A late Dean Cox strike saw Horsham YMCA progress into the semi-finals of the Sussex Senior Challenge Cup, as they claimed another big scalp by defeating Conference South side Whitehawk 1-0 at Gorings Mead on Tuesday evening.
The hosts rode their luck at times and had goalkeeper Sam Smith to thank for several smart second half saves, before substitute Cox’s 84th minute strike stole the show and now puts Peter Buckland’s side just 90 minutes away from a final at Brighton’s Amex Stadium.
A jubilant Buckland said: “Everybody did their job perfectly, the discipline was great. We adapted so well, because we had to set up with a game plan that is totally alien to us, which was containment.
“We rode our luck a couple of times, but I said that if we could get to the turnaround at 0-0, Conference South side or not, they would not be able to keep the pace up for 90 minutes.
“The players were excellent and really deserve their place in the next round.”
Buckland couldn’t have wished for worse news in the build up to the tie against a Hawks side sat three divisions and 56 league places above them, as regular central defenders, Matt Crane and Kevin Burgess, and front man Craig Grantham, were ruled out through injury.
Although YM did welcome back talisman striker Nick Sullivan, midfielder Liam Hunter had to revert to an unfamiliar role at centre back alongside Adam O’Carroll, whilst Lee Wood moved into midfield and Russell Curtis was handed only his fifth start this season.
Whitehawk hassled and hurried YM from the off, and the hosts did not settle into the tie until midway through the first period.
Fortunately, the Hawks were restricted to efforts from range up until that point, although the visitors’ David Da Silva should have perhaps done better when he fired wide of the far post.
The home side’s only sight of goal in the first period came when Brad Curtis’ clipped ball into the channel found front man Sullivan, but he could only blaze high and wide of the target.
The Hawks flew out of the traps after the restart and YM were forced to endure a nerve-jangling opening 20 minutes.
Hosts goalkeeper Smith pushed a powerful Da Silva drive round the post two minutes in, before the resulting corner was somehow cleared to safety following a frantic goalmouth scramble.
Smith then pulled off a superb reaction save to push a glancing Sam Gargan header onto the crossbar ten minutes later, before the hosts survived a further scare when McDonald rattled the post with a low strike from the edge of the area.
Whitehawk substitute Dominic Green then curled wide when found unmarked at the far post, before Smith was again called into action, this time parrying a Green free kick to safety.
As YM caught their breath following the frantic opening to the half, the flow of play slowly began to change hands.
And the catalyst for that swing in momentum came when hosts’ captain Ashley Dugdale released striker Sullivan, who cut back on his man and was brought down in the box.
Referee David Phillips remarkably deemed the contact outside the area and awarded a free kick, but an aggrieved YM seemed only spurred on by the decision.
The home side’s confidence grew and as the game entered the closing stages, they snatched a winner with only six minutes remaining.
Whitehawk ‘keeper Chris Winterton and full-back Jason St Juste were tentative in dealing with a hooked Dugdale ball forward, and as the Hawks pair dithered, Cox leapt highest to head the ball across goal for Sullivan, whose header was blocked by a retreating defender, but Cox reacted quickest to side foot home the rebound on his first start for YM since mid-September.
Buckland said: “Dean (Cox) has been out on loan at Capel and Old Dorkinians, and I’ve just told him to keep himself fit as we never know when we might need him.
“He looked a bit rusty when he came on but he is always a deceptive threat in the air. He feels he is fit enough to join us on the run in now. We also have to be grateful to Sam (Smith) for one worldy save and a couple of other good ones.”
YM join Peacehaven & Telscombe and Bognor Regis Town in the last four, whilst the remaining semi-final spot will be decided when Burgess Hill Town host Worthing on March 13.
Buckland added: “Whitehawk were the highest ranked team left in the competition, so what have we got to fear? We just need to go on and play with that same passion and desire that we showed tonight.”
YM (4-2-3-1): S. Smith, D. Sullivan, Hunter, O’Carroll, Evans, Dugdale, R. Curtis (J. Brown 88), D. Brown, B. Curtis, Wood (Cox 64), N. Sullivan.
Unused subs: Leslie, Lockwood, Crane.