It was only three months ago that Horsham FC briefly made national news headlines after holding League One Swansea City to a 1-1 draw in the Second Round of the FA Cup. They lost the replay 6-2, but made a substantial amount of money from their run. Back in the present day, however, the club is engulfed in a crisis that threatens its very future, and the overwhelming impression that one gets, having looked at what is going on in some detail, is that the people running the club have some very difficult questions to have to answer.
The Hornets’ problems started a couple of years, when they sold the site of their existing home, Queen Street, to Persimmon Homes for development. The club identified the site of the Holbrook Sports & Social club as being ideal for a new ground. The site houses a social club and several sports pitches already, after all. However, it is in the middle of a residential area, and the local community there has fought tooth and nail to prevent the club from gaining planning permission to build there. As it stands, final planning permission has yet to be granted, and there is no chance of them moving in there before 2010.
At a glance, this looks like an easily resolvable problem – Horsham sits on the Surrey/Sussex border, and there is no shortage of local clubs – and they initially chose to overlook their near neighbours Horsham YMCA (whose Goring Field stadium is in their town, but would require considerable renovation to bring it up to the standard required for the Ryman League Premier Division, let alone the Conference South, where Horsham hope to be in the next couple of years) and approached Crawley Town, of the Conference, to share their Broadfield Stadium. Crawley is just five or six miles from Horsham, so this would have appeared to be the ideal solution for them in the short term, but when negotiations began, it became apparent that Crawley were including onerous terms into the agreement that would not be agreed by the Ryman League. Crawley were insisting, for example, on their groundsman deciding whether matches would be played on it rather than league referees, and that they wouldn’t allow matches to be played on the pitch on successive days. The Ryman League has rejected the terms of the groundshare, and suddenly Horsham are left looking at (potentially) a very bleak future indeed.
The story took has taken a turn for the worrying over the last few days, however. Horsham’s back-up plan was that they believed that they had agreed a deal with Persimmon Homes to continue to use Queen Street for another season if all else fails, but have recently had to concede that Persimmon have back-tracked on this agreement, and are insisting that the club leaves on the 8th of May. On Monday night, the Horsham chairman, Frank King, and the Ryman League chairman, Alan Turvey, were interviewed by BBC London’s Non-League Football Show. King played down fears over the club’s future, saying that, “We are in very delicate negotiations and are confident we will sort out a groundshare for next season in the next two weeks”. Turvey, however, undermined King’s position, stating that the first that the League had heard of the club definitely having to leave Queen Street by the end of this season came on the 11th of February, and reiterating that the proposals for the ground-share at Crawley were completely unacceptable to the league. Furthermore, he stated that, ordinarily, clubs would have to confirm where they are to play next season by the 31st of March, although he did accept that they do allow extensions in exceptional circumstances.
What must have been most concerning for Horsham supporters was the tone of Turvey’s voice. He gave the impression of being very unhappy at having been kept out of the loop in terms of the developments over their arrangements, and if what he says about the clubs having to have their ground arrangements in place by the 31st of March is correct, they may well find themselves depending on the goodwill of the Ryman League if they are to continue playing into next season. There has been talk of them playing further afield than the Gatwick area, and Worthing, some twenty miles from Horsham, has been mooted as a possible alternative venue for them. As a last-ditch replacement, it is a venue of a sufficient standard to host at least Ryman League football, but the distance will surely put many people off travelling, and with the host club taking the majority of the bar takings and rent sure to be high, it may prove to be a financially disastrous move, eating into money that should be earmarked for their new ground. The worst case scenario could see them failing to get final planning permission for Holbrook, and stuck miles away from home, with no chance of a return to Horsham.
As ever, of course, it is the fans that will suffer, and it strikes me that, no matter how much bad luck Horsham have had in their plans, the responsibility for ensuring that the club has somewhere to play next season ultimately lies with the people that run the club. They may well have tried to get an arrangement with Crawley and failed, and they may have thought that they had an agreement to stay at Queen Street for an extra season, but these good intentions will count for nothing if the club is expelled from the Ryman League at the end of the season. Time, suddenly, is not in their side, and that FA Cup run must be starting to seem like a very long time ago indeed.