Ashford United 0-2 Herne Bay - I'm just delighted for the club that we've done it, says newly-promoted Herne Bay boss Ben Smith

Saturday 30th April 2022
Ashford United 0 – 2 Herne Bay
Location Homelands Stadium, Ashford Road, Kingsnorth, Ashford, Kent TN26 1NJ
Kickoff 30/04/2022 15:00

Isthmian League South East Division Play-Off Final
Saturday 30 April 2022
Stephen McCartney reports from Homelands Stadium

HERNE BAY manager Ben Smith says he is feeling delighted for the club after his side sealed promotion to the Isthmian League Premier Division for the first time in the clubs 135-year history.

Herne Bay will join champions Hastings United in the eighth-tier of English football after claiming a 2-0 win in this winner-takes-all Isthmian League South East Division Play-Off Final, watched by 1,865 fans inside Homelands Stadium.

THE BAY ARE GOING UP:  Herne Bay captain Laurence Harvey celebrates winning the Isthmian League South East Division play-offs with a 2-0 win over Ashford United.
Photo: Herne Bay FC

Hastings United finished their title-winning campaign on 85 points from their 38 games, while Ashford United and Herne Bay finished with personal best finishes of second and third place, with 72 points and 70 points on the board respectively.

Ashford United beat fifth-placed finishers Cray Valley (Paper Mills) (66 points) 1-0 in the Semi-Finals, courtesy of Jay May’s tenth goal of the season, while Herne Bay beat fourth-placed finishers Haywards Heath Town (67) 6-5 on penalties after a six-goal epic at Winch’s Field.

Left-winger Keiron Campbell was outstanding in the semi-final for Herne Bay and he jumped out of Tariq Ossai’s pocket to curl in the first goal here today with 23 minutes remaining before substitute striker Aaron Millbank slotted in his fifth goal of the season from the penalty spot to give Herne Bay their greatest ever day.

“It hasn’t sunk in, it’s not disbelief because I fully believed we’d win today’s game. I thought it was fate. It was going to happen but it’s one thing believing it and thinking it, you’ve got to go and do it,” said Herne Bay manager Smith.

“We had a massive test in front of us.  You just look at the side that started, Michael West has had to have all sorts of injections to play today (groin), which shows what a signing he’s been and a character. He could’ve come here and just strolled around and not really giving his all, but he’s come here and he’s just ingrained himself in the club.  What he has done to be able to play is just remarkable.

“Bode Anidugbe, Zak Ansah and Jack Parter were all injured. We had so many different injuries today where we actually had five sides we were looking at playing because we didn’t know who was going to get through the warm-up.

“We had the doctor in at half-time giving Westy his injection so massive effort not only the players but the people behind the scenes to be able to get a doctor who works in the boxing industry to be able to get here today and be on call to help us over the line.

“We did everything we could and we deserved that (win), we massively deserved that!”

Ashford United manager Tommy Warrilow added: “To be perfectly honest, I thought it was a tight game.  I thought we had the better chances in the first half, even in the second half we had Tashi-Jay Kwayie’s header from a throw.

“I thought the first goal was important today and obviously they got it, but we gave the ball away, it was from our mistake.  

“I’m not disrespecting the way they play and the possession, but we had this on Tuesday.  The (Cray Valley game on) Tuesday took a little bit out of us but we didn’t press as much as we used too but I don’t mind because I didn’t think they were hurting us and then they got the breakthrough and that’s all that counts.

“I thought we had some good opportunities in the first half. I thought they were good chances, not half chances. It is what it is.

“We’ve got to suck it up. It is horrible because it’s the second time we’ve got into the final here and the second time we’ve lost so we’ll dust ourselves down and see what happens next season.

“It’s a bitter pill to swallow but I’m not going to sound disrespectful.  Fair play to Herne Bay. I don’t know what else to say, it is what it is.”

Ashford United created more goalscoring chances but Herne Bay were ruthless and clinical and shall join Kent sides Cray Wanderers, Folkestone Invicta and Margate in the higher division this season, while Ashford United have suffered back-to-back play-off defeats having lost 2-1 to Horsham (after extra time) down in Lancing at the end of the 2018-19 season.  The last two seasons were abandoned due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Nuts & Bolts created the first goalscoring chance inside the opening four minutes.

Centre-half Liam Friend hit a left-footed diagonal up field for Tommie Fagg, who fed Gary Locker.  May then cut the ball back to Frannie Collin, who played the ball inside to fellow holding midfielder Josh Wisson but he sliced his first-time shot wide of the target from 22-yards.

Ashford United started the game well and called visiting goalkeeper Jordan Perrin into making a diving save shortly afterwards.

Right-back Ossai played the ball into Lockyer on the deck and Tashi-Jay Kwayie split open Jack Parter to play Lockyer in behind and his right-footed shot was pushed towards safety by Perrin, diving to his right.

Lockyer scored 20 goals for Kennington in the league below and finished the campaign on 17 goals for Ashford United.

“Gary had a good game today. He was a little bit gutted, the first one the keeper’s made the save. The header he should do better with but he had a good game today,” said Warrilow.

“I’m really pleased for him because on Tuesday he was trying a little bit too hard but today he does what he does, he works his socks off for us.

“I know it sounds stupid but we’re still working on Gary’s game. He’s a great lad and next year he’ll bang in 30 goals. I don’t know what he’s ended up on but he came to us pretty late and we’re just tidying bits of his game up.

“I’m pleased because he got a bit of s**t on Tuesday, which wasn’t necessary  because he always works his socks off but I thought he brought people in the game well and he’ll be disappointed that he didn’t take his chances but he doesn’t have to apologise to anyone for that, it’s just one of those things.”

Herne Bay created an opening following their second of four corners at the halfway mark.

Rory Smith delivered a deep out swinging corner from the left and centre-half Laurence Harvey’s header was caught by the Ashford United keeper Jordan Carey at his near post.

Ben Smith was full of praise for the central defensive partnership between captain Harvey and Daniel Johnson as Herne Bay were only the third team this season to come away from here with a clean sheet.

“Where was it won? Our centre-halves were good. Every time we’ve played against Jay May he’s scored and bullied us,” said Smith.

“Our centre-halves were massive, they were immense.  We brought in Dan Carrington today. We didn’t play him as a full-back, we played him as the third centre-half because he was a centre-half.  Tactically we had to change something (after twice losing to Ashford in the league). I said to you we can’t always do the same thing all the time.  It gave us an extra body in there. I would say it’s another clean-sheet, our defensive record has been so good.”

Herne Bay have kept 18 clean sheets in all competitions this season and six in their last seven games.

Lockyer was a threat in attack for Ashford United and came close to giving his side the lead in the 24th minute.

Left-wing-back Bradley Simms cut the ball back to Kwayie, who floated in a deep cross from the left towards Lockyer at the far post inside the six-yard box and the big target-man guided his towering header back from where it came and sailed just over the top of the far post.

Smith added: “Gary Lockyer’s a good player, a threat. He’s a young Jay May isn’t he? Well, he’s not as young as you’d think but he’s a carbon copy of Jay May.

“I’ve seen him quite a long time. I’ve seen him as an overweight lad in the (league below) and on Sunday mornings and look at the player he is now! I think he’s probably kicking himself that he didn’t sort that out earlier because he would be a lot higher. He’ll be massive for them next year.”

Herne Bay’s threat came from right-winger Rory Smith and some fine individual play from him came in the 29th minute, a solo run from the right, took him past a half-hearted tackle from Ashford centre-half Mohammed Kamara outside the box and Carey dived to his left to use his left hand to deny Smith finding the bottom right-hand corner from a central position some 25-yards from goal.

“We’re playing Rory out of position,” revealed Ben Smith.

“He came in at a time when we needed someone to play on the right-hand side. It’s not what I signed him for. I signed him to be an extra striker. Aberdeen (Scottish Premiership) were trying to sign him as a striker. He’s never played on the wing really. How good was he? He showed why clubs are looking at him.”

Lockyer dropped deep to latch onto Collin’s ball on the deck before sweeping the ball out to Ossai on the right and he easily cut inside Parter and played the ball back to Lockyer, whose first-time swept shot from 20-yards was comfortably gathered by Perrin.

Herne Bay then played out from the back and Campbell dropped deep and clipped a diagonal ball from midfield towards Michael West, who laid the ball off to Rory Smith, whose first-time right-footed drive from 20-yards clipped the outside of the right-hand post.

Ben Smith added: “Is it going to be one of those days when it doesn’t happen for us?”

Warrilow added: “We cancelled each other out and you do in a game like this.  We’re both attacking, my teams are always attacking but we wanted to make sure today we weren’t caught on counter-attacks, which we did do on a few occasions and there was no end product.”

A deep May rolled the ball out to Lockyer on the left and he fed Wisson, who cut inside and cracked a right-footed shot curling around the top of the far post from 25-yards as Ashford United looked the more likely side.

Rory Smith also tried his luck from similar distance, cutting in from the right towards the edge of the Ashford United box but Carey was untroubled with a routine catch.

Ossai drove forward from the halfway line towards the by-line down the right before hanging over a cross towards an unmarked May, who jumped up to plant his header over the Herne Bay crossbar from 15-yards.

When asked whether the 38-year-old May will still be around next season, Warrilow replied: “I’ll have a chat with him.  I thought he done alright. Jay does what he does. Perhaps we were a little bit too far off him at times when we got pushed up.

“It’s Jay’s decision. I’ll have a chat with him but if he says he’s going to play next year his phone won’t stop ringing because he’s been brilliant for us this year.

“We lost him for a little while which was really upsetting because if he was here in that period that he disappeared I honestly think we’d hang on to Hastings a little bit more than what we did but we lost a massive player for nearly two months but he’s back today and I thought he put in a shift.

“We knew he’s going to blow, of course we do.  We’ve still got a relatively young side if you take Liam Friend, Frannie Collin and Jay May out of it.  You don’t have to explain their performances to anyone because they’ve had great careers and great players for the changing room.”

Another headed chance came Ashford United’s way just 85 seconds later when Kwayie’s first-time cross came and Lockyer got in front of Johnson at the back post to head the ball straight into Perrin’s grateful arms as an open first-half came to an end.

“We’ve been 2-0 down both times this season against them so I came in and I’m like ‘well done, that’s advantage us, massive advantage us,” said Smith.

“Our players have got so much belief. We’ve not believed these are not invincible. They gave us so much belief. We’ve had this mental block against the sides in the top half when we’ve been behind so early and we’ve had a mountain to climb.  We didn’t have that mountain to climb today.

“We had that belief that yes, we were giving them some chances and we were a little bit open but you would against them. They’re a percentage side. They play it long, they play on knock downs, they’re going to have chances.  That’s why they’re a good side but I could just see it opening up the other way.”

Another Ashford United chance went begging after only 44 seconds into the second half following the home side’s third of six corners.

Collin floated the ball in from the right and an unmarked May caressed his right-footed volley sailing over the crossbar from 16-yards.

Both sides then cancelled each other out but Ashford United were denied a deserved lead in the 59th minute following a set-piece.

Simms launched his second and final long throw into the Herne Bay box, Friend flicked the ball on at the near post and at the far stick Kwayie’s diving header from the edge of the six-yard box was kept out by Perrin, smothering the ball to his left.

Smith added: “Jordan Perrin had a howler here in the league, an absolute howler.  Jordan Perrin has grown into the keeper that I signed, absolute grown. He was massive today, coming out for crosses, he was claiming them. His kicking was great. It shows the character of the boy.”

Wisson found himself on the left flank and he swept the ball forward towards May, who lacked composure and swept his first-time shot towards goal from 25-yards out, which was comfortably dealt with by Perrin.

However, Herne Bay grabbed the lead with 21 minutes and 30 seconds on the clock.

Ashford right-back Ossai and centre-half Kamara had dealt with Campbell’s pace up until this decisive moment.

Rory Smith was in a central position and rolled the ball out to Campbell on the left, who took a touch and bent his right-footed angled shot across keeper Carey and into the far corner from 25-yards to score his tenth goal of the season and this sparked a party atmosphere from hundreds of travelling fans behind the goal.

“I’ve said he should be playing higher and he will be,” Ben Smith said of Campbell, the match winner over these two play-off ties.

“I mean, he’s too good for this level. That lad who he was up against, he was having a great game and I could hear people when he hit him a couple of times and put some good tackles in, people were like ‘he’s got him in his pocket’, and yes to a degree he was but you’ve got to do that for 90 minutes by the way.  You ain’t going to have the better of him for 90 minutes. He’s frightening when he's on it.

“Kerion came here and I told him he’s coming to a club that wants to get promoted.  Many wouldn’t have believed us at the time.  They were saying we were a relegation candidate. He believed in us, he put his faith in us, took a chance, we rolled the dice and gambled and the gamble’s paid off and we’ve backed up what we’ve said to him.

“A lot of clubs have got a lot of money, of course they have but we pay our money every week and he’s not had an issue once with the club.  Why would he go anywhere else? He’s loved by the people here, why would he?”

Warrilow added: “Josh Wisson’s got caught on the edge and went over. Listen, I thought there were a few fouls that went on for both sides that weren’t given today so that’s not why we’ve lost the game. It’s fine margins and we got punished.

“We had the ball, Tariq Ossai got down well, Wisso got caught on it and the lad’s put it away well.”

Simms played the ball inside to Fagg, who was in space some 30-yards from goal but the midfielder scuffed a weak shot which rolled towards Perrin.

Ashford United have been a threat from set-pieces all season and Collin floated in their fifth corner, from the right which fell to Friend at the far post and his left-footed shot on the turn flew over Perrin’s crossbar with less than 15 minutes remaining.

Collin floated in their final corner from the right and Lockyer’s towering header was caught by Perrin in the centre of his goal.

Herne Bay sealed the deal by scoring the killer goal with 37 minutes and 59 seconds on the clock from the penalty spot.

Substitute attacker Aaron Millbank put in a low cross and Campbell split open the Ashford defence to put Millbank through on goal and referee Abigail Byrne pointed to the spot immediately after Millbank was brought down by Simms’ challenge.

Ben Smith turned his back on the penalty kick and turned round as soon as the cheers went up after Millbank slotted his right-footed penalty into the bottom right-hand corner, sending keeper Carey the wrong way and leaving the goalkeeper down on his backside while it was bedlam behind his goal.

“I didn’t even know Millbank was taking it,” revealed Smith.

“I’ve missed out so many times in senior football.  I’ve won everything in youth football and we were a very good side in youth football. When I came through senior football it has always eluded me.”

When asked whether he thought it was a penalty or not, Warrilow added: “I don’t know! Bradley’s sort of through with him or whatever. If it’s a pen, she should’ve sent him off but I’ve seen them given, I’ve seen them not given. There’s a few things that went on today. I thought we had a few penalty shouts as well but that’s not the reason why we lost.

“It’s disappointing, the fact I thought both goals – I don’t want to sound disrespectful – they weren’t well-worked, they came from us but it was a tight game.”

Harvey and Johnson shut the door in Ashford’s faces and the only thing of note was Zak Ansah being shown a yellow card by the referee for taking his time to leave the pitch as he was substituted by Bradley Shafer inside stoppage time.

The final whistle saw the Herne Bay fans run onto the pitch to celebrate their clubs greatest ever day.

“Fantastic! I wanted the first-place medal but I’ll be honest, it’s everything,” added Smith.

“I’ve never been under pressure, the chairman has not panicked and we’ve not panicked when we’ve had a bad spell and that’s something I’ve learnt as a manager. Yes, I might be lively on the sideline but behind the scenes we’ve not panicked, we’ve never panicked at all this season, even when we’ve had a s**t spell.

“We’ve got full belief in my team would play to their potential we will win the game.  That’s what I’ve had all year.

“I’ve got massive respect for Tommy Warrilow and their team.  They’re a great side and whoever lost today, it was going to be a travesty really. They both deserved to go up, they really go but it can only be one and I’m just delighted for the club that we’ve done it.”

Smith can now start to plan for the club’s maiden Isthmian League Premier Division campaign.

“Bring it on! It’s a great challenge. We will have some tough, tough games but that’s what we want, that’s what you’re in football for.

“People were giving me stick when I said Whitstable weren’t our rivals and I’ll say it again, they weren’t our rivals because the teams that were going to be at the top were always going to be our rivals and next year that’s going to be our aim. Whoever’s at the top, we’ll do whatever we can to try and be… may take two, three, four seasons, it might take a season being down the bottom fighting and scrapping but your ambition has to be let’s do the next one because what’s the point in being involved in football.

“We’re still not got the full potential out of that squad. We’ve added Michael West and we’ve added Rory Smith playing in a new position and there’s young players coming to their prime and we’ve got so much to work with there.

“It’s going to be a hell of a ride and I’m so happy for our fans because they’re going to visit new grounds and it’s going to help the club snowball rather than we’ve got to the play-offs and then it’s tailed off again – it’s going to snowball now.

“To come to Herne Bay and do it with my mates as well and turn this club around, it tops the lot, it absolutely tops the lot.”

When asked which fixtures he is looking forward to the most next season, Smith replied: “Folkestone.  Neil Cugley, he’s been a fantastic manager. The Alex Ferguson of non-league. I’ve never had the pleasure (managing against him) in a league game.  He’s someone I have a lot of respect for and he’s a great role model for any young manager in the game so I’d say that.

“Margate, that’s going to be a local derby. Jay Saunders is another person I’ve got great respect for.

“Your Tony Russell’s of the world (at Lewes). I’ve never come up against them, with the style of play that they’ve got and a coaching team I’ve got massive respect for. I can’t wait, I literally cannot wait, honestly, I cannot wait!”

Reflecting on their largest home crowd for many years, Warrilow said: “Listen, there’s a lot of them here today and a lot of us here today. That’s the 64-million-dollar question. We’ve got to get more. I’ve always wanted to play in front of crowds like this every week, not just today. It’s a great atmosphere and it was edge of the seat stuff because of the rewards of the result.

“But I mean the thing is we haven’t won nothing. It’s been a good season, we’ve finished second which is great but Horsham went up and no one remembers who was second then and I’m sure in a few years’ time or whatever, unfortunately you don’t get nothing for it.

“I’m just gutted that we didn’t do it. We’re at home, a big crowd. I thought it was quite a pretty even game so that’s why I’m saying, I’m not turning round and saying they didn’t deserve the win because it was much of a muchness but they took their chances and we didn’t – that’s the fine margins.

“I’m one of those manager that will walk around with a beer and talk to the lads and get them up but I’m absolutely gutted but I don’t want to show it to them because I know how they feel and they’ve been brilliant for me.

“The last thing they want to do is hear me shouting and hollering at them. They’re devastated in there and I’ll just use the word fine margins.  I don’t think there was a lot in it today.  I don’t mind all about this possession stuff, I don’t mind it. It’s about how teams hurt you and today we’ve not scored and if you don’t score, obviously you don’t get your result.

“I’m not going to lie, it was a hard game on Tuesday but I just felt we did fall short. Hopefully next season they’ll go that extra yard and third time lucky, perhaps?”

Ashford United: Jordan Carey, Tariq Ossai, Bradley Simms, Josh Wisson, Liam Friend, Mohammed Kamara (Johan Ter Horst 85), Tashi-Jay Kwayie (Mamadou Diallo 79), Frannie Collin, Jay May (Luke Burdon 72), Gary Lockyer, Tommie Fagg.
Subs: Jarred Trespaderne, Adem Ramadan

Booked: Tariq Ossai 73, Bradley Simms 83, Luke Burdon 90

Herne Bay: Jordan Perrin, Daniel Carrington, Jack Parter, Bode Anidugbe, Daniel Johnson, Laurence Harvey, Keiron Campbell, Hamilton Antonio, Zak Ansah (Bradley Schafer 90), Michael West (Aaron Millbank 79), Rory Smith.
Subs: Troy Williams, Kane Phillip, Joe Denny

Goals: Kerion Campbell 67, Aaron Millbank 83 (penalty)

Booked: Zak Ansah 90

Attendance: 1,865
Referee: Ms Abigail Byrne
Assistants: Mr George Lowe & Mr David Ellis
Fourth Official: Mr Ayrton Hursey