Last time Hassocks travelled to Broadbridge Heath, it was a chastening experience.
The Bears’ Leisure Centre home was on its last legs as the club were caught in limbo, playing at a facility they were supposed to have vacated months earlier but were still stuck at as the contractors working on their new High Wood Hill home repeatedly pushed back the moving in date.
As a result, the pitch on that grim November afternoon resembled a cabbage patch. Not that it provided any excuses for the Robins performance as they were deservedly beaten 6-0 by Steve Painter’s side. In truth, it could have been double figures.
This time around, the fixture was played in Heath’s impressive new facility, the fourth league game to be played since the keys were finally handed over in the summer.
Not only were the surroundings vastly improved, but so was Hassocks’ showing as they went down 2-1 to a Bears side who could well be dark horses in this season’s Premier Division title race.
Steve Painter’s side are riding the crest of a wave currently, in part due to the significant boost that High Wood Hill is providing. They’re unbeaten there so far and playing in front of vastly increased crowds which have so far pushed them into second in the Premier Division’s average attendance table.
As for the actual league table, Heath are flying in that too. This victory took them into third spot, three points behind joint leaders Eastbourne Town and Lancing. Those two clubs provided the opposition in Hassocks’ two previous league outings, which goes some way towards explaining why the Robins are currently floundering towards the wrong end of the table.
Mark Dalgleish and his men are in the midst of not only a desperately hard run of games, but a congested fixture list too. They’ve played six times in the past three weeks, taking on the Premier Division’s top three and having two FA Cup clashes with Isthmian League side Chipstead.
Keeping players fresh during such an intense schedule is a tough ask at the best of times, let alone when you’re taking on such quality opposition.
Dalgleish shuffled his pack here, resting several players ahead of Saturday’s FA Vase clash with Horley Town. The most eye-catching selection decision saw 18-year-old goalkeeper James Earl come in for his Hassocks debut in place of Josh Green.
Earl arrived in the summer from Eastbourne Borough, for whom he made a couple of first teams appearances from the bench last season. He’s already impressed in the Robins’ Under 23s opening two fixtures and gave a good account of himself on his first start at senior level.
The other changes saw Dan Stokes start at right back in place of Harvey Blake, Arni Kublickas come in for Harry Mills and Jack Rowe-Hurst replaced James Littlejohn. Liam Benson was also named among the Hassocks substitutes having re-joined the club just three months after his summer move to Steyning Town.
Both sides played some decent stuff in the first half but neither Earl nor his opposite number Conor Evento – himself a former Hassocks Under 23s goalkeeper – were overly worked in an opening 45 minutes devoid of clear cut scoring chances.
That all changed just five minutes into the second half. It was Heath who opened the scoring, Max Howell hitting a cracking strike from distance right into the bottom corner, leaving Earl with no chance.
The lead was pretty short-lived as within six minutes, Hassocks were level. An excellent corner delivery was met by Ben Bacon who just got his head to the ball in front of Evento for his third goal of the campaign.
It was end-to-end stuff and only another five minutes elapsed before Heath netted what proved to be the winner. Jamie Robinson did well out wide before delivering a delicious cross which found Jamie Taylor, who coolly placed the ball out of the reach of Earl.
Hassocks: Earl; Stokes, Jacques, Kublickas, Whittingham; Broomfield, Berridge; Troak, Rowe-Hurst, Hillwood; Bacon.
Subs: Littlejohn, O’Leary, Benson, Green.