Getting to Loxwood is easy. Set your Satnav for the middle of nowhere, park in the layby next to the duckpond, and remember to take your torch just in case you’ve got to make your way back up an unlit country lane after the match. Rural is definitely beautiful, but the Loxwood Sports Club is about as unlikely a setting for a football match as you’ll ever visit.
And perhaps all the better for it, if only you can find it.
Southern Combination title favourites Shoreham FC were the visitors, and as they warmed up on the training pitch before the game they exuded confidence. This wasn’t a surprise. Last seasons Musselmen had finished four places from the bottom of the league, winning only eight matches all season. This season’s vintage, however, is unrecognizable from the side that lost at home to Broadbridge Heath on the last day of last season. New signings include Rob O’Toole, Division One title winner with Haywards Heath Town last season and Ryman South champion with Burgess Hill Town the year before, Joe Keehan and Andy Pearson who were also part of that Hillians title winning squad, Kevin Keehan, who helped Horsham win the SCFL title last season, and George Gaskin, title winner with Littlehampton Town the season before last. They had the air of a team who had seen it all and done it before, and indeed many of them had.
Mark Beard’s Loxwood side looked far more youthful. That wasn’t a surprise. Loxwood are built on the success of their Youth setup, and under Beard’s guidance have reached unprecedented heights. It’s probably fair to say that they are at the opposite end of the Non League spectrum to Shoreham; not looking to entice talent from other clubs but instead focused on developing their own. Shoreham are also looking to push forward their youth setup, and they could do worse that to look at Loxwood as a model.
Loxwood, however, did perhaps have a small advantage; a player with real top level experience. Byron Napper had shared the Old Trafford pitch with Paul Pogba. That it was during the warm up before Manchester United took on his Crawley Town side in the FA Cup Fifth Round in 2011, a match during which neither he nor Pogba got off the substitutes bench, is neither here nor there. The Crawley Town faithful had high hopes for Napper, and it was rather disconcerting to find him in Loxwood black and white a full five levels lower than when he was a Sussex Red Devil. But he was to prove that he still played with the urgency and accuracy that he demonstrated during his time at the Broadfield Stadium.
Shoreham started as if they wanted to get the match finished within half an hour, so they could retire to the Social Club with a pint and watch the Olympics. Had they taken their chances this may have been an option. They were two goals up by this point, a glancing header from Gaskin and a glorious, powerful header from O’Toole the difference, but had also missed numerous chances, been caught offside a phenomenal five times, and driven a penalty against the bar. Loxwood had seemed entirely out of their depth, and yet took real heart from the penalty miss and finally began to move the ball around.
Ollie Gill led from the front. First he attempted a header which Musselmen keeper Josh Heyburn was forced to tip over the bar. A few minutes later he ran half the length of the pitch before firing a shot too close to Heyburn, who held. The Shoreham attack, previously so potent, seemed to be spending more time berating each other for errors than actually putting the home defence under pressure. The last fifteen minutes of the half saw the dynamic of the match change entirely, and you wondered whether Shoreham manager Bryan O’Toole would be peeling the paint from the changing room wall during the interval.
Whatever O’Toole said to his team, it didn’t have the desired effect. Loxwood started the second period the strongest, and Shoreham, both on the pitch and on the bench, were getting more and more annoyed. Gill, once more the chief protagonist, fired a shot goalwards and forced a save on fifty minutes, before cutting inside, leaving two defenders trailing in his wake, and pulling the ball back for Toby House to fire straight at the keeper seven minutes later. Another shot came in, with Joel Colbran forcing Heyburn to save at the second attempt, and the Musselmen began to show all the wrong kind of muscles. Substitute Freddie Barker went into the book for an entirely unnecessary foul on Loxwood keeper Harrison Hilfiger, born entirely of frustration, and Gaskin followed him a few minutes later, booked for dissent. A fabulous free kick against the Loxwood bar from Ryan Storrie apart, it was the home side who were in the ascendency.
Loxwood sub Cecil Jee began to torment the Shoreham right back, marauding up and down the left wing and forcing the away defence into action repeatedly. But the next goal, when it came, was from a run down the other side, with Loxwood full back Tom Summerfield delivering a fabulous cross. Mark Cave made an intelligent run, got in front of the covering defender, and fired a shot which Heyburn couldn’t hold. The Magpies were back in the game with fifteen minutes to go.
The next fifteen minutes were a study in how to defend, with the Shoreham back four resolute against wave after wave of Loxwood attacks. They might have been asking themselves how they had ended up holding on after their earlier dominance, but hold on they did, and as the final whistle blew a number of their players celebrated as if they knew how important this result may turn out to be.
On a night when newly promoted Haywards Heath Town fired six goals past highly fancied Newhaven away from home, and in so doing took over at the top of the Southern Combination Football League, Shoreham had every reason to be delighted with their victory and the retention of their one hundred per cent record. But they had also revealed a hitherto unnoticed weakness; the inability of a number of their players to keep their heads when all wasn’t going well.
You can be sure that the good folk of Hanbury Park, Gorings Mead, Nyetimber Lane and The Saffrons will have noticed that, and will act accordingly.
Published on in Steps 3-6.