The Lardy Army had not travelled to East Court in their usual numbers; indeed they resembled more of an olive oil platoon on this chilly October evening. Many of Horsham FC’s usually ebullient supporters, who must be worth at least six points a season to their side at home, were rather noticeable by their absence. Perhaps they’d been put off by the latest Southern Rail strike, or attracted by the delights of Slovakia v England and an armchair (in which case they’d probably changed their minds by 8.30), but this A264 derby- although given it was The Wasps v The Hornets we could perhaps call it El Insectico- suffered from a lack of atmosphere throughout. There was nobody available to put large amounts of animal fat into our hearts apart from the nice lady at the refreshment kiosk, and she appeared to be using vegetable-based ingredients.
East Grinstead Town, the hosts of the affair, were on a very good run prior to this match. Three victories in a row, the last an FA Trophy thrashing of Three Bridges, had left them brimming with confidence, and they demonstrated that from the off, taking the game to their opponents. Horsham, who had strengthened their defence after recent defeats with the signing of Steve Metcalf from Worthing, held firm, but were noticeably worried by the pace of Tash-Jay Kwayie and Travis Gregory. Sadly Gregory’s influence lasted only ten minutes, as he twisted his ankle when expertly tackled by Horsham’s Liam MacDevitt and had to be stretchered off. He was later seen sporting crutches that were three inches too small and which left him in danger of developing a back injury to go with his swollen ankle, but he was in good spirits and hopefully his knock won’t keep him out for long.
The first half was rather unremarkable. Actually, that comment may be overstating the excitement somewhat, given the first shot on target- from Horsham’s Scott Kirkwood, straight at East Grinstead keeper Chris Haigh- didn’t arrive until the 32nd minute. The home side tested Josh Pelling for the first time seven minutes later, the keeper rushing out and using his feet to save from Kwayie, and indeed it was Town who had the best of the play overall, but although there was no shortage of effort there was hardly a great deal to get the 136 in attendance- including one fan who had travelled all the way from Wick (no, not the one by Littlehampton, the one by John O’Groats)- animated. Indeed, there seemed rather more entertainment in the half time burger queue than there had been on the pitch.
East Grinstead Town supporters are a good natured and stoic bunch. Not for them the repertoire of loud and silly songs often performed by their Horsham counterparts; with around half a dozen exceptions they tend to keep themselves to themselves rather than jump up and down. To be fair, however, they aren’t used to excitement. There has never been any danger of them suffering from altitude sickness; indeed in one hundred and twenty six years of history their highest finish was last season, when they finished twentieth (out of twenty four) in Isthmian League Division One South. That said, given the nature and ability of the young team being built by manager Matt Longhurst they may soon have to learn how to deal with a far greater level of achievement. During the fifteen minutes following the restart they did everything but score; Kwayie repeatedly put the away defence under pressure, and Wasps were a coat of paint away from taking the lead when substitute Jack Howlett fired a twenty yard effort against the inside of the post. The ball was cleared, but it seemed a Town breakthrough was imminent.
Horsham manager Dom Di Paola needed to respond. His response, however, was greeted with muttering and head-shaking rather than support from those in the stand behind him. MacDevitt had been the most effective attacking threat for the away side, and yet it was his number held aloft, to be replaced by Tony Nwachukwu.
The next half hour proved conclusively that Di Paola was far more qualified to make such decisions than the rest of us. Within five minutes of his entrance Nwachukwu, found by a long ball out of defence, chipped beautifully over Chris Haigh to open the scoring. The Hornets never looked back.
It took until four minutes from the end for Horsham to add their second and again it was Nwachukwu who made the difference, although this time he had a little good fortune. He was put through by a ball from Ollie Gill and outpaced the home defence, but his shot rebounded off keeper Haigh before hitting him in turn and bouncing into the net. East Grinstead look understandably deflated, and it was little surprise when the third goal arrived in the final minute of normal time, a sweet strike from Scott Kirkwood flying into the net from twenty yards despite the best efforts of Haigh.
Di Paola was delighted with the three points, but also a little relieved- as well as unwilling to receive praise for his substitutions. “We rode our luck at times, but we thought we’d introduce Tony as we felt his pace would stretch them, and it worked well. And obviously Ollie came on and set up the second goal, too…sometimes you get your subs right, sometimes you don’t. Against Cray Wanderers we got them wrong…but they worked for us today. I’m really happy with the clean sheet as well; we haven’t had enough of those recently but although we had a few scares we looked fairly solid for most of the game- a vast improvement on our last league match against Cray.” He was also effusive in his praise for the East Grinstead “youngsters,” taking time to particularly single out Kwayie, who he felt would be “a big talent in the future,” but saved his last comment for his own side. “I think it’s starting to come together. We’re beginning to look like a team.”
Off the field, the future of Horsham FC is still uncertain. Due to be homeless again at the end of the season, the club, who have been sharing with Horsham YMCA for seven years, may struggle to find a place to play if the local authority don’t finally decide to change their approach and actually support their most successful team. A revised planning application for a new ground, at Hop Oast on the edge of town next to the enormous white elephant of a park and ride scheme, was submitted in the summer.
It would be terrible shame if the foundations being laid by Di Paola and his team turn out to have been built on shifting sand. On the pitch, progress over the last eighteen months has been remarkable. Sadly off it the club are almost entirely in the hands of people who have been anything but supportive in the past.
Here’s hoping that the District Council finally find a little love in their hearts for the Hornets. Whatever happens, you can be sure the club’s supporters will continue to keep both love- and lard- in theirs.
The original- and considerably shorter-version of this report appeared in the West Sussex County Times.
Published on in Steps 3-6.