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Tunbridge Wells 0-5 Ashford United

Sit back, relax and enjoy Phil Barhams account of his day out in the Royal town at the weekend.

Tunbridge Wells v Ashford United. Southern Counties East League. 17th of December 2016.

Tunbridge Wells 0
Ashford United 5

FROM ASHFORD UNITED’S MILTON KEYNES CORRESPONDENT
A week before Christmas, with Ashford United leading the Southern Counties East League by a point, and it was off to one of my favourite fixtures – Tunbridge Wells away. I don’t know why it’s one of my favourites; maybe it’s because the Culverden Stadium is a proper footy ground, and, with Ashford United and Tunbridge Wells being two of the best supported teams in the league, there is always a decent crowd and a good atmosphere.

Usually, it is a competitive affair, with both clubs near the top of the table, but, strangely, Wells have struggled this season, and began the day only a few places off the bottom. In contrast, there was the possibility for Ashford to have a significant day in their push for the championship, with our nearest rivals, Crowborough Athletic and Sevenoaks Town, both in seemingly unstoppable form, playing each other.

It is not by mere chance, however, that I omitted to describe Ashford’s quest as a “promotion push”, given that Ashford United’s name was conspicuous by its absence from the list of clubs that had applied for promotion to Step 4 of the football pyramid, when the list of applicants was released, last week. The Management has very quickly announced an intention to appeal against this omission, but I will not be using the “P” word until the situation is resolved.

What was foremost in my mind, this morning, as I headed down the M1 – on a coach, for the first time ever for a footy trip – was how the players might react to the prospect of promotion being out of reach for another season, especially with so much geared towards “Project Promotion”, this time around. The signs yesterday had been very encouraging, with Ashford actually bringing in an extra player, from Ryman League Hythe Town. This was Ben Wilson, a 24 year-old left-back. This certainly delivered a strong message of “business as usual” to the fans, although I was initially concerned that Wilson’s addition to the squad might be at the expense of Frazer Walker, who had played on the left side of the defence in the previous four games. This was because I had been looking forward to announcing that Frazer is (probably) the first footballer to be named after two “Dad’s Army” characters. (There – I’ve said it). Maybe, I thought, The Management was just fearful of any talk of “We’re doomed !”.

As it turned out, Frazer not only appeared on parade this afternoon, but also retained his place in the starting line-up, in which the most notable absentees were Stuart West and Ben Davisson. (Ben was, nevertheless, present at the ground).

So, a reassuringly strong and familiar Ashford United line-up had George Kamurasi in goal, with Ryan James in central defence alongside Pat Kingwell, (who led the side today, in West’s absence), and Savage George and Private Walker on either side of them. Michael Phillips started in central midfield, with Dave Botterill, with the in-form Ryan Palmer on the right wing and Rory Hill, one of the players of the season, on the left. I am also delighted to report that my old hero, Adrian Stone, made his first start for Ashford United since his return to Homelands, up front with Shaun Welford.

On the bench, as well as new boy Ben Wilson – who is himself named after a member of the “Dad’s Army” platoon – were the assorted attacking options of Luke Miller, Luke Eldridge and Brett Ince. Danny Lye also named himself as a sub.

I was interested to see who might be in the Tunbridge Wells line-up, given the club’s poor showing in the SCEFL this season – and was a little surprised to note the names of Perry Spackman and Jon Pilbeam, two of the heroes of that famous run to the FA Vase Final in 2013. Pilbeam is particularly a class act, and has played for Folkestone Invicta, among others, this season, since his brief spell with Ashford United in 2015-16, (when he scored two goals in five appearances, only one of which lasted for the full 90 minutes).

Although the air was pretty clear in Milton Keynes when the National Express coach left the city, at 9.35am, we hadn’t travelled very far south before it became fairly misty – and the mist was present for the remainder of the journey, and for the duration of today’s game.

But there was nothing dull about Ashford United’s performance, this afternoon. In fact, it was thoroughly polished, and the three points on offer were wrapped up by a first-half display that was as close to being perfect as you are ever likely to see. The home side looked outclassed and outgunned, but the whole Ashford team deserves credit for dominating a first 45 minutes during which they played good, controlled football, and barely gave Wells a sniff of a chance. At the other end, they always looked likely to score goals, with wingers Ryan Palmer and Rory Hill, and the hard-working Shaun Welford, posing a constant threat. At the end of the first half, Ashford had scored three well-taken goals, which effectively settled the game as a contest. (In fact, the only blot on an otherwise pristine afternoon was the sight of Ryan Palmer and Rory Hill wearing gloves, on what was a fairly mild day, for the time of year – get those bleedin’ gloves off !).

If there were any hint of anxiety or disappointment among the Ashford players, as a result of this week’s off-field issues, or any lack of commitment or purpose, then it was impossible to detect, on today’s performance. It would appear that Danny Lye has a squad that is both powering forward as a well-oiled machine, and unerring in its focus and togetherness. For that, Lyzee deserves a great deal of credit.

Although it was the front men who inevitably caught the eye, today, mention should also be made of Pat Kingwell and Ryan James, in the heart of the visitors’ defence, who glided through the game, effortlessly managing and snuffing out any offensive move that the home side made.

The prospect of a difficult afternoon for the Tunbridge Wells defence became apparent very early on, when Shaun Welford, in the opening seconds, got behind the home defence, with an expert turn. His first attempt at a cross, from well inside the Wells penalty area, rebounded back to him, after which his low shot was saved by goalkeeper Steve Lawrence. About a minute later, Welford again found his way behind the Tunbridge Wells back line, and had plenty of time to get his head up and measure a cross, from near the by-line. However, his attempted centre was intercepted, and ricocheted to Ryan Palmer, whose shot was blocked, at the expense of a corner.

The noisy band of Ashford supporters, who managed to sing for the entire 90 minutes, and then carried on in the bar afterwards, had a goal to cheer as early as the fifth minute – and this goal was simplicity itself, in its creation and execution. A long clearance from Big George Kamurasi was headed on by Shaun Welford into the path of Rory Hill, who was instantly through on goal, and had no trouble in slotting the ball past Lawrence.

As well as having scored 59 goals for Ashford, in a little under a season and a half, at the start of the day, Shaun Welford also demonstrates exemplary fitness and work rate. In the ninth minute, he popped up on the right flank, after a good team move, and sent in another dangerous cross. He found Rory Hill, well beyond the far post, whose controlled volley went straight at the ‘keeper, who nevertheless saved well.

On the right wing, Ryan Palmer was making left-back Ollie Black’s life a misery, seeming able to go past him at will. In the 19th minute, Palms beat his man and sent in a cross, aimed at Rory Hill, who was waiting at the far post, but it was just too high for Hill’s diving header. Moments later, it was Rory with the ball at his feet – he managed to beat two defenders, but then blasted his shot across the face of goal.

In the 21st minute, the inevitable happened, with Black fouling Palmer, preventing him from going past him once again, down the right, and this earned the Wells defender a good ticking off from the referee. The man in charge had an excellent game, keeping his cards in his pocket. A minute later, it was Rory Hill’s turn to be fouled, and the ref had some more work to do when Hill reacted angrily – again, good man management won the day. The foul did present Ashford with a free-kick, right on the edge of the Wells penalty area, which Hill took himself – whipping his shot over the four-man wall, but just wide of goal.

It was good to see Mickey Phillips orchestrating operations from central midfield – especially given that he managed to complete a 90-minute shift, in spite of appearing to be singled out with some heavy late tackles early on. A regular outlet for Phillips was Ryan Palmer, and the former club captain fed Palms, on the right, in the 24th minute. The right-winger was again faced by Ollie Black, but, this time, he checked and pulled the ball back to Dave Botterill, whose deep cross found Adrian Stone – but Adrianho managed no more than a tame shot, straight at Steve Lawrence.

The afternoon soon improved for Adrianho, however, when, in the 28th minute, the former Ashford Town favourite scored his first goal since his return to us – in what was to be his first full 90 minutes. The opportunity was instigated by a Mickey Phillips cross, from the right, which found the head of Rory Hill, who came flying in from the left wing. He connected well with his header, but his effort was somehow blocked on the line. The ball broke to Adrianho, who had the composure to pick his spot, before thumping the ball home.

G-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-L !!  A-d-r-i-a-a-a-a-a-n-h-o-o-o-o-o-o-o !!

Ashford went further ahead in the 31st minute, and it was no surprise to see Shaun Welford getting onto the scoresheet yet again. Savage George, the right-back, went on a good run through the Tunbridge Wells half, and slid the ball through to Welford, in the inside-right channel. Attempting a cross from the by-line, the Assistant Manager appealed for a penalty as the ball hit the defender’s hand – but the lino was unmoved. However, Welfs was soon placated, when he was able to rise above the Wells defence and get on the end of the resulting corner, with a trademark downward header. Steve Lawrence managed to get something on the ball, but was unable to prevent it from going into the net. It’s not easy to keep up with Welford’s scoring, but that’s now 23 goals for the season. When Shaun was pulled off at half time – I will rephrase that. When Shaun was substituted at half time, he had scored 60 goals at a rate of 82 minutes per goal, which is comfortably better than a goal a game.

Welford’s strike partner, Adrian Stone, continued to have chances. In the 38th minute, he tried a low, right-footed shot from about the edge of the area, which was just wide, taking a slight nick off a defender. Two minutes later, a diagonal ball from inside the Ashford half by Ryan James, who, very thoughtfully, in the mist, was wearing luminous, green boots, put Adrianho through on goal – but his low shot was easily saved by the ‘keeper.

The first glimmer of a chance for the home side didn’t present itself until the 41st minute, and this came as a result of a rare mistake by Pat Kingwell. As a Tunbridge Wells attack reached the edge of the Ashford United penalty area, Kingwell slightly mistimed his tackle on the home side’s No.15, (who had sneaked on as a substitute, unannounced, from the mist-shrouded benches, on the far side). The resulting free-kick, in a central position, was taken by Jon Pilbeam, whose shot was deflected off the defensive wall, and onto the post, with George Kamurasi a mere spectator.

A minute before half time, Shaun Welford almost made it four, when he came steaming in from the left, to meet a deep Ryan Palmer cross – but his header was deflected wide. That was the final significant action of the half, in which a thoroughly impressive performance by Ashford appeared to have ensured that they would be top of the SCEFL for Christmas.

By far the biggest threat to Ashford leaving The Culverden with the three points was the gathering fog. Visibility was definitely reduced during the second period, making it difficult to identify players on the far side, but it never really looked likely that the game would be abandoned. (I later discovered that two other games in the SCEFL that were being played in the Weald of Kent, this afternoon, at Homelands and at Beasted, were abandoned !).

With the match effectively settled in the first 45 minutes, both teams can probably be forgiven for letting the intensity of the game drop slightly in the second half. Ashford certainly afforded themselves the luxury of making a couple of substitutions at the break, with Luke Miller replacing Shaun Welford, and Ben Wilson making his début, in place of Frazer Walker; (I just love that “Dad’s Army” connection). Wilson immediately looked a good player, although it’s probably not surprising that a Ryman League player should so easily slot into a winning team at this level. To emphasise his immediate impact on the Ashford fans, Ben had his own song, within about half an hour of coming on !

As both teams appeared to be going through the motions, to some extent, there was more time to sit with hands in pockets, as the temperature gradually fell. The only chances of note prior to Ashford’s fourth goal, which came in the 67th minute, were a glancing header wide of goal by Ryan James, from a Mickey Phillips corner, in the 58th minute, and a long-range shot by Pat Kingwell, in the 66th minute, which was wide.

United’s fourth goal was scored by Ryan Palmer, his fourth goal in as many games, having failed to score in his twelve previous appearances. Adrianho ran onto a chip over the Tunbridge Wells defence, and, well inside the 18-yard box, passed up the chance of having a shot and pulled the ball back to Palmer – who shot hard and low, into the far corner of the net.

In the 69th minute, with the fog thickening, an unidentifiable player – I think it was Adrianho – beat two Tunbridge Wells players, before getting in a shot, from inside the Wells area, which was blocked by Lawrence at his near post. Seconds later, Danny Lye made his final substitution, replacing Rory Hill with Luke Eldridge. Unhelpfully, Luke has now been shorn of his blond ponytail, creating the potential for confusion with Ben Wilson – who has a Luke Eldridge-style blond ponytail !

There were some opportunities for Tunbridge Wells to grab a consolation goal, with George Kamurasi having to do some work to maintain a precious clean sheet. In the 79th minute, substitute Luke Carpenter took a corner, on the right. Wells skipper Tom Bryant came flying across the penalty area, and met the low cross (almost) perfectly, flicking the ball goalwards with his right foot, but hitting the bar. Three minutes later, Jon Pilbeam sent in a good shot, on the turn, which Kamurasi gathered well, low down.

Just a minute before time, Wells had an even better chance to pull a goal back, and it was again Jon Pilbeam who showed his class with a well-balanced turn & shot, after a good Tunbridge Wells move. This time, George Kamurasi had to make an even better save, the ball breaking to Ryan Crandley, who blasted wide when he really should have scored.

Just prior to this, in the 86th minute, it was Ashford who nearly added to their total, when, after a not exceptionally fast break, Mickey Phillips, Luke Miller and Ryan Palmer found themselves with a 3 v 2 situation, with Tunbridge Wells strangely exposed at the back. Phillips passed to Miller, and Miller laid the ball into the path of Ryan Palmer, on his right, whose low shot was well saved by the ‘keeper.

But it wasn’t long before the visitors completed their afternoon’s work with a fifth goal, which didn’t flatter them, given the dominance of their performance – and it was Ben Wilson who rounded off an impressive first appearance with a goal, in the first minute of injury time. Luke Miller, from well inside the Tunbridge Wells penalty area, and to the left of goal, laid the ball back to Wilson, who was joining the attack from defence. The ex-Hythe Town man hit a good shot, which hit the post. Strangely, the rebound went to Miller, who returned the ball to Wilson, so that he could have another go !  This time, Ben eyed up the opposite side if the goal – and drilled his shot into the far corner.

An excellent day for Ashford United improved further with the news that, at a misty Greatness Park, the Sevenoaks v Crowborough game had finished 1-1, meaning that both of Ashford’s rivals had dropped points. Sheppey United managed to lose 2-1 at Cray Valley PM, and so Ashford will be four points clear at the top of the table when they travel to play Sheppey on Boxing Day.