Horsham YMCA held runaway league leaders East Preston to a 1-1 draw in an even encounter at Gorings Mead on Tuesday evening.
After a goalless first half, the visitors sprang into life to take the lead just 54 seconds after the restart, but an Ashley Dugdale equaliser 15 minutes from time ensured the points were shared.
In the final minute of the match tempers flared when an off the ball altercation between Preston substitute Shaheen Sadough and YM’s Matt Crane led to both players being shown straight red cards.
YM manager Peter Buckland said: “To draw 1-1 against East Preston isn’t a bad result, but I must admit that I was looking for three points. One point is more use to them than it is to us.
“I thought that we were the better team for the second half of the first half and the better team in the second half.
“It was a good performance and the game as a whole was a credit to County League Division 1, because it was a good standard of football.”
Table toppers Preston started sharply, with Dom Di Paola’s men not allowing the hosts a second to settle in possession. YM goalkeeper Simon Lockwood had to be on his toes to speed off his line and clear an early chance to safety, before Charlie Farmer volleyed just wide of the near post and Rob O’Toole was also thwarted by Lockwood.
But it was YM who wasted the best chances to open the scoring in the first half. An East Preston mistake gifted the ball to striker Nick Sullivan on the edge of the box, but he could only blast over with just the ‘keeper to beat.
Dave Brown then tamely fired straight at Preston stopper Joel Harding shortly after, before Sullivan was presented with another golden opportunity just before the break, but after robbing the visitors’ full back, his heavy touch took him wide and Harding closed the angle well to make a save.
East Preston’s quick start to the opening half was mirrored immediately after the break, as they opened the scoring through former Rye United forward Evan Archibald, who fired home when he met a free kick after just 54 seconds.
The second half ebbed and flowed following the opener, although gilt-edged chances were at a premium. A searching Dean Carden cross found Craig Grantham at the far post, but no one in a YM shirt could latch onto his viciously drilled strike across goal.
Meanwhile, Archibald continued to cause problems at the opposite end, with YM stopper Lockwood just recovering in time to tip the striker’s skilful 25-yard lob over the crossbar.
Preston’s Danny Gainsford fired a free header well over from a corner shortly after, before the home side found an equaliser with quarter of an hour left to play.
Some great work from Brown down the YM left saw the tricky winger beat his man to the by-line, before providing the perfect cross for an onrushing Dugdale to poke home from six yards.
Striker Sullivan could have then put the hosts ahead just two minutes later, but after being released by brother, Dan, he could only scuff his shot wide of the far post.
The game slowly began to peter out, until tempers flared in the closing stages when an off the ball altercation between Preston substitute Shaheen Sadough and YM’s Matt Crane led to both players being shown straight red cards.
Buckland added: “I’m not doing an Arsene Wenger; I did not see what happened. Craney (Crane) reckons that he (Sadough) whacked him first and Craney whacked him back, hence the reason they both got sent off.
“Their player and Craney are both out of order, simple as that. I can’t condone it. He shouldn’t have done it and now he’s going to miss three games for a straight red.”
YM appear to be re-finding their form at exactly the right time. They are now unbeaten in their last five games, and with two cup semi-finals on the horizon - starting with Monday’s Sussex Senior Cup semi against Bognor on Monday - boss Buckland can be confident of a strong finish to the campaign.
“I can’t be unhappy.” He concluded. “I’ve said to the players that I didn’t want to lose another league game this season and tonight was the biggest banana skin, but we’ve circumnavigated it in good shape and I can’t see any reason why we can’t take it on from here now.”
YM (4-2-3-1): Lockwood, Carden, Hunter, Crane, Evans, Dugdale (c), B. Curtis (Burgess 90), D. Sullivan, Grantham (Gedling 61), D. Brown, N. Sullivan
Unused Subs: O’Carroll, Wood, J. Brown.