2019 will live long in the memory of all those connected with Chichester City – promotion to Step 4 of the non-league football pyramid for the first time in the club’s history as Southern Combination premier division champions followed by an FA Cup fairy tale and an exceptional start to Isthmian South East life that included a four-month unbeaten run on the road.
Neither Chi nor Burgess Hill had played for a fortnight as fixtures fell foul of the weather and City came into this encounter having won one, lost one and drawn four of their previous six league games.
A transformed Hillians with Jay Lovett at the helm had beaten Guernsey, Sittingbourne and Faversham and drawn with East Grinstead and Three Bridges in the same period. The loss to VCD Athletic was Lovett’s first in the league since taking over at Leylands Park in early November.
There was just one change to the XI that started in Chichester’s goalless draw with Guernsey last time out – Horncastle coming in for Emmett Dunn. Club captain Connor Cody joined brother George on the bench alongside Rory Biggs, Gicu Iordache and Ben Pashley, back at Oaklands Park after a three-month spell at Worthing.
The hosts got off to a flyer and took the lead in the fourth minute when Horncastle lashed in a left footed shot from outside the box.
Mason Doughty might have got in at the other end but keeper Steve Mowthorpe was out quickly to intercept.
Then Josh Clack whipped in a cross that Josh James beat Jones to.
Mowthorpe got his angles right after Miller forced Corey Heath into a mistake but the Chi defender made amends in the next attack with a superb tackle.
Harry Pollard almost got to Kayode Conteh’s header before a slick exchange between Clack and Kaleem Haitham forced a smart save out of James.
A Haitham delivery would have picked out Jones but for a timely intervention that turned the ball out for a corner. Ryan Peake met this at the far post but headed wide.
Heath then did well to snuff out the danger as Aaron Smith-Joseph broke into the box.
Miller headed over; Jones had a long range effort blocked; and a move, the product of a cheeky back-heel from Clack to Ryan Davidson, might have troubled James more but for a heavy touch from Clack after Davidson’s drive down the right.
There was a bit of handbags on the half hour following Pollard’s foul on Horncastle for which the referee dished out a yellow.
James got a strong glove on a low cross from Clack before a Haitham effort went agonisingly past the post after a nice move involving Jones and Lloyd Rowlatt.
Incidents came and went in the last five minutes of the half.
First Rowlatt fizzed one inches wide before Miller drove over latching on to Smith-Joseph’s corner.
Hillians skipper Scott Kirkwood was then involved in the game’s first real talking point when he escaped a booking that would have come back to bite him for a heavy challenge on Matt Axell.
Miller almost found Doughty with a through ball and likewise Rowlatt nearly picked out Jones and Haitham but neither could get a telling touch.
In the opening exchanges after the break Mowthorpe was the busier of the two keepers. The Chi shot-stopper got his body behind a Doughty effort two minutes in and then denied Miller after O’Shaye Giraud-Hutchinson played him in before reacting quickly to get to Rob Hutchings’ under-hit back pass.
James held on to Jones’ powerful header; Davidson did well in the box but the Hill defender recovered and blocked his attempt; and another managed to deflect Horncastle’s shot for a corner.
Miller went close again for the visitors and Mowthorpe was out smartly to gather.
Doughty got a shot off on the turn that cannoned into Connor Cody who’d come on for Heath at the interval.
Chichester changed it up again introducing Iordache for Haitham on 65 minutes.
Mowthorpe denied Miller once more before Peake scrambled the ball away.
The equaliser, and it had been coming, came in the 68th minute when Giraud-Hutchinson received a short corner, cut inside and beat Mowthorpe to his right.
Kirkwood, who might have been booked in the first half, then picked up a yellow card for a strong tackle on Clack that might have been a straight red on another day.
The home fans were incensed but had something to sing about moments later when Jones got on the end of Iordache’s cross to guide the ball past James for his first goal since late August when Chi last won in the league at Oaklands Park.
Biggs came on for Axell as the hosts sought to defend their advantage in the final ten minutes or so.
Mowthorpe convincingly claimed a Kirkwood set-piece before Doughty almost levelled after the back four failed to clear.
Chi defenders then threw bodies on the line to block Alfie Rogers’ shot.
Tempers flared on the pitch and between the dugouts but a spectator who collapsed and needed medical attention in the stands and then an ambulance brought everything into sharp relief.
The home side smuggled another corner away and it seemed a repeat of the 2-1 scoreline when the teams met in the reverse fixture on Bank Holiday Monday in August was on the cards.
Miller had other ideas however and grabbed a 95th minute goal after good work by sub Charlie Pitcher.
City, who have now drawn their last three league games at Oaklands Park, are currently in thirteenth place but have five games in hand on some rivals as a consequence of their cup exploits.
Next up for Chi is an away game against Faversham on Saturday 4th January (Kick Off 3pm).
Chichester – Mowthorpe, Davidson, Hutchings, Axell, Peake, Heath, Clack, Horncastle, Jones, Rowlatt, Haitham. Subs – (Connor Cody, George Cody, Biggs, Pashley, Iordache)