On 29th April 2017 Haywards Heath Town were playing an away match at Gorings Mead, home of Horsham YMCA. They knew that victory would guarantee them the Southern Combination Football League championship, and, supposedly, promotion to the Isthmian League for the first time in their history. Ninety minutes later, and seven goals to the good, the celebrations started in earnest- and they were well deserved, Heath having overturned what a few months earlier had been an eight point deficit to take the title. YMCA had been vanquished, and, over the course of the season, nearest rivals Shoreham had also fallen by the wayside. Two promotions in two seasons- there had never been a better excuse for a party.
You might have picked up on the word ‘supposedly.’ You will undoubtedly recall that this current season is Heath’s first in the Isthmian League, and remember a disastrous South Division campaign from Shoreham last year which left the Musselmen marooned at the bottom of the table with only eight points- a whole 22 points behind second bottom Molesey. The reason for that is perhaps worthy of explanation- although nobody at Hanbury Park will want to revisit it. Heath forward Melford Simpson, a man-mountain of a striker who had been instrumental in the run in, had, it transpired, a tiny outstanding fine unpaid from an earlier club, Fisher FC. Nobody at Heath had known about it, and indeed the player argued that it was news to him, too, but the repercussions were enormous. Heath were deducted nine points, and Shoreham were promoted in their stead- an outcome which satisfied nobody, as the Middle Road club would argue that it took so long for a decision to be made that they were unable to plan for their first campaign at a higher level, with consequences which would be all too obvious to anyone who watched them play last season.
Heath were left to lick their wounds and contemplate another year at Step Five, and last season didn’t start particularly well for Shaun Saunders side. That wasn’t too much of a surprise; to have the prize snatched from your grasp due to an administrative error was always going to be difficult for the mindset of set of players who had seen a year of hard work gone to waste. But Saunders picked them up, refocused them, and got them back on track, and their form in the latter part of the season took them past front runners Three Bridges and gave them a second title in two seasons- only this time, they got to keep it. A few days later they once more faced Horsham YMCA, and smashed another four goals past them to clinch a League and Cup double and produce a fairytale ending; although this one was allowed to remain more Happy Ever After than Grimm.
The 1950's stand at Hanbury Park, home of Haywards Heath Town
Hanbury Park was rather damp and dreary as this afternoon’s match against Phoenix Sports approached. The cavernous 1950’s grandstand- opened by the then FIFA President Sir Stanley Rous- has been modernised in recent years, but still has the look of an ancient football relic, a structure from a bygone era; a moment, if you like, from a football history which has long gone. The rest of the stadium stands in contrast to it, and is a testament to the work of the Heath volunteers- the modern clubhouse beneath the stand, the car park, the 3G training pitch at the far end of the ground, all built with love and the product of a great deal of sweat and toil over the last few years. Progress for Heath has not only come on the pitch, although the extent of the on-field progress has rather cast the off-field work into the shadows. It shouldn’t, as both are equally impressive.
Today Heath sat in fifth place in the Bostik South East Division, hoisted up a place by the sad expunging from the records of all results involving Thamesmead Town yesterday. Their visitors were Phoenix Sports, another club impacted by the loss of Mead, but in their case negatively as they slipped from third to fourth. Sports are another club whose recent success is worthy of comment- to go from the Kent County League to the playoff places in Step Four in seven years is also exceptional, and testament to the efforts of those at Mayplace Road.
Both sides came into the match in good form. Heath had lost only two of their last ten, and indeed had won five of their last seven, whilst Sports had the same number of defeats over that period, although manager Paul Bryon would undoubtedly have liked to have turned draws into victories, four of their last six ending level. Last time out the away side had somehow turned a 3-0 lead into a 3-3 draw, Hythe Town proving that they were the weekend’s comeback kings, and if they had an Achilles Heel it was undoubtedly in defence. The forward line, led by the indomitable Jeff Duah-Kessie, had scored more goals than any side except Cray Wanderers and Hastings United, but only four clubs in the division had conceded more. That said, one thing you seem to be guaranteed as a Sports fan is entertainment- their side had not been involved in a single goalless draw all season, and indeed only two matches have had fewer than two goals. Heath don’t score as many, but they concede fewer, and it meant that predicting an outcome today was rather difficult.
That didn’t stop us asking for such a prediction, however.
Although, for once, we decided to ask a neutral.
An old stand with new seats
Mick Davis is the father of Nick Davis- the former manager of Sittingbourne currently doing some work with Sports to contribute towards his next coaching qualification. Describing himself as an “away neutral,” he had watched all of Sports matches this season, but was also able to describe in detail a number of matches he’d watched which didn’t involve the club, so seemed the ideal person to ask for a prediction. He went for a 2-0 away win, waxed lyrical about the qualities of the Sports strike force, and seemed certain that the side were good enough for a playoff push- but he was also blunt about their defensive frailties. “There seems to be an aerial weakness at the back. They give away far too many silly goals- last week, at 3-0 up, they forgot to defend and in truth could have lost the game. But if they can tighten that up the forwards are good enough to frighten anybody.” He went on to explain that Ashford United, along with Cray Wanderers and Hastings United would be Sports biggest challengers, at which point we left him to finish his beer in peace.
Sports kicked off into the drizzle, and had the first chance after two minutes. A good passing move on the edge of the Heath box led to a shot from Alex Teniola, but he was leaning back and the ball flew both wide and high. They kept up the pressure, and earned the first corner, and a header back to Zak Bryon was half volleyed over the bar. In truth, the midfielder should have done better. His side almost did do better in the sixth minute, Duah-Kessie and Teniola forcing another corner from Heath keeper Josh Heyburn, and the traffic was all one way. It remained that way for the first ten minutes, when the inevitable happened. Town scored.
Heath finally ventured forward and earned a corner of their own. It was wasted, but when the ball was sent back into the box there were two home players competing for it, and not a defender within range. It fell to Andy Dalhouse, and he finished with power to put the side ahead, walloping the ball beyond the keepers left hand into the net. Somewhere, Mick Davis deserved to be patting himself on the back, as although Heath had blown his score prediction his thoughts on Sports inability to defend balls in the air had been proved entirely right.
The side in red tried to respond, and Teniola should have done better from a Duah-Kessie knock down in the thirteenth minute. His volley, from ten yards, cleared the bar and the ground, ending up bouncing down the street behind the home goal, volunteer giving chase. More away pressure followed, but to the frustration of their fans it came to naught, and as we ended the first quarter Heath remained ahead, and were defending solidly.
Another corner, and a Teniola header brought a superb save from Heyburn. More pressure followed, and then a Heath break earned them a corner, cheeky chappy Max Miller working hard down the right. Heath began to see more of the ball, and the Sports fans to the right of the old grandstand began to get more and more frustrated. It wasn’t hard to understand their annoyance- on possession they must have been 70/30 ahead, but they were soon almost two behind, Steve Phillips making a double save after another aerial ball found a Heath head, Josh Spinks coming close.
The view from the cheap seats
Eight minutes before half time, however, Sports were level. Keeper Heyburn had already shown a tendency to play a sweeper role, and a mix up between he and Spinks on the edge of the box saw the ball run to Duah-Kessie. A striker normally deadly even when under pressure was hardly going to pass up the opportunity to pass the ball into an empty net. The rest of the half was far more even than the previous thirty eight minutes, but there was no more incident, and as the whistle went the main stand quickly emptied as its occupants went to search for sustenance- and warmth.
As in the first half, the first shot after the interval came from a number eleven- but not Teniola this time, instead Alex Laing stepped up for Heath. The outcome was similar, however, his effort well over the bar. Laing did much better a few minutes later, a curling shot forcing Phillips into a diving save to his left, and it was the home side’s turn to take the game to their opponents. But it didn’t last, and the away fans were soon able to cheer once more as a ball across the box fell to Duah-Kessie at the back post. Wallop, and the net rippled; a great finish from a tight angle.
Sports, ahead for the first time, grew in confidence, and for a while the match reverted to the pattern of the first half, with red pressure followed by blue and white breaks. Once of these breaks saw Dalhouse earn Heath a corner, which was only half cleared, and a Callum Saunders shot had to be pushed over the bar by Phillips. Heath then had a period of sustained pressure of their own, and looked to have scored when Spinks got above the defence and headed goalward. The ball struck the underside of the bar, keeper beaten, only to bounce on the line before the rebound was put over. Spinks held his head, but he could have done little more.
Kweku Ansah should have done more, however, in the 71st minute, firing wide for Sports, and then Miller forced another diving save from Phillips as Heath surged forward. A goal looked likely at both ends, but when it came it was for the home side. With fourteen minutes remaining a burst of speed saw Lewis Finney first to a loose ball- and he fired forcibly home, to general acclaim from around the ground. It was indeed a fine finish, and undoubtedly deserved. Sports went back on the attack, and Heyburn was forced into a great save from Lee Bird, the shot from the edge of the box being tipped over by the home stopper. Then at the other end, Laing could have secured the points for Heath, a heavy first touch letting Phillips save when only the keeper was left to beat and two other forwards were waiting to clean up any crumbs.
The loneliness of the 50/50 draw salesman
The game swung from end to end, without a clear-cut chance but with no shortage of effort- but as we entered three minutes of added time it seemed as both sides had settled for a draw. And indeed, that’s what we got. A point each- and news that top six rivals Hastings United and VCD Athletic had managed exactly the same.
Measured on resources, Haywards Heath Town and Phoenix Sports shouldn’t really be competing for a playoff place. Neither of these clubs is cash rich, neither has a particularly large or wealthy fanbase, and both have spent most of their history at very much the lower end of the Non League spectrum. And yet, on today’s performances, neither side is in a false position. This looks to be the most open season we’ve had in years, so perhaps- just perhaps- the dreams of their supporters are realistic.
Sports or Heath for promotion? You wouldn’t want to bet against it.