as they worked themselves into Heath’s territorty, and as Sparks sent in another deep cross, the unmarked Smith should have done better when he smashed well over on the volley, despite having more time at his disposal than he realised.
The half in danger of petering out, Smith had another fine chance to put his side 2-0 up before the break when he showed excellent control to take down a long ball, but despite being in a brilliant position inside the box, his attempt to lob Ender didn’t pay off as the ‘keeper clawed the ball away.
H/T: Horsham 1 Haywards Heath Town 0
Despite an initial slow start to the second half, The Hornets continued where they left off. They were nearly given a helping hand by Town as O’Toole was gifted the ball just outside the box, but despite skipping past his marker and getting his shot away, he failed to keep his effort on target.
On fifty-six minutes, a powerful run from the quick footed Richardson-Brown almost brought about the second goal as he burst forward and put in a cross-come-shot that whizzed inches past the far post and beyond the reach of Smith who slid in to no avail.
Heath had to make a second enforced substitution as Rowe’s replacement Follea also pulled up injured, as another Horsham old-boy George Landais came on to take his place.
Still Horsham looked for a second goal as Harding came close as he jinxed his way past two players inside the penalty area and fired through the gap, his shot bouncing straight off Ender who allowed the ball to evade his grasp, but despite Smith being quickest to the follow up, there was no way through as the guests quickly limited his options and shut him out.
With tension beginning to creep in, O’Toole’s sixty-fourth minute goal calmed a lot of nervousness as he gave Horsham a much needed two-goal cushion. Sparks provided the cross from the left flank, and as Richardson-Brown nodded into O’Toole’s path, the big striker made no mistake lashing in to firmly put his side in control.
Unlike when the two sides met in August, there was no chance of Haywards Heath making a come back now, and with the visitors a beaten side, Horsham had a great chance to wrap the tie up when Harding fired across the face of goal, but despite beating Ender, he looked on despairingly as his effort whistled agonisingly wide of the far post.
With Ender being offered little protection from his defence, the shot-stopper would be required to deny substitute Kieran Lavery who fired goalwards when he attempted to sweep in Richardson-Brown’s low centre, only for the Heath man to spring into a fine diving save to stop him.
With the clock ticking down, another great ball in by Richardson-Brown was met by a powerful header from point blank range by Jack Brivio and acrobatically tipped wide by Ender, while Harding followed up straight into the side netting.
It appeared that would be that, but there was still time for the icing on the cake as Richardson-Brown capped a fine team display with a third goal as the game entered injury time. Lavery collected the ball out near the corner flag and had time to cut inside and cross over, but despite appearing to over-cook it, in raced the winger at the far post to smash home the ball on the volley.