The Sussex Principal RUR Charity Cup delivered an early Christmas present of an unexpected Mid Sussex derby for the season as Hassocks played host to Haywards Heath Town in the quarter finals of the competition.
When Heath won promotion to the Bostik League at the end of last season, it looked like it would be sometime before we saw them taking on the Robins again.
But the Sussex FA’s decision to invite them to compete in this season’s RUR Cup despite the competition being normally reserved for step seven and eight sides made it a tantalising prospect.
The draw had the two sides meeting in the quarter finals and both sides played their parts by advancing to the last eight, Hassocks by defeating Crawley Down Gatwick and Seaford Town and Heath by eliminating Bexhill United and Lancing.
Shaun Saunders side’s 10-0 victory over the Lancers in the previous round made particularly ominous reading for the Robins and many were predicting a similar cakewalk at the Beacon, especially given the 33 places that separate the two in the non-league pyramid.
Yet the casual observer wouldn’t have known such a gulf existed, with Heath being largely frustrated until opening the scoring in the 67th minute and they didn’t look entirely sure of their spot in the last four until adding a third five minutes from time.
Mark Dalgleish set the Robins up in a 4-5-1 formation which was clearly designed to frustrate the visitors, but Heath did a good enough job of that themselves as they struggled in possession in the opening 30 minutes.
It was from one such moment that the first chance arrived, some loose play resulting in Heath captain Nathan Cooper having to upend his former team mate Phil Johnson 30 yards out from goal.
Spencer Slaughter took the resulting free-kick quickly, releasing Jake Lindsey whose effort was fumbled away by Mark Fox in the Heath goal.
SEE ALSO Burgess Hill Town 'showed a lot of character' as they beat Carshalton Athletic to take first win in four | St Francis Rangers: Pictures from the past | Haywards Heath Town v Hastings United - picture slideshow
Fox was more impressive when next called into action, collecting a high James Westlake cross under pressure from Johnson after more good work from Lindsey.
It took Heath until the final 10 minutes of the first half to create a meaningful chance, Callum Saunders delivering a dangerous cross to the back post where Max Miller (Pictured above - credit Grahame Lehkyj) appeared to be pushed in the back by Harvey Blake but referee Martyn Milligan said no foul.
Mr Milligan had no doubt that Saunders had been bought down in a crunching challenge by Jordan Badger minutes later and neither did the Heath bench, replacing their top scorer instantly with Alex Laing as a precaution.
From that free kick, Karl Akehurst headed over and then Josh Green showed a strong hand to turn a Miller corner over the bar as Heath upped the pressure before the break.
The temperature dropped noticeably in the stands at the start of the second half but the action on the pitch was heating up, Andy Whittingham clattering into Josh Spinks to earn a booking and then substitute Melford Simpson and Spencer Slaughter got involved with each other off the ball.
Saunders had turned to Simpson at the break to replace Dalhouse in a sign of how well Hassocks had done up until that point and he was soon causing his usual chaos, teeing up Laing on two occasions.
The first drew a good save from Green and the second needed a brilliant last ditch tackle from Blake as Laing was about to pull the trigger.
Heath took the lead on 67 minutes and it wasn’t without controversy. Miller appeared to knock the ball to the ground with his hand as he drove into the Hassocks box before squaring to Laing whose effort was deflected onto the bar by Harry Mills.
Chaos ensued until the ball found its way to the edge of the area where Byron Napper came charging in to hit a stonking volley low and hard through the crowd and into the bottom corner.
That was the cue for Hassocks to have their best period of the game. Within a minute of going behind, Whittingham should have levelled things up but he couldn’t connect with a Lindsey cross.
Johnson then saw a low effort turned away by Fox and from the resulting corner, Badger headed over when front and centre of the goal.
Despite being ahead, Heath were getting frustrated by this point and a fantastic screeching argument between Laing and one of his defenders from a full 70 yards drew sarcastic cheers from the home faithful gathered in front of the club house.
Unfortunately for Hassocks, Heath gathered their composure after that and Simpson made it 2-0 on 77 after collecting a Miller cross and firing low and hard past Green.
Hassocks kept pressing and only a superb block from Spinks denied Liam Benson after he’d rounded Fox before Heath finally made the game safe with five minutes to play.
Simpson may have the build of a boxer but he displayed the feet of a ballerina to dance past Dan Jacques and square to Miller who was left with a tap in.
It was the least that the winger’s performance deserved as Heath set up a semi final date in the new year with Chichester City.
Hassocks: Green; Blake, Mills, Broomfield, Badger; Lindsey, Slaughter, Westlake, Stokes, Whittingham, Johnson.
Subs: Benson, Bull, Jacques (used), Wilkins, Enticknap (unused).
Heath: Fox; Finney, Spinks, Cooper, Tutt; Napper, Rowe; Saunders, Akehurst, Miller; Dalhouse.
Subs: Laing, Simpson, Louis (used), Follea, Roddy (unused).