Sutton Athletic 0-0 Larkfield & New Hythe - We will never give up winning the title so we'll keep going, says Sutton Athletic coach Tristan Cropley

Saturday 02nd April 2022
Sutton Athletic 0 – 0 Larkfield & New Hythe
Location Lower Road, Hextable, Kent BR8 7RZ
Kickoff 02/04/2022 15:00

Saturday 2 April 2022
Southern Counties East Football League First Division
Stephen McCartney reports from Lower Road

SUTTON ATHLETIC coach Tristan Cropley says his side are not going to give up challenging for the Southern Counties East Football League First Division title after being held to a goal-less draw for the first time in 119 games.

The last time that Daniel Kelly’s side were held to a goal-less draw was a game in Charlton against Bridon Ropes on 8 September 2018.

It is rather refreshing that the top two sides in the division do not operate with a playing budget. 

Stansfeld remain at the summit with 75 points with six games remaining, while the four sides currently in the play-off zone tonight are Sutton Athletic (69 points with five games remaining), Larkfield & New Hythe (66 points with five games left), Snodland Town (62 points with five games left) and Bridon Ropes (58 points with five games left).

“Entertaining, it was a tough game,” said Lincolnshire born Cropley.

“I actually thought it was a really good spectacle for the neutral. It was a good advert for this division and this league.

“We felt particularly at half-time it will be one of those games where one goal would nick it for either side. 

“It’s not a case of two points dropped, it’s a good point. It’s a point in the right direction. 

“We know how good they are, they probably needed the win more than us on paper but it’s a good point and normally I’ll be disappointed with a draw but it felt like a good point.”

Bristol born Larkfield & New Hythe manager Kris Browning said: “Pleased with a draw. I thought we played well. If we had taken our chances in the first half it may have been a bit different but I think when you come to a place like this with a few key players missing, to come here and get a draw, I’m quite pleased.”

Browning had to make five changes to the side that beat basement side Chessington & Hook United 1-0 in midweek.

“Obviously it’s stag-do season, holiday season, so obviously with the Covid thing a lot of lads missed out on holidays for the last two years and they’ve re-booked them.  That’s the way it is unfortunately.  We had a couple of injuries as well. We’ve got a decent squad so we’ve patched things up and I thought the lads did well when they came in.”

Sutton Athletic’s talisman 39-goal striker Arlie Desanges missed a glorious chance to give his side a tenth minute lead.

Central midfielder James Sutherland threaded the ball into Desanges, who beat the offside trap but swept his right-footed shot past the left-hand post from within the D.

Cropley said: “It’s a shame isn’t it.  There’s a lot of ‘what ifs’. If that had gone in it would’ve been a different game. Would it have spurred us on, would it have spurred them on? But players miss chances don’t they so you just have to move on.  He is human after all but we had enough chances particularly in the second half as well.

“We wanted to start on the front foot, we don’t normally start games particularly quick so Dan Kelly was very keen to get us out of the blocks and we did.

“I think then after the miss that was kind of the spark for them, they started to play a lot higher, they played a high line, tried to press us and tried to panic our defenders on the ball and credit to them, up until the half, they were the team in control of the game.”

Browning added: “He’s been a top striker, he’s one of the best strikers in Kent at this level. When he went through I thought we were going to be 1-0 down and obviously he missed it. He doesn’t miss many so I was pretty pleased with that.”

Larkfield & New Hythe started to take control of the game during the second half of the first half on a rock hard playing surface at Lower Road in Hextable.

“We got a foothold in the game after 10-15 minutes and started getting our passing and started linking up well and working in pairs and working in triangles. I thought we did well.  I thought after that we got better and better,” added Browning.

Jake Beecroft and Joshua Jackson linked up well inside the final third before Beecroft whipped in a cross from within the left channel and striker Brett Ince nipped in front of his marker to stab his shot straight at Joe Hyde from eight-yards in the 22nd minute.

Central midfielder Beecroft played a through ball in behind Sutton Athletic centre-half Darren Wheeler and right-winger Dan Lott hit a low angled drive which caused Hyde problems at his near post, bouncing in front of him and looping up before the keeper ensured he flicked it behind for a corner.

Jackson was keen to work the left-channel, while Ince often dropped deep and Larkfield & New Hythe were to be denied a deserved lead in the 28th minute.

Holding midfielder Jack Bray released Jackson down the left channel and his low cross was cut back towards the edge of the box towards an unmarked Lott, who swept a right-footed shot on the turn towards the bottom far corner from 16-yards, only for the outstanding Hyde to dive to his left and use a strong left hand to push the ball around the post.

“Joshua Jackson got asked to do a job for us today and he did it for us and he was outstanding,” said Browning.

“I’m one of his biggest critics because I know how good a player he is and it’s one of those relationships but I do think highly of him but today he stood up.  You’ve got to remember he’s still a young lad and he was outstanding for us.

“Joe Hyde made some great saves for them. Considering we were the away side, we had the upper hand in the first half and the chances that we had and the saves he made, he made two great saves. The one from the left-hand from Lotty was a great save.”

Cropley said: “I said this to you before after the Greenways game, the goals against column (37 goals in 33 league games) will look like it does. We let in a lot of goals but it isn’t down to the goalkeeper.  We’ve probably got one of the best goalkeepers in the division and when he’s called upon, he makes those types of saves.”

Jackson, a physically strong targetman, cut the resulting corner short to Beecroft, who slipped in Jackson, whose rasping drive was beaten out by Hyde at his near stick.

Larkfield & New Hythe kept playing on the front foot and knocking on the door and in the 35th minute, Tom Willoughby, Beecroft and Jackson all linked up well down the left before Jackson played the ball in from within the channel again towards the near post where an unmarked Lott found a pocket of space at the near post only to steer his header wide from inside the six-yard box.

Larkfield & New Hythe turned defence into attack when right-back Ross Ibbertson played a sublime 60-yard diagonal pass along the deck, which cut out Sutton Athletic’s right-back Tony Hill for left-winger Hicham Akhazzan, who cut inside and drove a right-footed drive which was comfortably caught at head heigh by Hyde to prevent the ball arrowing into the far corner.

Some more good link up play from Akhazzan and Jackson resulted in an unmarked Ince drilling a right-footed shot towards the far corner from 25-yards, forcing the impressive Hyde to dive to his left to palm the ball towards safety.

Cropley added: “It was worrying, the last 10-15 minutes of the first-half.  We contained it well, it was kind of bits and bobs around the box.  I don’t think there was a lot of chances that they’ve created from that dominance from the press in the first-half. They probably felt they should’ve been at least a goal up at half-time but then again with our chance we probably could’ve said the same, it was a good contest.”

When asked about his thoughts at the break, Cropley replied: “Half-time was very much ‘well done’ to the lads for the work-rate, the fact that they matched the work-rate of Larkfield, that they stayed in the game, although there was a lot of pressure balls and high balls into the box, head tennis going on, that we didn’t melt and we could’ve so it was well done for that.

“Larkfield have a small pitch and they tried to play very narrow and compact and try to make the pitch as small as possible and Dan just said do the opposite, make the pitch as big as possible. It’s a wide pitch, we’ve got pace and guile on the wings, let’s use it.  Let’s spread out a bit and not play so narrow.”

Browning added: “We huffed and puffed but to come here and create three or four decent chances in the first half at a place like this was credible for us I thought.

“I said keep it going. They will keep their stance, they don’t really change much Sutton. They will keep knocking the ball around, trying to get in behind us and things like that. We just have to stay disciplined. The biggest word for us today was to be disciplined out on the pitch and I thought we were.”

Sutton Athletic created a decent opening after only 220 seconds into the second half.

Some sloppy defending from Larkfield’s left-back Willoughby opened the gate for Desanges to cut into the penalty area down the right and he played the ball along the deck inside to Evans, who cracked a left-footed drive from 18-yards, which forced Scott Andrews into diving to his left to push towards safety.

Cropley said: “It’s a shame.  The theme of the game was if one goes in, it’s probably the game and neither side, it wasn’t the day for it to go in.  It’s frustrating but we still created those chances. We still had a couple of chances and Conor was creating quite a lot in the second half. He probably created two or three himself.”

Browning added: “It was a good save by Scott and we know how good that Conor kid is as well, he’s a very good player.

“I’m very pleased with that. They were the home side and they came at us and they are going to create chances but Scott’s been superb since he took the chance in October coming into the side. He’s been outstanding and he’s a good safe pair of hands back there.”

Larkfield & New Hythe’s centre defender Jack Clark played a free-kick short to Ibbertson, who fed the ball into Jackson, who shrugged off Wheeler outside the box and he managed to get his shot away, flashing a left-footed drive past the post from 25-yards.

Sutton Athletic’s left-winger Evans sprung into life during the second half and clipped the top of the near post straight from his left-wing corner in the 61st minute.

Ince then stroked a right-footed free-kick from 35-yards and Hyde stepped to his left to comfortably catch the ball at the other end.

“I thought we were outstanding in certain areas.  I would most probably say I don’t think there was anything missing in regards to how we played because the keeper made some great saves and we created chances.  I don’t think we missed a lot out there to be honest with you.  I just thought it was a good disciplined performance by us,” said Browning.

Sutton Athletic’s central midfielder Jacob Kalonda put in a hard-working shift and he had a chance from within a crowded penalty area following the home side’s second and final corner at the halfway point.

Evans’ swung in a corner from the left, Andrews did well to punch the ball away while under pressure and Joby Smith put the ball back into the danger area.  Desanges jumped up inside the six-yard box and the ball was cleared as far as Kalonda, who stroked a right-footed curler towards the bottom right-hand corner, which Andrews dived low to his left to hold well.

“I know Jacob’s full of running and energy, aggressive in the right way. He obviously played for Bridon Ropes earlier on in the season and I know him from my time at Welling Town and I was pleased when he joined the club and we brought him in for that,” said Cropley.

“We’ve had teams that are more physical than we are and we’re not the tallest team in the world.  I think Arlie is the only one over six foot other than the goalkeeper so just a bit of bite and aggression in midfield and Jacob offers that and also he’s got a bit of talent as well that he can create and he scored a good goal (in our 5-1 win at Forest Hill Park) on Wednesday.”

There was a hint of controversy as Larkfield & New Hythe almost snatched the victory in the 70th minute.

Akhazzan played the ball inside to Beecroft, who smashed a first-time shot towards the corner flag from outside the box, only for lino Mark Relf to wave for a corner, despite the ball not taking a deflection of anybody.

Jackson swung in the corner from the left and the ball was cleared out to Ibbertson, who drilled his shot into the solid ground and Hyde juggled the ball and caught it at the second attempt at his near-post.

Browning said: “That could go in, that could go anywhere. That’s what can happen at this time of the season with the bobbly pitches. It could really go anywhere but he’s saved it to his fortune and our miss-fortune and it would’ve been harsh on the keeper, it would’ve been one of those football moments.”

Cropley said: “It was one that took a couple of goes for Joe to get it under control.  I could show you a showreel but last week, the free-kick that wasn’t and then the opposition scored from it.

“When they got the corner that only the linesman saw and nobody else did and we were like ‘oh, no, not again,’ you know what happens. You get a free-kick or a corner or anything against you that’s dubious, it normally goes in so we were pleased that he dealt with it.”

Sutton Athletic created one final chance with 10 minutes remaining with a sweeping move involving substitute right-winger Harry Bradford, who played the ball into Desanges in the middle and Evans ghosted past Ibbertson and flicked the ball up before smashing his volley over the top of the near post from eight-yards.

Cropley said: “It’s a shame but hats off to Larkfield, their defending was brilliant. I wouldn’t say it was backs against the wall because it was an even game but when they were off the ball their transitions were really good, they crowded us out and they defended their 18-yard box really well, so when you see Conor or Arlie chipping it over the defence to make space, you know the team are doing really well defensively.  We were trying to unlock the door really and the ball over the top was what we were trying to do in that area there.”

Browning, meanwhile, was delighted that his back four of Willoughby, Lewis Mingle, Clark and Ibbertson kept out the threat of Desanges and Evans, whom have scored 60 goals between them.

He said: “I thought the back four were outstanding. They kept them at bay.  Lewis Mingle’s just come back from another six week lay-off from injury and Clarky’s just gone centre-half, he’s normally a centre-midfielder so for them to keep them out, again that’s a massive plus because they (Desanges and Evans) are top players, very, very good players.”

Larkfield & New Hythe welcome third-from-bottom Staplehurst Monarchs United to New Hythe Lane next Saturday.

The Larks are on an impressive 11 match unbeaten run, having last tasted defeat in a 2-1 cup defeat to Hollands & Blair on 12 December.

“I’m happy with a point, yes, I’m happy with a point. Obviously coming here with a, I wouldn’t say a depleted squad because I would say we’ve got a very good squad but having to make so many changes but I suppose it’s that time of the year where teams will be doing it all over the country. It’s the Easter holidays where people are just here, there or everywhere.  That’s 11 unbeaten now so we’re over the moon with that.

“I know Staplehurst’s lot quite well, a nice club. It’s a sort of a local derby for us.  Steve Sands is their manager, he’s a very good manager. They’ve got people who love the club, they’re a good family club so we will expect the lads will know them, it is a local derby.  We know a few of their lads and they know a few of our lads. It will be nice to be back at home and we’ve got to go and try to pick up three points.”

Premier Division leaders and promoted side Sheppey United come to Lower Road on Wednesday night, with a 2-1 lead from their Challenge Cup Semi-Final First Leg.

Sutton Athletic haven’t scored in both league games against Larkfield & New Hythe this season, having lost the away game 2-0 back in October.

Cropley said: “I take the positives in the sense that it’s the second and third best teams in the division. It was a good spectacle. It was a good battle, both teams came off with mutual respect and sometimes when points are desperate it can become a bit niggly, it can be a bit nasty but it didn’t. It was played in the right spirit.

“Everybody played really well. It was competitive and both teams are both resigned to the fact that we will probably both be in the play-offs so we’ll just see where the places are.

“Ideally, if you can’t finish first, then you finish second and that’s our mentality and Larkfield are the same, they’ll want to finish second or third and want home advantage in the play-offs.”

Despite Stansfeld leading Sutton Athletic by six points, Cropley insists his side have not thrown in the towel when it comes to winning the league title for the first time.

“We will never give up so we’ll keep going, keep trying to win and then we’ll come off the pitch and we’ll see what happens and at the end of the fifth game whoever’s top of the league deserves it,” said Cropley.

“We won’t give up on it. We’re not going to rest players because we haven’t got the players’ to rest. We’ll just try to win every game. 

“We’ve got Sheppey on Wednesday so we’ll try and win that game and then you add all of the points up.”

Browning, meanwhile, is settling for a place in the play-offs, admitting Stansfeld are not catchable.

“I’ve said since Christmas really Stansfeld have got something special going on there and fair play to them. I think they’ve got a cracking side and if they go on to win it, which I think they will do, then fair play and then I just think it’s going to be a lottery then to get us in the play-off places.

“We just have to keep picking up points and make sure that we’re in the play-offs and then we’ll just see how we go in the semi-finals, hopefully we’ll win that and then go up through the play-offs.

“We know that we’re not going to win the league so I think minimum are the play-offs and just try our luck in the play-offs and see how we get on from there.

“It’s a two-three year plan that we’ve got and it’s a short-term plan to get promotion and if we can get it this season then great, if not, then we’re building for next season.

“We’ve got to cement the play-offs first and when we’re in them we just got to be at our best.  We’d like to finish second, without a doubt because then you get the two home games, or third. We definitely want to be at home in the play-offs.”

Sutton Athletic: Joe Hyde, Tony Hill, Tom Menditta (Henri Fulton 56), Jacob Kalonda (Dekkland Wallace 78), Darren Wheeler, Richard Gregory, Conor Evans, Dan Gunner, Arlie Desanges, James Sutherland, Joby Smith (Harry Bradford 78).
Subs: Lewis Oduku, Daniel Watson

Booked: James Sutherland 17, Jacob Kalonda 73

Larkfield & New Hythe: Scott Andrews, Ross Ibbertson, Tom Willoughby, Jack Bray, Lewis Mingle, Jack Clark, Hicham Akhazzan (Paldon Bepe 86), Jake Beecroft, Brett Ince, Joshua Jackson, Dan Lott.
Subs: Keaton Courtman, Rob Lyall, Marc Powell

Booked: Jack Bray 23

Attendance: 56
Referee:  Mr Wayne Cooksey
Assistants: Mr Stephen Gorman & Mr Mark Relf