Play-offs: Can unexpected season be capped by Horsham sealing Premier Division return?

Horsham celebrate Joe Shelley's opening goal against Sevenoaks. Picture by John Lines
Horsham celebrate Joe Shelley's opening goal against Sevenoaks. Picture by John Lines

Three seasons on from their brief stint in the Southern Combination Football League, Horsham find themselves just two games away from securing a place back in the Isthmian League Premier Division for only the second time in their history.

Since his appointment back in 2015, Dominic Di Paola has turned a side void of all hope and identity into county football champions, and built a squad capable of competing against National League opposition.

But the play-offs mark a new test of nerves and character - this squad of players have yet to play a match with so much riding on the outcome.

They're already in esteemed company, the club only taking part in a promotion play-off once before, when they lost to Bromley in the 2005 Division One final. The side then made up of club legends such as Gary Charman, Lee Carney and Jamie Taylor.

Horsham's rise in such a short space of time, from county football to second in Bostik League South East, is an achievement in itself. After a disappointing 2017/18 season, dominated by injuries, Di Paola made some astute signings over the pre-season break with Montserrat international Joey Taylor coming in to sure up the defence while prolific striker Chris Smith and winger Tyrell Richardson-Brown also joined the club. Further signings of Jack Brivio, Harvey Sparks and Charlie Harris, amongst others, also helped improve a much-depleted side.

Nonetheless, heading into the season, you'd have found it hard to find anyone from Horsham's infamous Lardy Army who believed they'd finish second by the end of the campaign. In fact, a poll run by the Bostik League at the start of the season, featuring fans from the 20 Bostik South East clubs, predicted a tenth-placed finish for the Yellows.

And after losing four of their first six league games, including an opening day defeat to Sittingbourne, many would have thought 'here we go again' as Horsham took up a familiar bottom-half placing by the end of August.

Yet, the signs were there. A shock victory at Bostik Premier Carshalton Athletic in the Preliminary Round of the FA Cup offered a glimmer of hope. However that was duly quashed just two days later when Horsham somehow came out the wrong end of a 5-4 home loss to newly promoted Haywards Heath Town, despite leading 3-0 at half-time.

The Hornets continued their fine FA Cup form in September, progressing to the Third Qualifying Round for the first time in five years where they took division-higher Poole Town to a replay before crashing out on the Hampshire coast.

The run ignited belief and a much-needed reassurance that Horsham could compete with the stronger sides again. After their FA Cup defeat, the Hornets embarked on an eight-game unbeaten run in all competitions, including FA Trophy scalps over Premier Division sides Corinthian Casuals and Potters Barr Town. Their run only halted by National League South side Bath City, in the Third Qualifying Round of the same competition.

Eastbourne Borough, another National League outfit, knocked Horsham out of the Sussex Senior Cup before Three Bridges inflicted them with their first league loss in over two and a half months.

By now, Horsham were riding high in the play-off places, signalling a renewed optimism and belief inside their temporary Lancing home. Not even a visit from runaway league leaders Cray Wanderers in December could dampen the Hornets' spirits as they put on one of their finest ever performances.

An impressive 4-2 victory over the champions elect had the home fans buzzing with excitement, as they became the first team to defeat the Wands in 2018, but Haywards Heath became the only team to do the double over Horsham as they ran out 2-0 winners just before Christmas, themselves searching for an elusive play-off place.

That blip aside, Horsham managed to sustain their form with the Hornets going unbeaten until March as they cruised into second-place.

With a healthy gap between themselves and sixth-place, focus turned from securing a play-off place, which was all but assured, to racking up as many wins as possible to boost their points-per-game ratio. As only five of the seven play-off winners, from across the country's step eight leagues, can be promoted, it became vital that Horsham maintained their sizzling form to avoid the possibility of a play-off win becoming meaningless.

Indeed, their defeat in South London was to be the final loss of their campaign, with the Yellows dropping points just once more when they held Ashford United to a goalless draw at home with five games to go.

Four wins on the trot, including a resounding 6-1 demolition of Sittingbourne, ensured that, not only would the Hornets comfortably finish inside the play-off places, but also that they'd gain crucial home advantage in their semi-final.

An Easter weekend trip to Guernsey brought forward Horsham's last regular game of the campaign after Thamesmead Town, who they were due to play on the final day, resigned from the league earlier in the season.

Goals from Chris Smith and Lee Harding saw Horsham clinch second place, their highest finish in the division since 2006 – the last time they were promoted to the Isthmian Premier.

And so that brings us to the present day. Horsham, who face Haywards Heath Town in tonight's play-off semi-final, stand on the brink of another slice of history.

Absent from the top tier of Isthmian League football for seven years, just two wins stand between Horsham and Premier Division glory. In the ultimate test of steel and determination, who will stand up and rubber stamp this year as being truly the most unexpected of seasons?