They are going up - Horsham promoted as Merchant goal clinches play-off final victory against Ashford United

Horsham players - including goalkeeper Josh Pelling celebrate. Picture by John Lines
Horsham players - including goalkeeper Josh Pelling celebrate. Picture by John Lines

They are going up - Horsham clinched a dramatic promotion back to the Bostik League Premier Division with an extra-time play-off final victory over Ashford United tonight.

Dylan Merchant - the defender only playing having passed a late fitness test - headed home a 108th- minute free kick to send the Hornets to a 2-1 victory and back to a division they last played in in 2011/12.

A crowd of 880 were treated to a thrilling game at Culver Road - good enough to grace any promotion shoot out clash - in which George Haywards' first-half stunner put the hosts ahead, before a Sam Corne penalty on the stroke of half-time leveled things up.

It didn't look like it would be Horsham's night when Rob O'Toole missed a second half penalty, but in the second half of extra-time, Merchant's header sent the hosts up from what was their first play-off final for 14 years.

Having finished second in the South East Division and overcome Haywards Heath 3-0 on Monday night in the semi-final - and Ashford having overcome Hastings United 3-2 after extra-time in the other - it was home advantage at Culver Road for Dominic Di Paola's side.

The Hornets made one change from the team that beat Heath on Monday night with Dylan Merchant passing a pre-match fitness test and coming in for injury-plagued Will Miles, who was not in the squad.

As you would expect it was a cagey opening period. Horsham had their foot on the ball and the best and only chance was a comfortably Chris Smith shot blocked by Afolabi Coker.

The first real opportunity that drew a gasp from the healthy Horsham contingent behind the goal was a header down that Rob O'Toole hit on the half volley and it flashed across goal and wide via a deflection.

As the driving rain set in at Culver Road, Horsham had a golden opportunity to open the scoring on 26 minutes. Harding provided a neat ball to slide in Smith one-on-one through the middle, and, after an initial half slip from United stopper Sam Mott, he recovered brilliantly to block the ball away.

The game then ebbed and flowed until the Hornets led six minutes before half-time and in some style. A Harding free kick was headed away and Hayward followed up on the half-volley from 23 yards and while it was down the middle, the pace and power gave a diving Mott no chance.

A minute before half-time everyone thought Ashford had leveled. Great work by powerful right-back Jerald Aboagye saw him launch in a cross for top-scorer Danny Parish and he was denied well by Pelling. Jay May then followed up and looked certain to score, but somehow his effort crashed off the bar, against the line and out.

That spiced things up in four minutes added time as tackles flew in and Mott was forced into a couple of low stops as Horsham pushed forwards. But in the sixth minute of added time, of which four minimum was shown, Josh Wisson was first to the ball in the Horsham box and was caught by a defender. Referee Joel Mannix pointed to the spot an Corne's effort crept in via a strong hand from Pelling and the post to haul the Nuts and Bolts level at the break.

Ashford started the second half on the front foot, but it was the hosts that had the first chance to put themselves ahead after nine minutes. O'Toole showed a neat touch and played nice ball around the corner for Smith to charge forwards, he won the footrace with the defender, but Mott was again out well to put in a smothering block at his feet.

At the other end, Pelling made a smart stop to push a free kick away and the second ball was put behind for a corner. From the resulting deep flag kick, it was knocked down by Coker and his effort on the turn whistled narrowly wide.

Horsham soaked up plenty of pressure and on a rare foray forwards, Richardson-Brown got the ball stuck under his feet in the box after Smith switched the ball and Harvey Sparks's brilliant ball put the winger in.

Horsham replaced Smith with Lavery on 75 minutes and two minutes later they were awarded a penalty with their normal penalty taker having just taken his seat on the bench. Aboagye was penalised for pulling O'Toole down in the box and the striker stepped up, but his effort was palmed strongly behind by Mott.

The hosts were not deterred and Lavery played a neat ball through for Harding, but he was well tracked by a defender, who then blocked.

Rapid breaks were stiffled by solid defensive showings from both sides, until Ashford accelerated from a Horsham corner and Parish cut inside to lashed one just wide with four minutes to play.

The hosts had a succession of corners that were well defended in the closing stages and from the very last before the full-time whistle, Horsham had huge penalty appeals waved away when O'Toole's shot appeared to come off Coker's arm.

In extra-time and on 102 minutes, Lavery's free kick was palmed away into a dangerous area by Mott and Merchant's follow-up header was then caught by the goalkeeper. Moments later, Pelling then showed his own hands to get away a Toby Ayaja shot after a neat Ashford move.

Three minutes into the second period Horsham led. Joey Taylor, having come on for the injured Richardson-Brown at the extra-time break, whipped in a brilliant free kick and centre-back Merchant hammered a header past Mott to spark jubilant scenes.

Horsham: Pelling, Metcalf, Shelly, Merchant, Sparks, Richardson-Brown (Taylor 115), Brivio, Hayward, Harding (Lovegrove 117), O'Toole, Smith (Lavery 70). Unused subs: Hyde, Mant.

Ashford United: Mott, Aboagye (Williams 115), Mendy, Wisson, Coker (Prescott 115), Kamara, Corne, Anidugbe, Parish, May (McIntyre 115), Ajala. Unused subs: Hook, Munyama.

Referee: Joel Mannix.

Attendance: 880.