Horsham were left to rue a host of missed chances as they went down to a harsh defeat at the hands of Conference South Dartford, who had goalkeeper Mark Smith to thank for their passage into the 3rd qualifying round.
On a sun-baked afternoon at a packed Camping World Community Stadium, the Hornets created seven presentable openings in the first half alone, only to fall to a sucker punch just before the interval, and it was a similar story after the break when Smith formed an impenetrable barrier to frustrate the home team before Luke Allen doubled the lead with the last kick of the game.
There was a surprise first appearance of the season for goalkeeper Josh James, in place of George Bentley, while Kieran Lavery was preferred to Kieron Pamment in the only other change from the side that beat Wingate & Finchley on Tuesday night. There was just one alteration to the visitors’ starting eleven that picked up only their second win of the season last weekend away to Concord Rangers, with Cameron Brodie coming in for Rob Howard, while the stand-out name on the Dartford teamsheet was that of Charlie Sheringham, son of former Spurs, Manchester United and England forward Teddy.
The Hornets had shown last season that they would not be overawed by playing against higher league opponents and set about their visitors from the start, with Charlie Harris putting an early right-footer wide of the mark. Then a nice turn of pace by Harvey Sparks gave him the space in which to find Chris Smith, on the edge of the penalty area, but his well-struck shot was straight at Smith, the ball rebounding off the ‘keeper’s chest and back into play before being hastily cleared.
A minute later Smith was denied by his namesake once again, this time after picking up a nice ball down the line and exchanging passes with Lavery and digging out a shot that forced a low, scrambling save from the goalkeeper. The pressure continued at the clubhouse end of the ground when some good interplay between Sparks and Lee Harding produced a corner from which Harris’ deep cross was met by Joe Shelley whose effort struck the outside of the post.
On 18 minutes came an incident that, perhaps, suggested this just wasn’t going to be Horsham’s afternoon. A fine move saw the ball arrive at Harris’ feet inside the box and, after he twice saw shots blocked, a Harding effort went the same way only for the ball to come back to Harris, whose powerful goalbound shot was headed off the line by Josh Hill. It was an extraordinary passage of play, after which Dartford gradually began to grow into the game, grateful at having weathered the storm.
Their first genuine chance of note came on 26 minutes when a deep cross to the far post saw Sparks unable to clear and Ryan Hayes cut the ball back for Sheringham but he scuffed his close range shot and the danger was cleared. But the Hornets continued to look the livelier side and really ought to have scored when, from a Harris free-kick, Lea Dawson rose unmarked, six yards from goal, only to head the ball straight at Smith who pulled out a stunning one-handed save.
Another chance went begging, shortly after the half hour, when a raking crossfield ball by Harris was picked up by Harding and helped inside to the overlapping Sparks but his low cross failed to pick out a yellow-shirted team-mate. With temperatures continuing to climb, there was a break in play to allow the players to take on fluid but the interruption seemed to put a dent in Horsham’s rhythm and Dartford took full advantage. With five minutes to go before the break, a Ben Greenhalgh free-kick was met at the far post by Sheringham, whose header hit Sparks enabling James to make a comfortable claim.
But the visitors’ next set-piece was to prove more clinical when Hayes’ delivery found the head of Josh Hill and, as the ball dropped invitingly around the penalty spot, Darren McQueen acrobatically volleyed it down and past James to give Dartford a half-time lead they barely deserved.
H/T Horsham 0 Dartford 1
That lead ought to have been doubled in the first meaningful attack, four minutes after the restart, when Greenhalgh clipped a lovely ball into the box where the unmarked Sheringham took the ball down well but failed to get sufficient height on his attempt to lob James, instead popping the ball straight into the ‘keeper’s hands.
An indication of Horsham’s frustrations came with a 35 yard strike from Harris that went high and wide of the target, having seen his free-kick disappointingly come back off a defender, but the same player might have put them back on terms just three minutes later. A full-bloodied challenge in the centre-circle saw Dawson win possession and Harris quickly sent Smith scampering away down the left and as the striker’s low cross came back in towards goal, Harris continued his run only to be thwarted by a crucial challenge as he went to shoot.
The introduction of Zack Newton for Lavery, on the hour, gave the home attack new impetus and the substitute was immediately in the action when a lovely little exchange with Steve Metcalf ended with the defender putting in a deep cross that was just too far for Smith. In their next attack, Newton seemed to take everyone by surprise by picking out Sparks on the far side of the penalty area but Smith was there to deny the Hornets once more, pushing the full-back’s powerful drive behind for a corner.
From the flag-kick, the ball was cleared only as far as Metcalf and when he shot first time, low into the box, the ball was turned wide of goal by Shelley. The chances continued to come and go for the home team as a shot by Harding deflected behind off the back of a defender but then a rare threatening attack by the Darts saw Jordan Wynter flash a glancing header wide of the far post from a Greenhalgh corner.
An injury to Will Miles, imperious to that point, saw Dylan Merchant enter the fray and it was his presence at the opposite end of the pitch that almost brought about an equalising goal. More good approach play, this time between Newton and Harris, forced yet another corner that Merchant met well to head back into the mix and, as Shelley challenged, the ball dropped kindly for Alex Kelly who swung a boot, sending the ball towards Smith who pushed it agonisingly wide of the goal.
Horsham’s last throw of the dice saw Pamment replace the hard-working Dawson with 12 minutes remaining and just five minutes later he was in the right place to collect a rebound after Harris’ shot was blocked but Smith stood up well to produce a terrific one-handed save, unaware that the linesman’s flag had been raised for offside.
As Horsham pushed for that elusive goal, Dartford hit them on the counter-attack with substitute Adam Cunnington helping the ball on for Sheringham but his decision to shoot from a tight angle was optimistic as the ball fizzed harmlessly across the face of goal. Newton was surely millimetres from making contact with another wonder pass by Harris, whose superbly-drilled ball dropped over the defender but Newton, on the stretch was unable to get what would surely have been a goalscoring contact.
As the watch reached 90 minutes, and with Shelley pushed into the attack, Merchant’s deflected drive saw Smith diving to his left to make a save before starting a counter-attack that resulted in Luke Wanadio missing his kick from Greenhalgh’s pass. Then, in the third of four added minutes, Shelley’s aerial threat helped cause problems at a Horsham free-kick and the ball dropped for Smith to drill the ball goalwards but the omnipresent Smith was there to save with his legs. There was still time for one final assault on the visitors’ goal but when Harris’ attempted pass was blocked, the ball was played into the path of Allen who shifted the ball onto his right foot and curled a fine shot into the top corner of the net to add a cruel second for the Conference South outfit with the final kick of the match.
Match sponsor: DUAL Strength & Fitness