Shaun Saunders admitted that Haywards Heath Town were ‘well beaten’ in their 3-0 Bostik South East play-off semi-final defeat by an ‘unplayable’ Horsham at Lancing on Monday evening.
Goals from Lee Harding, Rob O’Toole and Tyrell Richardson-Brown completed a fairly routine win for the Hornets as the Hanbury Park-outfits’ play-off journey ended at the first hurdle.
The opportunity to go up via the play-offs had already been taken away from the Blues before the game due to Heath having one of the five lowest points-per-game totals across Step 4.
But Saunders’ side can look back at a remarkable debut campaign in the Bostik League, finishing fifth having been promoted last season.
Saunders said: “I’m disappointed. No one likes losing but it is what it is.
“Horsham were unplayable for most of the game. They were on another level and they were worthy winners.
“Sometimes you lose and you think how did we lose that? But sometimes you’ve got to hold your hands up and say we were well beaten.
“I think we’re all honest enough to say that we were well beaten on the night.”
The Blues had completed the league double over Horsham this season so another well-contested game was on the cards.
It was wholesale changes for Heath, who rested a large number of their squad in their final-day 5-0 defeat to Ashford United which confined them to fifth-place. They even played Trevor McCreadie in goal on Saturday with Anthony Ender playing for division-below Chichester.
It was, however, a far more familiar Heath side at Culver Road with just Tom Graves and Alex Laing keeping their places as they made nine changes.
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Horsham took control of the opening 15 minutes and the only save Hornets keeper Josh Pelling was forced to make was from a header from one of his own defenders.
The hosts had the lead they had been threatening on 22 minutes. Jack Brivio won the ball on the halfway line and put Richardson-Brown away.
His dangerous cross saw O’Toole put Ender under pressure and the ball fell to Harding, who smashed home.
The visitors were then forced into a substitute and reshuffle when Kieran Rowe went down injured. Jamie Weston switched to left-back and Heath brought on Vincent Follea.
Heath had a lot more urgency about them at the start of the second half and soon created their first real chance of the match. Good work by Laing out wide saw him cross for Kenny Pogue and the big striker’s glancing header had Pelling scrambling across his goal, before it dropped just wide.
A Follea slip allowed O’Toole the ball on the edge of the box but, despite trying to make space for himself to get a shot away, he fired high and wide.
Follea managed to pick up an injury trying to stop O’Toole, and ex-Hornet George Landais came on to replace the replacement.
Just past the hour mark, Horsham managed to calm some nerves with a timely second goal. A Harvey Sparks ball from the left was touched in by Richardson-Brown in the box and O’Toole ran onto it and drove the ball home.
Richardson-Brown put the icing on the cake for the Hornets at the death. A nice through ball from George Hayward saw Lavery race forward on the left and his cross picked out the winger at the far post and he volleyed home superbly.
Saunders added: “We were tipped to go straight back down when we came up last year and the fact that we’ve fashioned out a fifth-placed finish and made the play-offs is a massive testament to everyone at the club.
“We’ve got a platform to build on now.”
Haywards Heath: Ender, Roddy, Cooper, Graves, Rowe (Follea 28, Landais 56), Saunders, Napper, Weston (Folkes 81), Laing, Pogue, Akehurst. Unused subs: Dalhouse, Bangura.