Erith & Belvedere 2-1 Littlehampton Town - It's an early Christmas present and we can now go away and enjoy that, says delighted Erith & Belvedere boss Matt Longhurst

Wednesday 20th December 2023
Erith & Belvedere 2 – 1 Littlehampton Town
Location Park View Road, Welling, Kent DA16 1SY
Kickoff 19/12/2023 19:45

Isthmian League South East Division
Wednesday 20 December 2023
Stephen McCartney reports from Park View Road

ERITH & BELVEDERE manager Matt Longhurst says he can now relax and enjoy his Christmas break after winning this relegation six-pointer to climb out of the Isthmian League South East Division drop zone tonight.

The Deres extended their winless run to 12 games after losing 5-0 at home to champions-elect Ramsgate on Sunday and Longhurst’s decision to take the captaincy away from centre-half Rob Strachan and hand it to talisman winger Josh Ajayi, 21, had the desired effect.

Littlehampton Town opened the scoring after only 98 seconds when right-wing-back Jordan Layton converted a penalty – which was the 16th goal that Erith & Belvedere have conceded in their last four games.

However, Erith & Belvedere restored parity inside the opening eight minutes when recalled striker Mack Reilly tapped in his first goal for the club.

Ajayi – who was the only home starter with a goal to his name this season – tucked in his fifth goal of the season from the penalty spot on the hour mark to ensure Longhurst’s side claimed their first league win since beating Hythe Town 1-0 here on 30 September.

“Delighted for the players, delighted for how hard they’ve worked.  This has been a tough, tough period and certainly for the boys (Jordan Perrin, Ross Craig, Rob Strachan, Josh Ajayi) that have been here since the start and taken pay cuts etc, etc, etc and remained at the club,” said Longhurst.

“I’m delighted for all the boys because it’s such a young group, so for all of the players, I’m absolutely delighted and the staff as well.

“We trained Saturday, we played Sunday, we trained Monday in preparation of tonight. I can’t fault them.  Some of the players don’t get paid, neither do none of the staff, so I’m really pleased for the players.

“Was it pretty? Absolutely not! Very different to Sunday’s game against Ramsgate but ultimately it was about points tonight and that is the ultimate goal and we’ve come away with exactly what we needed, climbed out of the bottom two and we can breath for seven days until we come back into training and then we’ve got 10 days until our next game.

A little bit like Boylie’s interview (Steve O’Boyle after his Phoenix Sports side beat Ashford United 3-1 at the weekend), It’s a little bit of an early Christmas present and we can now go away and enjoy that.  It’s been a long time coming but nights like tonight when you do get the three points, that’s why you’re in the game.”

Beckenham Town (eight points from 15 games) are now joined in the relegation zone by Broadbridge Heath (11 points from 14 games).

Erith & Belvedere are now third-from-bottom with 12 points from 16 games, a place beneath Littlehampton Town (12 points from 14 games), while Merstham (12 points from 15 games), Horndean (12 points from 14 games) and Phoenix Sports (15 points from 18 games) follow.

Longhurst explained why he changed his captain for this vital must-win game.

“Josh’s been through such a tough period, even at Ramsgate last year and then going to Dover. It didn’t quite work out and he had the Spurs and Stevenage thing.

“I just feel like there’s been quite a lot of criticism of him, as a young player, as a person. I just kept on backing him. People have criticised me for doing so and I’ve just continued to persevere with him because I just feel he does have that little bit of magic that we need to get out of the position that we’re in.

“I just felt he has stuck at it. He’s taken major pay cuts while being at Erith & Belvedere. He could’ve gone to five clubs in our league, two clubs in the league above and he hasn’t and he’s stayed here and stayed loyal to the club and stayed loyal to me.

“I just felt tonight in such an important game, it was the right thing to do to give him the captain’s armband and ultimately he’s got his goal. He’s walked off the pitch as the captain and we’ve got three points.”

When asked how Strachan took the decision, Longhurst revealed: “Perfect.  I spoke to Rob while I was doing it and Rob actually handed the captain's arm band to him in the changing room.  It’s not a long-term thing but he was brilliant.

“Rob took the warm-up and led the group in the dressing room but it was the right thing to do for Josh.  Rob and Josh have been here all season.  They travel together and Stachan understands the importance of making sure we get out a good performance from Josh tonight because he’s going to be important for us.”

Erith & Belvedere got off to the worst possible start when centre-half Billy French’s poor touch ensured the ball rolled out for a throw-in, which was quickly taken by Ollie Starkey, who fed striker Dion Jarvis, who whipped in a cross from within the left-channel towards the far post where the unmarked Nodirbik Bodomurodov’s driven shot struck the hand of left-back Ross Craig and assistant referee Callum Dorling flagged for a penalty after 38 seconds.

Layton’s right-footed penalty nestled inside the bottom left-hand corner to give Littlehampton Town the lead.

“I think it’s a harsh penalty if I’m honest. He’s fired it at him. I’m not sure but we have to start much better than that. That’s a poor start,” admitted Longhurst.

“As good as we were in the first 35 minutes against Ramsgate, we were just as poor in the first 30 seconds here. We were awful.  It’s something that we have to look at but tonight was about a result.

“I had to bite my tongue as much as I could because they didn’t need any more pressure on them, so I was desperately trying to keep calm as much as I could, although I felt we weren’t quite at it.”

However, the home side showed resilience to fight their way back into the game and Ajayi played a square pass inside the attacking midfielder Cameron Andrews, whose right-footed 30-yard drive was smothered by visiting goalkeeper Lewis Boughton – one of seven changes made by Mitchell Hand and George Gaskin – having suffered a 6-0 home defeat to Sheppey United in their last outing on 12 December.

Erith & Belvedere drew level with seven minutes and 58 seconds on the clock, following a three-man move.

Holding midfielder Jack Palmby drove a long ball in behind Scott Packer – who plays on the right of a three-man defence – to put Andrews in behind and he reached the by-line before putting it on a plate for Reilly to slid the ball over the line in the centre of the goal from very close range.

“We’ve taken Marucs Elliott out because he played a lot of minutes on Sunday and obviously his age now and his recovery and stuff so we put Mack in.  He’s a good player,” explained Longhurst.

“They play a back three.  We played them before, we beat them 6-0 but you get so much space in the box and also they play quite a high line so we asked Cameron to make those runs.  We played with two sitting midfielders tonight and Cam made a lot of those runs in behind and it was something that we felt that we could expose.

“Cameron done well. We’ve still got to put it in the goal and it’s something that we haven’t done (scoring only seven league goals before tonight), so it was nice.”

Erith & Belvedere right-back Leo Vowles was the home side’s weak link in defence and he gave the ball away to Gaskin in the channel, who fed Bodomurodov, whose shot deflected past the far post when well-placed.

Central midfielder Dave Herbert then ran straight down the heart of the pitch towards the Erith & Belvedere penalty area before he was tackled, before the ball came out to Bodomurodov (who plays behind the front two), but he dragged his left-footed shot across the keeper and past the far post from 25-yards.

Erith & Belvedere produced a fine sweeping move which involved French and Lee Lewis in midfield, before the ball was worked out to pacy winger Simon Gyimaha out on the right. He ignored Vowles on the overlap before sweeping his left-footed shot past the foot of the near post from 25-yards.

The home side missed a glorious chance to take the lead in the 25th minute.

All eight of their corners came in the first half and Andrews played their fourth short to Ajayi, who turned his man on the by-line before French laid the ball off to Gyimaha, before Palmby fed Andrews on the right.

Andrews chipped the ball towards the back stick where Gyimaha planted his free header over the crossbar from eight-yards out, the former VCD Athletic winger holding his head in despair.

Longhurst’s response was inevitable, saying, “He’s got to score! Just head it down, Just head it down.   He’s probably not known for his heading, seeing he’s four foot five but he’s got to score!”

Littlehampton Town called Jordan Perrin into making a flying save in the 33rd minute.

Perrin, Ross Craig, Strachan and Ajayi are the only survivors from Erith & Belvedere’s 6-0 win over Littlehampton Town in The FA Cup Extra Preliminary Round on 6 August.

Gaskin played the ball into Jarvis – who held the ball up in the final third – and waited for support from left-wing-back Starkey, who cut inside and cracked a right-footed 25-yard drive, which forced Perrin to dive to his right to push the ball towards safety.

Gyimaha should have done better when he latched onto Ajayi’s hooked pass and was through on goal.  He lifted the ball over the advancing goalkeeper and went to pieces inside the box and the chance went begging.

“I think he’s got to be clever and just take his touch past the goalie and then the goalie’s out of the game and he’s got an open goal but look, he’s tried to go over him but I thought Simon was a threat tonight. I thought he did really well,” added Longhurst.

“He blew up after about 65 minutes on Sunday but he’s been playing at VCD and the level’s are different and what we require the players to do. He came in on Monday and trained really well and ran after training as well.

“I thought he was a constant threat, which is something we’ve lacked at times but I thought Josh and Simon were threats and I think that’s what we’ve got to do, carry a threat and both of them did that.”

Erith & Belvedere were the better side during the first half and Craig played the ball out to Ajayi on the left, who cut inside and whipped in an excellent cross towards the near-post, which evaded Reilly and was comfortably pushed around his near-post by the diving Boughton.

“I felt Leo Vowles and Jack Palmby, as good as they’ve been, I thought they needed to raise their game slightly.  I felt Leo started slowly and he needed to be a little bit more aggressive,” said Longhurst.

“But also we just spoke about, do we need to build the play loads tonight? I don’t think we do. I think we needed to get the ball in behind them and we’ll get chances.

“There’s loads of different ways of winning games of football and we’ve all got this idyllic way of playing but ultimately sometimes you’ve got to play to your strengths and their weaknesses and we identified what they were weak at because we’ve seen it in the first game of the season and we’ve had them watched since and we had to exploit that and we did and that’s where both goals came from, runs in behind.”

Littlehampton Town came out with all guns blazing at the start of the second half and should have scored after 138 seconds.

Bodomurodov floated in a cross with his left-foot down the right towards the back post where captain Jarvis headed down and past the upright from six-yards.

Packer then launched a long ball out of defence to release Jarvis, who cut inside and his 25-yarder bounced once and was comfortably gathered in Perrin’s midriff.

Herbert’s long ball released Gaskin, who cut inside and his angled drive from 25-yards was beaten away by Perrin at his near-post in the seventh minute.

“All the games in this league are tough.  At the end of the day, they’re still a bigger club than us, they’ve got a bigger fan base than us, there’s no easy games.  You’ve got to expect they’re going to have a little period.  What we have to do is carry on weathering storms when other teams have a little period and we have to understand how we get a foothold back in the game,” said Longhurst.

Layton – who appears to throw the ball one handed in a shot put motion – hurled the ball into the Erith & Belvedere box on eight occasions during the game and Littlehampton Town missed a great chance via this tactic.

Layton looped the ball in from the left – substitute Bradley Dolaghan’s first touch of the ball was to flick the ball on for Gaskin to head the ball over the crossbar, as Littlehampton Town switched to a 4-3-3 formation.

“He’s got to score! He’s got to score.  Those are the ones that have been going in against us if I’m honest and obviously tonight they didn’t, so you’re in a little bit of the lap of the gods but I thought we deserved that luck with how hard we’ve worked recently,” added Longhurst.

Erith & Belvedere swiftly hit Littlehampton Town on the counter-attack when Reilly cut into the penalty area from the left, easily beat Marshall Bale (who plays in the heart of their three-man defence) before he was fouled by the corner of the six-yard box by Packer.

Ajayi held his nerve to place his right-footed penalty into the bottom left-hand corner to score the winning goal, with 14 minutes and 53 seconds on the clock.

“We, if anything, we probably scored a bit too early for my liking because it was a long time left and we haven’t been used to being in the lead so it was a little bit nervy,” said Longhurst.

“Was it the greatest penalty? No! You’ve got a centre-forward who hasn’t scored for ever and a day but I’m delighted for him because he needed it to go in.

“I’ll be putting him on pens because ultimately we trust him, so I’m delighted for him. I’m delighted for him as a person, individually and collectively as a group, for a group of young players.”

Craig hit the ball down the line to release Ajayi, who cut inside and his right-footed flicked shot was comfortably held by Boughton beside the base of his near-post inside the final four minutes.

Perrin was called into making a diving save to deny Littlehampton Town scoring a late equaliser (44:06).

Layton cut in from the right before spraying the ball out to an unmarked Dolaghan, who put in a cross towards Gaskin, who took a touch before his right-footed shot from 12-yards forced Perrin to save low to his left.

Longhurst said: “A good save. I said to you on Sunday, I felt a little bit sorry for Jordan because he’s let in a lot of goals recently and he hasn’t really deserved that.

“He’s been another one, he’s been a great character for us and in the dressing room. He came here last year to help me win the (Southern Counties East Football League by one point) and he’s stayed this season and really wanted to stay apart of the club. He could’ve gone but he’s chosen to stay and when those players do that, it’s really important that we recognise that and he’ll certainly be over the moon with that three points.”

Gaskin then dinked a square pass to Jarvis, who ran onto the loose ball before drilling a first-time right-footed drive screaming just past the top of the left-hand post from 25-yards.

Layton whipped in the away side’s fourth and final corner towards the near-post but the angle was too tight for centre-half Bale, who steered his header over the crossbar.

Referee Craig Charles played 47:02 in the first half and 53:37 in the second and Erith & Belvedere deserved the victory, which relieved the pressure off Longhurst going into the festive break.

“Tonight was solely about a result. The rest of it is kind of immaterial. As much as there’s plenty to work on but we’ve got a nice little break now and we can just enjoy it.  I’ve just finished work for Christmas and I’ve just finished football for Christmas and I’m going to enjoy some time with my little boy and my missus and relax.”

Erith & Belvedere are next in action with a trip to tenth-placed Ashford United on Saturday 30 December before playing seven league games in January 2024.

“I’ve been doing this for such a long time and that’s why when Paul and Amy Springett took over they were really keen for me to try to stay because I’ve got the experience of being in these positions before and I’ve got the experience of the level.  I’ve managed over 600 games of football, so I’ve done it,” said Longhurst.

“My ultimate goal is to keep this football club at this level of football. What happens beyond that is something to talk about in the summer. Between now and then we’ve just got to keep doing what we’re doing.

“Understand this is one win and we now have to go to Ashford and then we play East Grinstead here (on Monday 1 January) and we need to get some more points on the board.

“We play Phoenix, Broadbridge Heath and Beckenham in seven days (in January), so we’ve got some really important games coming up.

“They won a different way tonight. They haven’t won by playing total football, which is probably what they’re renowned for as a young group.  They’ve actually found a way of winning a different game.

“As you can see with the pitch with the wear and tear on it now, we’re going to have do adapt to what we’re doing at times when we’re playing here, particularly when Welling United are training on it the night before we’re meant to play.

“Tonight’s result is massive, absolutely massive. It’s not just massive in terms of the three points.  It’s also for the confidence in the group now because when you’re going into training they’ll have a bounce.

“It’s really important. It’s not the be-all and end-all because you’ve got to follow it up but it’s a catalyst hopefully now to go on and get further points.  You saw what it meant to the players tonight and that’s so important that you’ve got people that care.  As young as they are and as new to the club, they care and if they care, you get more results like you do tonight.

“We’re capable of beating these teams and tonight showed that and we’ve got to follow that up.”

A small crowd of 120 watched the game and Longhurst calls for more support from within the club going into the New Year.

“There’s not many of them but the ones that have been coming, I’m delighted for them as well because they’ve been travelling up and down the country watching us get beat and they’ve carried on doing so spending their hard earned money. We just need more of them.

“We’ve got a great group of under 14s in our club that come in and bang the drum and sing behind the goal and I’ve said to them I’ll buy you a flag, come to the games and we need you to come because it actually makes a difference to the club and I think that’s where it’s so important to get the youth involved. 

“We need more people from the youth section, the parents, the coaches. It’s got to happen for this club to go forward.  Without that we’re not going to go anywhere, so it’s a real big thing we need to look at for this year and they have to support us moving forward.

“There’s 10 or 12 of them here and there’s no-one else from the youth section. It's a Wednesday night, the schools are finished (for Christmas), so it’s got to happen.”

Erith & Belvedere: Jordan Perrin, Leo Vowles, Ross Craig, Jack Palmby, Rob Strachan, Billy French, Josh Ajayi (Jeddiah Brown 90), Lee Lewis, Mack Reilly (Marcus Elliott 81), Cameron Andrews (Ernie Cheeseman 81), Simon Gyimaha.
Subs: Kallen Donaldson, Noah Joyce

Goals: Mack Reilly 8, Josh Ajayi 60 (penalty)

Booked: Ross Craig 76

Littlehampton Town: Lewis Boughton, Jordan Layton, Ollie Starkey (Bradley Dolaghan 58), Marshall Bale, Scott Packer (Jakob El Hage 66), Matthew Astle, Dave Herbert, Joshua Short (Frazer Middleton-Tozer 81), George Gaskin, Dion Jarvis, Nodirbik Bodomurodov.
Subs: Freddie Chester, Ryan Yoro-Thomas

Goal: Jordan Layton 2 (penalty)

Booked: Scott Packer 38, Jordan Layton 69

Attendance: 120
Referee:  Mr Craig Charles
Assistants: Mr Callum Dorling & Mr Titus Tresidder
Observer:  Mr Ian McGrath