At the conclusion of a season full of drama, it was fitting that the Hornets should end their excellent 2021/22 campaign by netting a dramatic stoppage time goal that not only secured victory for Dom Di Paola’s side but condemned opponents East Thurrock United to relegation.
Seldom does an end of season meeting have so much riding on it but the Rocks’ plight, along with Horsham’s desire to finish in the top half of the table, meant that there was plenty to play for for both sides, a fact not lost on the respective sets of supporters who came together for Rookery Hill’s highest attendance of the season.
As has now become a tradition for Horsham’s ‘Lardy Army’, the visiting fans took to fancy dress to see the season out, and they added more than a splash of colour with their theme of the Swinging 60s adopted by almost every one of the sizeable travelling contingent, each of whom seemed determined to enjoy the occasion, win, lose or draw.
And it’s as well they were as they were stunned when East Thurrock went ahead from the very first attack of the game. Just thirty-three seconds were on the clock when Chide Okonwai bundled the ball over the line after Ben Wyss’ effort had been pushed into his path by Sam Howes. The home fans were ecstatic. Reliant upon the results of matches involving Cray Wanderers, Leatherhead, Merstham and Southern League King’s Langley, all of whom were battling against the drop, the Rocks had given their own survival hopes a massive shot in the arm. There was just the small matter of seeing out the remaining eighty-nine and a half minutes!
A ‘they shall not pass’ mentality was adopted by Tom Barton, who saw yellow for pulling back teenager Adam Adam, making his first senior start, and it seemed a wise move by the centre-half as Charlie Harris’ attempt to fire the free-kick into the net resulted in the ball flying harmlessly over Arthur Janata’s goal.
But instead of holding on against a Horsham side that had won it’s previous five matches, including Monday’s dismantling of champions Worthing, the home side went close to doubling their lead on eight minutes. A Jack Morrell cross picked out Johnny Ashman at the far post and when his low driven cross was flicked goalwards by Onokwai, Howes first stuck out a hand to turn the ball against the post and then got quickly to his feet to scramble it away from danger amid claims that the ball had crossed the line.
The Hornets were struggling to get any sort of foothold in the game, on another uncompromising pitch, and needed Howes to save them again when Ashman was first to a nothing ball towards the Horsham penalty area. Skipping past the advancing Howes, Ashman’s efforts to put the ball in from a narrow angle were thwarted as the ‘keeper, playing his sixtieth game of the season, dived to his left to pull off another save.
In the energy-sapping heat, Tom Kavanagh almost paid the price for being too casual in possession when he had the ball nicked off him by Ollie Coker, who promptly played a one-two with Onokwai before sending in a shot that looked destined to creep inside the post until Howes diverted it behind for a corner.
A quarter of the match had passed and the visitors had yet to fashion a meaningful effort on goal although Adam did put the ball in the Rocks’ net after being pulled back for what looked a marginal offside call. But the impetus remained with East Thurrock and they really should have made it 2-0 when a simple flick-on by Olly Spooner left Onokwai with a clear run on goal. But, with only Howes to beat, and Tom Day racing in to challenge, the burly striker dallied over his shot and poked it harmlessly straight at Howes from ten yards.
Horsham’s best passage of play resulted in nothing more than an unconverted corner, after a good exchange between Chris Sessegnon and Eddie Dsane, and when they did finally get an entry into referee Nathan Oakes’ scorebook it was for a caution, meted out to Steve Metcalf on his final appearance in the amber and green, for a foul on Spooner.
But then, with half-time fast approaching, the Hornets began to find their form. A patient attack saw Dsane go to ground after turning into three defenders, with Mr Oakes waving away the strong penalty appeals, and when Lucas Rodrigues challenged Janata for a cross, the ball was only beaten clear as far as Adam whose first time shot was blocked by a defender.
But, ironically, it was a goal out of nothing that put the visitors back on level-pegging when, in the final minute of the half, Rodrigues’ innocuous looking ball into the box was inexplicably missed by a defender, leaving Dsane to apply the first time finish to send Horsham in to the break, rather fortuitously all square.
H/T East Thurrock United 1 Horsham 1
The second half began very much in the same tone as the first, with Thurrock making the early inroads and Howes proving to be a near impenetrable barrier. Two minutes after the restart, the ball was played across the edge of the Hornets’ penalty area for full-back Wyss to fire in a superb rising drive that needed to be tipped over by the former West Ham starlet. From the corner, Ryan Dear headed over the crossbar.
But even Howes would have been unable to prevent the hosts from restoring their lead had Onokwai not spooned Ashman’s far post cross over the bar, after the Hornets had been exposed at the back when an attack broke down inside the Thurrock half.
But as sides at the bottom often tend to find, Lady Luck was not on the hosts’ side as, having pretty much dominated proceedings for the best part of an hour, they suddenly found themselves behind when Rodrigues darted in to get the ball ahead of Dear and trick his way to the byline, cutting inside only to be felled by the centre-half. Penalty to Horsham and, after going through his preparation rituals, Kavanagh ignored the abuse from a group of local youngsters behind Janata’s goal to thump the ball powerfully into the net, via the ‘keeper’s outstretched hand.
With nothing to lose, and everything to gain, the hosts immediately went back on the attack and might have produced an instant leveller when Onokwai, on the turn, saw his shot deflected wide for a corner from which his header was kicked away from almost on the line by Richards, with Ashman volleying the loose ball high over the bar.
Di Paola made a change, taking off Sessegnon and sending on Shamir Fenelon, one of only two fit subs among the five named, but within three minutes the manager was left shaking his head after Thurrock pulled themselves back into the contest. Spooner’s clipped pass somehow crept between both Day and Harvey Sparks, dropping on the proverbial plate for the advancing Wyss who produced a cool finish, beyond Howes and into the bottom left hand corner of the net.
Game on, and the second half was turning into a thrilling affair. A good run and cross by Dsane was punched clear by Janata to Kavanagh, whose attempts to lob it back towards Adam saw the ball slightly overhit and the chance was lost. Then, at the other end, Wyss’ deep cross was headed down by Onokwai for Ashman, who was within a whisker of making a telling contact before Howes gratefully gathered.
A minute later and Janata got a crucial fingertip to deny Rodrigues what would surely have been a third goal for Horsham, from a fine cross by Harris who, shortly after, was cautioned for kicking the ball away at the award of a free-kick. Howes had no concerns at a looping header by Dear, from fellow centre-half Ryan Boswell’s free-kick, while terrific wing play by Rodrigues deserved better than a corner conceded by Morrell, with Fenelon and Dsane waiting to pounce. And it very nearly did get better as, from the resulting set-piece, Richards’ inswinging cross bounced off the frame of the goal.
It was from a corner at the other end that the home side almost went back in front when, having seen his own cross cleared back to him, Ashman cut in on his right foot and sent a fierce drive over the bar. A weak finish by Kavanagh, from another Richards corner, seemed to provide the last chance either side would have of taking the points but with six minutes added on, there was still time for a dramatic twist.
With Thurrock sending almost everyone forward in one final hurrah, the ball was cleared upfield to Dsane who looked up and saw sub Charlie Gibson tearing through the centre. The youngster, making his full Hornets debut after spending much of the season dual-signed with Broadbridge Heath, did well to ride a strong challenge by the covering defender and even better to find Kavanagh scampering free in space. The midfielder curled the ball round Janata where it came back off the post and ran perfectly into the path of Dsane who gleefully rammed it into the roof of the net to scenes of unbridled joy among the celebrating travelling hordes.
Yet still the excitement wasn’t over as the Rocks returned upfield from the restart, the ball was played in to the near post where Howes went down to save only for the ball to be forced from his hands and bundled over the line by Onokwai. East Thurrock’s cheers quickly turned to derision at referee Oakes’ decision to disallow the goal for a foul on the Horsham stopper, whose last action of the game was to punch clear a dangerous free-kick by Harry Hope.
And that was that. A thoroughly enthralling and dramatic way on which to bring down the curtain on the Hornets’ season that, for a long time, looked set to frustrate but ultimately turned out to be one of the finest in many years.
An appearance in the first round of the FA Cup, Sussex Senior Cup semi-finalists, an historic first-ever Velocity Trophy final win, victory over the champions, crowds on the increase and an eleventh place finish, a position only bettered once in the club’s history. August cannot come quickly enough!
Match report by Mark Wells