Horsham 2-1 Canvey Island (Isthmian League Premier Division)
I've had a bad week. I was supposed to be getting paid £10k on Monday but it turns out I'm getting nothing. Happy frecking Christmas! Only football can solve my misery now.
God knows why I've been given this game all of 350 round miles away and a seven hour plus commute, but it's something about the unknown I quite like. Two new teams for my tick list, Horsham the lucky losers in this year's FA Cup. Canvey Island were once managed by Julian Dicks. Weren't they? I think he played for them at least?
Isthmian League football is not my chosen Mastermind subject, but I do know that the two teams tonight are doing ok and Horsham the hosts made a plucky fight against League Two Sutton United on Saturday to go out at the second round of the cup following a reprieve in round one after Barnsley beat them in a replay with an ineligible player.
Canvey Island had two seasons in the National League in the early naughties, but the town is more famed for caravans and crap arcades than football. Although the Gulls aren't the only club over the East Haven Creek. Concord Rangers are also based nearby.
It’s a long trip to Sussex for them. Horsham FC actually date back as far as 1871 but their more recent performances have created the Hornets some deserved buzz. A best-ever season in the Isthmian finishing seventh over the last campaign followed by a best-ever (nine match long) FA Cup run this year has had them under the spotlight of BBC cameras and crew talking them up on telly in front of millions at home.
That's all over now though, after 3-0 defeat at Sutton on Saturday it’s back to bread and butter business with a few quid in the bank and plenty of catching up to do. Horsham in tenth have as many as five games in hand on some. Canvey Island in eighth have played three games more but are just two points better off.
It's raining (light).. I've walked the dog, the wife's had a kiss, I'm out the door and down the M1 with plenty of time in hand!
It's busy and the traffic slows more by the time I get on the M25. Now darkened skies I've missed the turning I need, so take the A23 past Gatwick and finally, after four hours arrive at the Camping World Community Stadium on the outskirts of town.
The approach to the ground is more country club than football venue with a dimly lit track taking you towards the leafy looking Horsham Golf Course which wraps around the heart of the Hop Oast stadium.
Parking looks sparse but I've asked a steward nicely if I can stick mine anywhere near as I've been stuck in it all afternoon having come all the way south from Nottingham.
Fortunately, he says 'go on then' and takes some pity, leaving me to have half hours chill ahead of walking into tonight's theatre which is a lovely idyllic spot modern but midst the countryside surrounds that give it a calming feel.
Apparently the club have only been here since 2019 having only left Queen Street, their home since 1904 in 2008, but this place feels like a quaint timely non-league football home, great big clubhouse behind the goal and when you enter, it’s an intimate spot back dropped by trees, small metal stands everywhere and subtle touches like green and yellow painted food and drink sheds, a bright video scoreboard in one corner and a press box on half way above the dug outs which looks like a horse racing commentary box of days gone by.
It has a modern feel but a quintessentially southern edge with touch of football nostalgia, the plastic pitch hardly noticeable, you don’t feel like you’re in a newly built multi-purpose sports centre but instead, at the heart of the community and for a place that is only driveable for most residents, that’s not an easy thing to pull off.
I’ve taken position at the top corner of the main seated stand around six rows up on halfway and I’m soon joined next to me by a dad and his boy who loves kicking the chair in front. The two teams come out in the far corner as the ground steadies to a warming crowd of 500 plus. Horsham in their Norwich City canary yellow and green number with Canvey Island in a blue and white kit that resembles Glasgow Rangers.
The home side aren’t bad. Buoyed from their recent cup exploits against league opposition they knock it about well on the flat service, patient but with zest, they play between their back four and get it out wide. On the left-wing Daniel Ajakaiye is electric whilst on the right, Lee Harding is awkward looking but talented, perhaps lethargic but certainly gifted.
It’s the midfield battle which Horsham are winning with the two Danny’s, Brivio and Barker alongside the mightily impressive James Hammond who’s eager to get on it and spread passes out wide. Canvey Island are game and solid themselves. Defensively they look decent and they battle hard in midfield but there’s no out ball. Centre forward Bradley Sach has 23 goals this season but is leading the line alone.
By half time there’s been a couple of chances for the home side as Canvey keeper Jackson is called into action to save a volley from Barker before parrying a Harding header to the head of Romain who can’t direct goalwards.
But the better side start the second half well and Hammond tries his luck from range, his shot nicks off a defender to beat the goalkeeper low and put the hosts in the lead.
By now the singing voices have all come out. A small section of fans belting out Karaoke classics like ‘Why do Birds Suddenly Appear’ by the Carpenters and ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘She Loves You’ by the Beatles… I feel like I’m in a time capsule or listening to the backdrop of Top of the Pops 2 late on a Friday night but suddenly against the run of play, Bradley Sach is away, alone, as he has been all night, taking a touch, cutting inside and driving an unstoppable shot into the corner of the net. 24 for the season for the bearded talisman.
Sach, or somebody is booked for the celebrations as they huddle into the crowd behind the goal before Canvey make a couple of substitutions, but Horsham wrestle back authority in trusting the players they have already on the pitch, he’s been threatening all night, but Lee Harding proves to be the matchwinner, he’s found by a delightful cross field pass by Jack Brivio and cuts inside the area to smash home low. A clinical goal from a player who has the ability to win matches on his own.
He may look more like an Estate Agent than a footballer, Alice band, floppy hair, his socks rolled down over his calves, he’s probably more like Kem from Love Island than Jack from Man City as he runs awkwardly with a laid-back approach but he’s a talented boy is Lee Harding who’s in his fifth season with the club. The official website says ‘he’s a matchwinner on his day’ which sums him up perfectly as he certainly delivered tonight.
The nights other goalscorer just as impressive but for different reasons, midfielder James Hammond worked tirelessly and always looked to make things happen, not naturally gifted like Harding but naturally hard working. The speedy Daniel Ajakaiye having a good battle on the left wing with Canvey Island right back Tobi Tinubu who seemed just as quick.
The away side weren’t nearly as impressive having much less than half of the ball percentage on a night when the ball was in possession a lot. The Gulls midfield all worked hard but you can’t help feel the club are indebted to the goals of Bradley Sach. He lead the line ok, often too isolated, but given half a chance he certainly proved he’s a natural finisher of the highest order.
The win takes Horsham into the top seven and they’ll no doubt have a pop at promotion this season. Canvey Island are only a point below them and after finishing third last season, you feel there’s more to come from them. Two good sides who played a competitive match at a fast tempo will certainly for me be there or thereabouts come May.
As for the venue itself, a lovely ground with plenty of choice for perching. Whether you want an elevated station behind the goal a touchline view or a seat on half way you’ve got a nice range of choice, my only regret I didn’t have anything to eat… As the PA man announced before the match that they do ‘burger and chips, fish and chips, chilli and chips, anything with chips’ I’ll have to make sure I come back one day and taste their well offered potatoes.
Horsham: Lewis Carey, Bobby Price, Harvey Sparks, Charlie Hester-Cook (Tom Kavanagh 80), Jack Strange, Jack Brico, James Hammond, Danny Barker, Elliott Romain (Jack Mazzone 72), Daniel Ajakaiye (Kadell Daniel 90), Lee Harding.
Canvey Island: Sam Jackson, Tobi Tinubu, Louie Arrowsmith, Elliott Johnson (Jadon Crowhurst 66), Mason Hall, Rob Griddlestone, Elliott Ronto (Luca Albon 62), Conor Hubble, Bradley Sach, Jack Munns (Jamie Salmon 66), Joe Paxman.
7:45pm Kick Off. Tuesday 5th December 2023, Hop Oast, Horsham (att 541).