Zack Willett’s 40th Wessex League goal of the season gives Horndean a huge victory at title rivals AFC Portchester

Horndean keeper Cameron Scott all smiles after the final whistle at AFC  Portchester. Picture by Nathan LipshamHorndean keeper Cameron Scott all smiles after the final whistle at AFC  Portchester. Picture by Nathan Lipsham
Horndean keeper Cameron Scott all smiles after the final whistle at AFC Portchester. Picture by Nathan Lipsham
Zack Willett struck his 40th league goal of the season as Horndean claimed a potentially crucial victory in the race for Southern League football in 2023/24.

Wessex Premier leaders AFC Portchester could have opened up a 14-point cushion over third-placed Horndean, having played four games more, with victory in their final On-Site Stadium fixture of the season.

Had they done so, the title would have been theirs if they could then have beaten Hamble and Bemerton.

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But the Deans recovered from going behind early on to a Harrison Brook penalty to claim a superb 2-1 success in front of a bumper crowd of 1,458 - the third highest Wessex Premier crowd since records began.

Rudi Blankson levelled within minutes and Willett plundered the decider - his 44th goal of the season in all competitions - on 37 minutes.

Willett needs one more goal to become the highest league scorer for Horndean in a Wessex season - he is now level with Connor Duffin’s 2021/22 total.

As for Horndean, they are now eight points behind the Royals with the first of those four matches in hand coming at home to fourth-placed Bemerton on Tuesday.

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Many will now install Horndean as favourites to win the title and claim the sole automatic promotion place into the Southern League.

After all, the Deans could afford to lose one of their games in hand and still overhaul the Royals.

But boss Michael Birmingham is taking nothing for granted ahead of his side cramming their final six league games into a hectic 12-day period.

Those games are: Bemerton (home, April 11), Hamble Club (home, April 13), Laverstock (away, April 15), Brockenhurst (home, April 18), Baffins (away, April 20) and Portland (home, April 22).

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‘You can’t write Portchester off - they’ve still got the points,’ stated Birmingham.

‘We’ve now got Bemerton at home, that’s our biggest game of the season so far.

‘If we don’t get a result against them, winning at Portchester will mean nothing at all.

‘That will be an extremely tough game. We’ve got Hamble, they’ve had an outstanding season, and Baffins … Tommo (Baffins boss Danny Thompson) has done a phenomenal job, they’ve got togetherness, they don’t get rolled over.’

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Regarding the win at Portchy, Birmingham added: ‘We were confident we would beat them. The players believed it, we (the management) believed it.

‘We controlled about 80 per cent of the play. Jocko (Deans keeper Cameron Scott) didn’t have many saves to make.

‘It was a good win and it was a deserved win, I don’t think anyone could have any complaints about a Horndean win.

‘Harry Jackson also hit the post and Harry Jackson also had a goal disallowed - we’ve watched the video and he was clearly onside. But Portchester had a goal disallowed at our place that was clearly onside, it evens itself out.’

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Asked if he’d changed his side’s shape due to playing Portchester, Birmingham replied: ‘No, we lined up as normal. We believe in our shape, the players believe in it, they work so hard on it in training they probably know it in their sleep.’

Birmingham has been managing Horndean since the start of 2016/17, so was this his finest win as boss?

‘Every three points is good,’ he countered. ‘I have always said, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing Alresford who have four points or Portchester who have 91, you have to give everyone respect.

‘You should always enjoy three points, as you don’t ever know when you’ll next get them.’

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Horndean set a new club Wessex record at the One-Site Group Stadium - their 27th league win of the campaign beating the previous record that was set last season.

Having only conceded 19 goals all season - Brook’s penalty was the first goal the Deans had let in in seven Premier games - a new defensive record is guaranteed.

Horndean need to score 10 goals in their last six games to set a new club Wessex record for most goals in a season, beating last term’s 116.

And they need just one more point to set a club Wessex record for most points in a campaign, beating the 83 they banked in 2021/22 and have now equalled.

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On the basis they will set those four new records, that just leaves one more to break - the club’s highest ever Wessex finish.

Currently that stands as the second place they managed in 2018/19, albeit when they finished 31 points adrift of runaway champions Sholing.

Five more wins from their last six games will see them beat that record as well…