Crowborough Athletic 2-5 Sheppey United - It just shows if you have an objective and you're willing to work hard and commit to that objective you will be successful, says quadruple winning Sheppey United assistant manager Marcel Nimani

Monday 02nd May 2022
Crowborough Athletic 2 – 5 Sheppey United
Location Maidstone Road Sports Ground, Bournville Avenue, Chatham, Kent ME4 6LR
Kickoff 02/05/2022 13:00

Southern Counties East Football League Challenge Cup Final
Bank Holiday Monday 2 May 2022
Stephen McCartney reports from Maidstone Road

SHEPPEY UNITED assistant manager Marcel Nimani says winning a quadruple of trophies this calendar year is quite a proud moment for him.

Ernie Batten’s side claimed the delayed 2019-20 Kent Senior Trophy after beating Isthmian League South East Division side Corinthian 3-1 here on 1 February, before they retained the silverware by beating Gillingham-based Hollands & Blair 2-1 in Maidstone on 10 April.

Sheppey United completed their Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division campaign as champions after beating basement side Tower Hamlets 3-0 on the final day of the season, finishing with 102 points on the board from their 38 games.

Chatham Town will also join them in the Isthmian League South East Division next season as Kevin Hake’s men finished on 100 points, while Tower Hamlets (11 points) look certain to leave the division as Phoenix Sports have put out a statement today looking for a new tenant so expect the Mile End based outfit to move back to a division closer to home.

Sheppey United returned to Chatham to pick up the Challenge Cup after beating tenth-placed finishers (on 53 points) Crowborough Athletic, with six of the seven goals being scored during the second half.

Captain and attacking midfielder Billy Bennett, 29, notched his 24th goal of the season to give Sheppey United the lead five minutes before half-time.

The Ites doubled their lead just 37 seconds into the second half through left-winger Dean Grant, who then headed in his eighth of the season to give Sheppey United a commanding three-goal lead.

However, Crowborough Athletic’s physically strong targetman Lucas Murrain scored either side of a brilliant strike from Jefferson Aibangbee before Sheppey United striker Warren Mfula scored his 35th goal of the season with a clinical strike at the death.

“It’s been an incredible season.  I think the main thing that’s come out of this season it’s reassuring if you put in hard work it pays off,” said Nimani, 35, who took the game as manager Batten is on a six-week family holiday.

“We feel over the last three years we’ve been quite resilient, sticking to our target.  We had an objective, Covid or no Covid we wanted to achieve it and the first time it came around we managed to do that.

“On reflection it’s quite a proud moment (winning the quadruple) but I think both Ernie (Batten) and I are both football lovers, we get the pleasure out of winning the friendlies as much as we do winning the cup finals so it was just about winning a game of football for us.”

Crowborough Athletic manager Sean Muggeridge said: “We had a game plan and it worked for 40 minutes, then they scored just before half-time, which is always difficult. The team talk’s a little bit different.

“I thought first half we had most of the game but we didn’t create much, their goalkeeper didn’t make many saves but we were in the game and we were on top in the sense of we were in their half quite a lot.

“But they scored a quality goal which just caught us a little but because it was from our set-piece and if you don’t mark Billy Bennett, he will score goals.

“I thought they came out a lot stronger in the second half but I’m really aggrieved with the second goal, our defender was pushed over, everyone could see it and 2-0 just killed us a little bit.

“They scored the third goal and then we scored and we’re back into it again and we were a little bit on top and we could’ve scored but we didn’t and then they scored a quality goal, which they are, they are a quality side and overall they did deserve it.

“It is what it is. These youngsters, they will make mistakes and they will learn from it.  We’ve learnt massively over this season.”

Crowborough Athletic beat Rusthall (3-0), Greenways (3-2), Erith & Belvedere (3-0), Chatham Town (5-1) to reach the semi-finals where they beat Glebe 2-1 on aggregate to reach their first Challenge Cup Final.

Sheppey United defeated Bearsted (2-0), Kennington (2-0), Deal Town (4-2) and beat First Division side Sutton Athletic 7-3 on aggregate to get here.

Crowborough Athletic started the game on the front foot and should have done better with a chance after only 41 seconds.

Right-winger Harry Osborne moved inside the pitch and played a first-time pass upfield and Sheppey United goalkeeper Adam Molloy rushed outside his penalty area to head the ball away but 19-goal winger Elliot Duncan’s first time drive from 35-yards bounced harmlessly wide of the far post.

“The keeper headed it out and Elliott can put it in the goal from that sort of distance, he’s done it before,” said Muggeridge.

“It’s hard on the 3G pitch, it bounced a little bit and I think it’s quite hard to do that (score from there) on a 3G pitch.  I think we were on top but we didn’t put that quality cross in and we didn’t have that final ball to hurt them.”

Nimani added: “I predicted they would (start well).  I think they’ve been looking at our tapes and they wanted to hit us with a high press and they did so we had a plan for that just to offload their press and bypassing it with long balls and we did that well.  As soon as their energy levels dropped then we got back into playing our game and we did that ever so well throughout both halves.”

Muggeridge wants to persuade Jack Funnell not to hang up his boots and the club’s treasurer and right-back clipped free-kick was knocked on from within a crowd of players and Murrain nipped in front of Molloy to steer his header just past the near post from four-yards out.

He said: “We don’t know where we are with Jack next year. He might be retiring, this is why he played today and I thought he was very good against Dean Grant.  He’s in his thirties and he was going to retire but I’m going to try to persuade him to reconsider that.”

A third Crowborough Athletic opening came inside the opening nine minutes when Funnell drilled a low 35-yard free-kick towards goal and the ball deflected off Richard Hamill and was comfortably gathered by Molloy.

Sheppey United hit Crowborough Athletic on the counter attack and should have scored in the 15th minute.

Holding midfielder Hamill released Mfula down the left and he easily cut inside and past centre-half Joe Tyrie to reach the penalty area and he cut the ball back for Bennett, who got in behind Charlie Watkins and swept a first-time right-footed shot across the keeper and past the far post from 10-yards.

“All the people you want it to fall to in that position is Billy Bennett and unfortunately he didn’t manage to do it that time but 25 minutes later he was in a similar position and he (scored) it,” added Nimani.

Muggeridge added: “Those two (Mfula and Bennett) have been doing that all season. They’re not at this level. It was a bit of a let off.  We did quite well against them.  Joe Tyrie got turned by Mfula.  I told Joe ‘don’t feel down about it because Mfula’s a quality player’ and he’ll learn from that.”

Sheppey United then started to click into gear and they produced a sweeping move just 115 seconds later.

Ashley Sains got to a loose ball just before Murrain on the halfway line and galloped forward before playing the ball out to Aibangbee down the right and he played the ball inside for Bennett, who stroked a right-footed shot towards the bottom right-hand corner only for goalkeeper Martin Grant to use a strong right-hand to make a vital save.

Winger Aibangbee, central midfielder Liam Gillies and Bennett linked up well down the right before Aibangbee whipped in a teasing cross, which bounced and sat up for Mfula to hit a half-volley, which he sliced past the far post from inside the six-yard box when he had Funnell to beat on the goal-line.

Crowborough Athletic’s attacking midfielder Jacob Lambert was a threat during the first half and just before the half-hour mark and with Sains pressing him, Lambert cut inside the hit a left-footed drive sailing past the top of the near post from 25-yards.

“Jacob Lambert is a player that we’re hoping to have next year.  We’ve had a lot of interest from other clubs for him,” revealed Muggeridge.

“I think, hopefully, we can still have these youngsters and build for next season because I think they’ve been fantastic.”

Sheppey United grabbed the lead with 39 minutes and 38 seconds on the clock.

Crowborough Athletic had bodies forward for a set-piece and Sains lashed a clearance forward from the edge of his penalty area and this released Mfula down the left channel.

Mfula was pressed by Tyrie but the striker cut inside him and reached the penalty area and put it on a plate for Bennett to sweep a first-time right-footed shot past Grant from six-yards.

Nimani said: “Similar pattern of movement what we’ve worked on particularly we’ve worked on Warren being able to come with a bit more assists.  Warren cut in and Bill gets in with late runs and he got in the right position this time and it was a composed finish, a good goal.

“I was a little bit relieved because I felt a little bit of frustration due to the chances that we missed by that point so when the goal went in there was a little bit of relief, yes.”

Muggeridge added: “That goal after 40 minutes did upset us.  Billy Bennett is very good at coming late but at that time he came early.  Warren Mfula’s not only a good striker who puts the ball in the net, he’s a good provider as well and you’ve got those two players they will do things like that if you don’t mark them.

“It was the transition, how quickly it went forward.  Our midfielders lost their marker and it’s as simple as that.  We let quality players do that to us but I’m not too upset about it because we’ll learn more next year.”

Hyland hit a speculative right-footed drive past the near-post from 35-yards but Crowborough Athletic found themselves a goal down going into the interval.

Muggeridge said: “I was quite pleased and I said to them we’ve got to stop conceding goals just before half time because it does kill us a little bit.

“It we came in at 0-0 our tails would have been up and I thought the first 5-10 minutes of the second half we were a bit down about it.  With youngsters they will play in periods, it’s whether if we can get them to do it over 90 minutes and when they have done, we’ve won games.” 

Nimani added: “First thing we focused on in the break is we told them we had to maintain our patters and movement on the ball.  I felt off the ball we were very affective so there was not a lot of tactical changes. 

“We were very emotional in the game. I felt that Crowborough were quite aggressive towards us and we drew into the aggression. We were giving silly fouls away, we were also a little too emotional and we focused on Liam Gillies a little bit because he came even close to getting sent-off today so we mainly focused on the emotional management in the first half break and I felt we performed better in the second half.”

Sheppey United doubled their lead with only 37 seconds on the clock and Muggeridge insisted the goal should have been ruled out by referee Daniel Blades.

Aibangbee fed the ball into Mfula, who turned both centre-halves Tyrie and Harrison Mayhew on the edge of the box and once inside his strength put Tyrie on the deck and cut the ball back from the right by-line for Grant to smash a first-time right-footed shot into the bottom right-hand corner from eight-yards.

Nimani said: “I think when you play us if we’re aggravated, which is what Crowborough did to us, they aggravated us, you have to be really switched on to keep with us and I think we caught them cold there and they felt the full force of our play.”

Muggeridge claimed: “Not getting that decision here, that was ridiculous really. It just killed us a little bit.  It was 100% a free-kick. I don’t know why it wasn’t given but when you’re at the top of the league you do get those sort of decisions but I’m not taking anything away from Sheppey because to get to that top of the league you have to be a good team and they are a good team.

“When I was at the top of the league with my Crowborough side we seemed to get a lot of decisions. It was definitely a foul in my eyes and I’m an honest person, I don’t lie.  In my opinion it was a foul and it was quite obvious.”

Sheppey United produced some sublime one-touch passing shortly afterwards which almost gave them a third goal.

Hamill played the ball out to Mfula on the left wing before Bennett, Gillies and Grant played one-touch passes within a triangle just outside the box before Mfula let the ball run across his body before drilling a first-time shot towards the near corner, which was superbly kept out by Crowborough’s cup goalkeeper.

Nimani said: “How good a save was that by the way?  We started quite lively, we caught Crowborough a bit off the gas, similar to the goal that we scored, they felt the full force of our movement.”

Muggeridge added; “That was probably better than the goals they scored.  Their movement was good, they are good players. We do stuff like that but we do it less than they do.  We tried to go a little bit longer than we normally do and they man-marked Lambo as well.”

Crowborough Athletic missed a sitter and should have pulled a goal back in the 53rd minute.

An unmarked Funnell played the ball down the edge of the penalty area for Hyland, who twisted and turned Grant on the by-line and cut the ball back for Watkins, who placed a first-time right-footed shot past the foot of the right-hand post from eight-yards.

Muggeridge admitted: “That would’ve been interesting if that had gone in, really interesting.

“He’s a midfielder, a very good midfielder, a striker might’ve been on the end of that, I don’t know but it was a massive chance.  Putting the ball in the back of the net there was the difference between being one-all or 2-0.”

Nimani added: “We’re normally very good defending from wide areas, it’s something that we normally work on a lot.  I felt on that occasion we struggled a little bit there, one-v-one and their guy got the better of Dean and he put a ball in and I’m more disappointed with the guy who ran into the box. He wasn’t picked up. Someone was close enough to put him off so he doesn’t execute correctly but nonetheless I was a bit disappointed with that.”

Sheppey United kept knocking on the door. Grant fizzed in a high cross from the left and Aibangbee rose inside the six-yard box at the far post and headed the ball back and Sains’ attempt from the edge of the box was heading towards the top left-hand corner, only for Grant to pluck the ball out of the air.

Crowborough Athletic faced a mountain to climb as soon as Sheppey United scored their third goal with 18 minutes and 28 seconds on the clock.

Substitute holding midfielder Helge Orome whipped in a right-footed free-kick from the left wing, a delivery of high quality which curled towards the near post.  Grant stepped to his right and beat the ball out but Grant jumped up and nodded the ball over him and into the top left-hand corner from a couple of yards out.

Nimani said: “Dean Grant has had a fantastic season and that’s what he does. Give Dean Grant an opportunity and he will score!”

Muggeridge added: “That was the quality of the cross that caused that and we had three or four in the first half, if we had that sort of quality maybe we could’ve scored.

“The ball has gone through a crowd and it’s gone through a lot of people so I’m not going to blame Martin for that because he’s been superb for us.

“We’ve got two quality goalkeepers.  Martin Grant normally plays the cup games and Cameron Hall plays the league games but Martin’s played in every single game of this cup so I think it was unfair (not to play him in the Final today) because Mark deserved to be in the final because he got us there.”

However, Crowborough Athletic showed great character to find a way back into the game.

Lambert fed the ball to Funnell, who hung over a cross from the right by-line towards Duncan, whose looping header from inside the six-yard box was caught underneath his crossbar by Molloy in the 66th minute.

Lambert headed the ball up to Duncan, who swept the ball into Hyland, who played the ball out to substitute right-winger Kyle Anson, who cut inside and his low angled drive was comfortably held by Molloy, low to his left.

Crowborough Athletic pulled a goal back with 28 minutes and 42 seconds on the clock.

Lambert launched a long ball out of defence and indecision on the edge of the box involving Molloy and his centre-half Howlett-Mundle resulted in Murrain to nip in to poke his left-footed shot trickling into the middle of an open goal from eight-yards.

Muggeridge said: “We had chances, we had more chances in the second half. If we would’ve been more lethal, it could’ve been a lot closer.”

Nimani said: “Lambo is a very good footballer by the way. He played really well the last time we played them so we actually targeted him in the first half and they eventually moved him wide.  We put Liam Gillies on him.  Lambo is a very good footballer.  Their striker (Murrain) is a handful. I thought he gave Ashley and Jahmal a hard day today and not many strikers do so good on both of them.”

However, any hopes of Crowborough Athletic staging a comeback were dashed when Sheppey United produced a moment of quality to score their fourth goal, timed at 31 minutes and 4 seconds.

Substitute winger Connor Wilkins played a low ball in from the left, Mfula put it on a plate again, this time for Aibangbee, who took a touch inside the D before curling a sublime right-footed shot into the top far corner of the net from 20-yards, with Crowborough’s left-back Tom Boddy trying to press him.

Nimani said: “I was quite pleased. I thought the subs that we made had a real impact in the game, particularly in the setting up play. It was a fantastic finish by Jefferson by the way.”

Muggeridge admitted: “That was down to me because I went 4-4-2. I went for it, so they had lots more time in midfield. We knew if you give quality players that sort of time they can do that but that was me going for it.    I sacrificed a player in midfield to put him up front and we got opened a little bit.”

Sains switched off and gifted the ball to Murrain, who lacked composure and power and his 25-yard shot was never going to trouble Molloy.

Grant pulled off a brilliant save to frustrate Mfula.

Hagan whipped in a deep cross from the left, the ball was knocked down at the far post by Aibangbee and Mfula smashed a volley towards the bottom right-hand corner, only for Grant to make the block with his feet.

Muggeridge said: “Martin does that quite a lot.  Against Glebe in the Semi-Final he actually saved a penalty and he’s actually saved four or five, so the whole team got us here but he had a bit part getting us here.  He doesn’t play every week either so he’s playing like that quite cold.”

Nimani added: “What another outstanding save it was by the way with his feet.  I thought the goalkeeper was a very good shot-stopper.  Warren has been a handful, skilful, speed, strength and gets himself into some positions. I thought it was a good finish by him, it’s just a shame the goalkeeper got a good foot on it.”

Crowborough Athletic scored a second goal with 39 minutes and 50 seconds on the clock, only the 12th time this season that Sheppey United have conceded two goals in a game this season.

Duncan’s long ball came in from the right and Sheppey United’s right-back Daniel Birch opened the gate and Murrain nipped in to sweep his shot past Molloy to score his 14th goal for the club.

Muggeridge said: “Lucas is a powerhouse. We picked him up halfway through the season and he’s been unbelievable for us up front.

“Because we knew we couldn’t really sacrifice someone in midfield against that midfield, that’s why Elliott Duncan didn’t play up front, he played on the wing but when he did go upfront it just showed we are going to be a handful. We caused them a few problems.”

Nimani added: “Rather than individuals, collectively as a back four I was rather disappointed with the two goals that we conceded today. It’s not in our nature to concede two goals. It takes a lot for teams to score two goals against us, especially from our own errors.  Teams have to really work hard to score and I felt the two goals they scored they didn’t actually work hard for it but nonetheless it’s the last game of the season so we’ll move on.”

With Muggeridge switching to a 4-4-2 formation, Sheppey United sensed blood and went for the kill.

Hagan cut inside from the left and his right-footed angled drive from 35-yards bounced in front of Grant, who made a comfortable save low to his left to hold.

Sheppey United notched their final goal with one minute and 26 seconds into stoppage time – and have proved that you can get out of this division by playing attractive attack-minded football.

Orome was inside his own half and played a first time defensive splitting pass along the deck and Mfula cut inside and clinically drilled a left-footed drive across the keeper to find the bottom far corner from 16-yards.

Nimani said: “Crowborough put two up top and it was two-v-two at one point. They left themselves vulnerable and I think when teams leave themselves vulnerable at the back with us, we hit them on the counter and that’s what happened.”

Muggeridge said: “Joe Tyrie’s been superb against Mfula and I think on another day it might’ve gone into row 12 but as he’s young and he’s got a massive future and I think he played Mfula really well today.

“He’s only scored one and that says it all about Joe. He’s done well and I’m sure Warren Mfula would say that’s probably one of the best defences he’s played in this league, that’s what I would’ve thought.”

There was still time for Hagan to swing in Sheppey’s seventh corner of the game towards the far post where Wilkins buried his header into the ground and as it rose it was caught above head height by the Crowborough keeper.

Sheppey United finished their historic season on a 26 match unbeaten run. Their last defeat came was a 2-0 defeat in Chislehurst against third-placed finishers Glebe on 18 January and they ended their campaign by winning their last 14 games in all competitions.

Nimani said: “It has been a remarkable, remarkable achievement but it just goes back to the origin of when we started that season we built a side.  We had a plan, we had an identity. We just worked on identity, we recruited players based on that identity. We coached based on our identity, we created a culture and it just shows if you have an objective and you’re willing to work hard and commit to that objective you will be successful and I think we have proved that this year.

“I’m quite young in terms of my non-league career, so this is my sixth year in my non-league career but it easily tops it, doesn’t it?  I’m not motivated by medals and trophies. I’m just motivated by winning games of football, creating a side that can go out there and compete against any side, that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

When asked whether he will be staying at Holm Park for next season’s Isthmian League South East Division maiden campaign, Nimani replied: “I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved here collectively, what we’ve all achieved here and over the next week or so I’m just focusing on enjoying what we’ve all achieved.

“We’re confident that we can have a competitive season. We’re ambitious and that we’re going to invest to making sure that we have the same ambitions as we had this season, next season.

“We’re confident in ourselves, we have a good culture in our changing room, whoever moves on and moves in has to represent our culture.  We’re excited overall, we’ve worked hard for it so we’re excited to see what we can do.”

“We had a mini celebration at the club on the day when we won the league and we’ve got a trip away to Newcastle on the 14th May all courtesy of the chairman’s funding so we’re all looking forward to going to Newcastle and it should be a good night out.”

Muggeridge, meanwhile, is satisfied with a midtable finish with a young squad due to budget restraints.

“It’s good because everyone was tipping us to go down at the beginning of the season.  We normally scrape through, I normally get enough points to stay up.”

Crowborough Athletic: Martin Grant, Jack Funnell, Tom Boddy, Charlie Watkins (Ollie Styles 67), Joe Tyrie, Harrison Mayhew, Elliott Duncan, Ollie Hyland (Alex Emery 81), Lucas Murrain, Jacob Lambert, Harry Osborne (Kyle Anson 65).
Subs: Cameron Hall, Reece Anderson

Goals: Lucas Murrain 74, 85

Booked: Charlie Watkins 28

Sheppey United: Adam Molloy, Daniel Birch, Renford Tenyue, Richard Hamill (Helge Orome 60), Ashley Sains, Jahmal Howlett-Mundle, Dean Grant (Michael Hagan 83), Liam Gillies, Warren Mfula, Billy Bennett (Connor Wilkins 71), Jefferson Aibangbee.
Subs: Max Oldham, Liam Northwood

Goals: Billy Bennett 40, Dean Grant 46, 64, Jefferson Aigbangbee 77, Warren Mfula 90

Booked: Renford Tenyue 30, Liam Gillies 32

Attendance: 724
Referee: Mr Daniel Blades
Assistants: Ms Bethany Archer & Ms Esther Perry
Fourth Official: Mr Richard Joss