Merstham 2-0 Erith & Belvedere - My ambitions aren't matched by the football club, says Matt Longhurst, who resigns as Erith & Belvedere's boss after losing relegation six-pointer

Tuesday 09th January 2024
Merstham 2 – 0 Erith & Belvedere
Location Moatside Stadium, Weldon Way, Merstham, Surrey RH1 3QB
Kickoff 09/01/2024 19:45

Isthmian League South East Division
Tuesday 9 January 2024
Stephen McCartney reports from Weldon Way

ERITH & BELVEDERE manager Matt Longhurst announced his resignation during the post-match press conference after losing this poor relegation six-pointer that leaves the club six points adrift of safety after picking up just one win from their last 17 games.


Mistakes from inside their own penalty area from toothless striker Marcus Elliott and centre-half Billy French ensured Jamie Decruz’s side gave their survival hopes a shot in the arm but defeat in Surrey proved to be the final straw for Longhurst, who announced that he has stepped down from the Park View Road hot-seat for the third time in his career.

Merstham grabbed the lead in the 59th minute, courtesy of a quality finish from impressive left-winger Ben Senior, before centre-half Dean Gunner flicked in following a set-piece but having only scored 10 league goals this season, there was to be no way back for Erith & Belvedere, who remain second-from-bottom in the Isthmian League South East Division table with 18 league games remaining.

Beckenham Town remain rooted to the foot of the table with eight points from 17 games, while Erith & Belvedere remain in the relegation zone with 12 points from 20 games (three wins, three draws, 14 defeats)

Broadbridge Heath – 1-0 home winners over Ashford United tonight – are third-from-bottom with 17 points from 18 games.  Phoenix Sports have been dragged back into the relegation dog-fight with 18 points from 21 games, while Littlehampton Town (18 points from 19 games) and Merstham (18 points from 19 games) have clawed themselves away from danger for the time being.

“Just another very, very tough day at the office if I’m honest in terms of result. It's been a disappointing period for the club and I’ve resigned as the manager,” revealed Longhurst.

We got to the Chichester game (19 November 2023) and we drew one-all and I asked the club to keep what we had and obviously that changed.  We then had further changes to the budget.

“We had Josh Ajayi moved.  The chairman (Paul Springett) said we weren’t allowed to keep him. We had to get rid of him, which I didn’t want to do but obviously we had to so Josh has left the club and will sign for somebody in the coming days.

“We didn’t have enough. I thought it was a little bit of a difficult one to swallow with two massive games with Horndean (lost 2-0 on Saturday) and Merstham coming up.  To then lose somebody like Josh, who is one of the biggest threats that we have (scoring five goals) regardless of his return, he’s been playing in a very difficult situation.

“I’ve just decided tonight.  I had a conversation with the chairman after the game against East Grinstead (1 January) and just asked for some assurances and asked where the club is going and what direction the club is going in.

“I’m ambitious.  I came here because of the location and Adrian Deane, James Lyons and Sam Prett getting me over here with ambition and obviously that ambition has changed and the money has changed.

“I feel like we got the club into a sustainable position now, the group that we’ve got there is sustainable for the football club, regardless of what level it’s at.  The club can afford those players, which is what I said I would do when I told Paul that I would stay.

“I think now for the football club and for my own ambitions moving forward, whether that would be a coach, assistant manager or manager, I need to get some fun back into it for myself.  I need to get some enthusiasm back. 

“This has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in football. To keep myself motivated, to keep coming away from my family, to spend time travelling around the country. The staff don’t get paid.

“I can’t thank the players’ enough. I think the players and the staff have been absolutely fantastic. Come what May.  There’s been some really, really good young players in that dressing room and they’re trying as hard as they can but ultimately they’re not quite ready for the level all together.

“We’ve brought a few experienced players in but it’s a little bit too late but ultimately I think the club needs to galvanise itself. It needs some finance. It needs some new sponsors. It needs a lot of hard work and dedication which I’m sure Paul and Amy (Springett) will do and I hope they do. It’s a great club.

“There’s a lot of work to do but at this stage that I am in my career it’s probably not what I want to be doing, right at this moment in time and I don’t mean that disrespectfully whatsoever but my ambitions and where I want to go and what I want to do aren’t matched by the football club, which is disappointing but I also understand it.

“It’s not anyone’s fault. There’s no blame laid at anyone’s table. It’s just the case that this is the current situation.  Paul’s inherited that, so there’s no blame laid there, but I’ve got to look at what I want to do now.

“I’ve been selfless that I’ve stayed at the club and I’ve tried to carry on going and we’ve got a training facility for a good group of young players but I need a different challenge.  I need a new challenge. I need something fresh. I need to go away and have a break, whether that will be a week, 10 days, two months, three months, I need a break because this has been a real, it’s becoming draining and I don’t want football to become draining.

“I’ve got a 15 month old baby in doors and I’m spending my time driving here, there and everywhere and I’ve got to make sure that if I’m going to spend time away from him that I’m enjoying it firstly and secondly I’m on the same page of where I want to go.

“Even here tonight, there’s great support (from Merstham’s vocal fanbase) and they’re down the bottom as well and we’ve got such a small fanbase. 

“Credit to everyone around the football club. Credit to Brian Spurrell and Adam Peters and credit to the people that have stuck in there and the other supporters that are here tonight. Credit to everyone who are still involved but ultimately for me now, it’s a case of do you know what, I want to be judged on results on a level playing field and as a manager I want to be judged by results and ultimately at the moment my hands are so tied that I’ve got to be mindful of my own career and I need to make sure that I’m being given a level playing field.

“I’ve managed at this level of football and if you know the remit when you first join a club, you can’t moan about it.  When I went into East Grinstead, I knew the remit. When I first came to Erith & Belvedere, I knew the remit.  Corinthian’s, I knew the remit.  When I went to Ramsgate, the initial remit was very different to the new one but then we spoke about that and this was different.  I didn’t come into this remit.  I got given it once I was already here and ultimately now, it’s a tough decision but it’s one I’ve got to make.”

Longhurst arrived at Park View Road for the third time in March and finished off the job that Tony Beckingham and Andy Constable put in and clinched the Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division title by one point.

The Deres won four, drew three and lost two of his nine games at the end of last season, while this season (in all competitions), Erith & Belvedere have won six, drawn five and this was their 20th defeat of the season.

Since beating Littlehampton Town 2-1 on 20 December, Erith & Belvedere have lost to Ashford United (4-1), East Grinstead Town (4-0) and Horndean (2-0) and were never going to get back into this game after conceding two quick-fire goals with their toothless attack and a non-existant midfield, on a bitterly freezing cold night at Weldon Way.

“I thought we huffed and puffed for 60 minutes and once they scored you could see the stuffing knocked out of us,” admitted Longhurst.

“There’s no togetherness, not in a bad way but the group hasn’t been together.  We haven’t even had a training session with half of these players, so I felt we flattered (to deceive).

“We done ok for 60 minutes.  We did ok. Did we do better than ok? No.  Were they better than us? No.

“That’s just putting a team together on a night and going through some tactical information before a game. I want to be out on a training ground twice a week. I want to be able to put a squad together that’s capable of competing and I want to be able to give myself an opportunity to be good at what I’m good at.”

Merstham defenders were poor, often giving the ball away in their defensive third and Erith & Belvedere failed to capitalise after only 70 seconds.

Left-winger Khemani Aiyanyo – currently on trial at local Championship outfit Millwall – drove towards the edge of the Merstham penalty area, before drilling his right-footed drive across the keeper and past the far post from 20-yards.

“Yes, he’s got to do better. He’s a good young player but is he ready to start? No.  But we’ve thrown him in tonight with Josh Ajayi going. Jeddiah Brown has gone back to Crawley Town now, so we’ve given him an opportunity.

“He gets a silly booking (for not being 10 yards away from a Merstham free-kick on the half-way line) and I think his silly booking had a big play on the back of his mind for the rest of the game, which is why we took him off at the end,” said Longhurst.

Merstham then started to take control of proceedings, with the impressive Senior hanging over a cross from the left, which was headed away by Ross Craig, before central midfielder Richie Mbele played a short pass into Charlie Greenwood but the attacking midfielder placed his shot past the foot of the left-hand post from 12-yards.

Lone Merstham striker Tom Collins – excellent at holding the ball up and linking up his team-mates – switched the ball out to right-winger Lorenzo Lewis, who then released Greenwood down the line.  He whipped in a cross from the by-line, which was cleared away by Leo Vowles but Greenwood latched onto the ball inside the penalty area, brought the ball under control with his chest but the angle was too tight and his volley went over from three-yards out.

Erith & Belvedere should have scored in the 15th minute when left-back Craig swung in a corner from the right with his left-foot for holding midfielder Michael Azayia to steer his header across goal and past the far post from within a crowd of players.

Merstham gave the ball away in their defensive third again and Elliott swept the ball out to an unmarked Aiyanyo, who lacked composure inside the box and dinked the ball into the grateful gloves of Merstham goalkeeper Endurance Johnson.

“He’s got to come in and smash it at the goal,” insisted Longhurst.

“We set a high press tactically. We won the ball high up the pitch, which we knew they would try and play.  Against the teams that like to play out, we tend to do that and I thought we were good at it but you’ve got to punish teams if you’re going to do that because if you get regains high up the pitch, you’ve got to make sure you take your chances.”

Gunner’s 25-yard clearance was intercepted by opposing captain Robert Strachan, whose first time through ball from the half-way line set Zach Danikeh on his way but the central midfielder lacked composure on the edge of the box and his right-footed shot brought a comfortable save from Johnson.

“Again, he’s got to do better, he’s got to do better.  If I’m honest, we don’t need to go over everything because I’m not going to be here anyway,” added Longhurst.

Merstham’s holding midfielder Oliver Khinda drilled a right-footed diagonal to release Lewis down the right and he easily cut inside Craig to reach the by-line and drilled a left-footed shot towards the bottom near corner, which forced Millwall loanee Dillon Addai to swiftly get down low beside his near post and push the ball behind for the second of third Merstham corners.

Longhurst has high hopes for the 18-year-old goalkeeper, who was sent off on his debut on Saturday.

“Talented goalkeeper. He’s on loan from Millwall. Fantastic.  It wasn’t a sending off, we’ve appealed the sending off. I think that will get overturned.

“A great goalkeeper, a great young goalkeeper and he’s got a great future. He’s only been in two games, great application, great attitude, good size, kicks if well, talks well, good handing, really good, really, really good.”

When asked what he said during his final half-time team talk in charge of the club, Longhurst replied: “Just need to tidy up in the final third, just need to tidy up.  Carry on competing. 

“We slightly changed the way that we were going to press, just purely because we changed the personnel with Michael Azayia coming off and we just said to them we just need to tidy up and be better in the final third but if I’m honest, second half, we didn’t really have near enough final third entries.”

Merstham centre-half Harry Pointing gave the ball away inside his penalty area but Charles Etumu failed to accept the gift, curling his right-footed shot around the top of the far post from 22-yards inside the opening 10 minutes of the second half.

Merstham grabbed the lead, however, with 13 minutes and 33 seconds on the clock.

Senior and left-back Harry Murphy linked up well down the left and Elliott was inside his own penalty area and instead of clearing his lines, he gifted the ball straight back to Senior, who whipped a stunning right-footed curler around Addai into the far corner of the net from 20-yards.

“I think he’s got to do better, for an experienced player in the box, he’s got to do better,” admitted Longhurst.

“The goal, we gave it away. Marcus Elliott put their (winger) in on goal from the edge of his own box.”

Merstham doubled their lead, with 16 minutes and 10 seconds on the clock, following their third and final corner of the game.

Senior swung the ball in from the left and Gunner punished Billy French’s poor marking to flick the ball across the keeper and towards the bottom far corner.

Craig tried to clear the ball off the line but senior assistant referee Scott Crowhurst signalled that the ball crossed the line.

Longhurst said: “I can’t see.  Ross Craig thought he cleared it off the line. The linesman said it was way over. He was desperate to give it, the linesman.

“Billy French is marking the centre-half and let the man get across him and he’s flicked it in and it’s gone in the goal, so it’s hypothetical now but it’s a tough one.

“To be honest, at 2-0, the game’s finished because we haven’t scored any goals, hardly any goals this season so at 2-0 down, I didn’t expect us to get back in the game.

“That was kind of the telling moment for me, even on the side I was like do you know what, In my head I made my mind up what I was doing at the end of the game.”

Plus points on a night like this was centre-halves Strachan and French should escape the cull from Longhurst’s successor, who will need to sign better midfielders and a couple of strikers who can put the ball in the back of the net as scoring 10 league goals in 20 league games is an embarrassing statistic.

Merstham goalkeeper Johnson pulled off a brilliant diving save in the 63rd minute, diving high to his right and using a strong right-hand to push over a 35-yarder from Etumu, which was destined for the top left-hand corner.

“Decent save to be fair. We didn’t test him anywhere near enough but it was a decent save,” added Longhurst.

An example of Erith & Belvedere being toothless in attack came in the 72nd minute when Pointing gave the ball away yet again and goalkeeper Johnson came out of his penalty area to try to clear his lines.

However, the Merstham keeper missed the ball as he attempted to boot it upfield and Erith & Belvedere’s substitute midfielder Hayden Bullas got to the ball first, cut inside but lacked composure and instead of placing the ball into the empty goal, he passed to an unmarked Etumu, who embarrassingly lashed the ball over the top of the near post from 15-yards.

“I don’t know why Hayden Bullas’ has passed it. I’ve got no idea. I don’t understand why he passed it – just put it in the open goal.  That sums us up,” admitted Longhurst.

Cameron Andrews – another player who should stay at Park View Road and play in the attacking number 10 role – delivered an excellent free-kick into the corridor of uncertainty, which won the away side a corner kick.

Andrews swung the ball in from the left, Merstham had a couple of chances to head the corner away before Bullas chested the ball before hitting his right-footed volley over the crossbar from 18-yards.

Merstham had a glorious chance to score a flattering third goal with 39 minutes and 42 seconds on the clock, when Senior missed a penalty.

French slid in to bring down Merstham substitute Ben Jordan and referee Callum Peter pointed to the spot.

Senior drilled his right-footed spot-kick past the diving Addai (who dived the right way) but the ball flashed past the foot of the right-hand post.

“It looked like a pen from where I am but I’m on the other side but it looked like a penalty to me,” admitted Longhurst.

“But then he stepped up and missed it but there’s a tiny little bit of luck that we didn’t expect to get that we got.”

A miss-kick from Erith & Belvedere’s right-back Leo Vowles let in Merstham substitute Callum Corbin, who drilled a left-footed drive which smashed against the left-hand post, rebounded off the keeper’s back, who turned round and smothered the ball on his goal-line (50:42).

Erith & Belvedere’s chances of survival don’t get any easier on Sunday when they welcome Lancing to Park View Road.

Lancing are now in fourth place in the table (35 points from 19 games) and held unbeaten side Cray Valley to a 1-1 draw in Eltham tonight.

Big-spending pair Ramsgate (46 points from 18 games) and second-placed Cray Valley (38 points from 16 games) are fighting it out for the title.

Seventy-one players have represented Erith & Belvedere already this season and a new manager faces a tough task to keep the club in the Isthmian League for a second season.

Addai, Andrews, Strachan and French staying will be key to survival – but players that can perform in the eighth-tier of English football are urgently required.

“There’s been so much upheaval at the football club all season. I don’t put any blame on anyone but it’s unsustainable to compete with so much going on and change and change and change and change.  There’s not enough people. There’s not enough sponsors. There’s not enough anything,” admitted Longhurst.

“I’ve got to the point where I’ve got to think about myself and that’s not me being selfish. I’m not like that. If I was selfish I would’ve just walked away when all of the money went but I didn’t do that and I can hold my head up high.

“I’ve managed at this level for a long time, been successful, won lots of games of football. It’s just got to the stage, do you know what, let’s give it to somebody else and let somebody else have a go.

“The club has got great history, it’s got great people around. It’s got good young players and the group now is sustainable for the football club and it’s just a fresh set of eyes, maybe fresh ideas and potentially somebody coming in with some fresh players.

“It’s an opportunity for somebody to come and manage at Step Four. I got given an opportunity at East Grinstead in similar circumstances.

“It’s a decent club, decent, nice people and hopefully somebody can come in and take it forward.”

When asked about his future, Longhurst revealed he doesn’t have anything lined up currently.

“It’s got to be the right opportunity for me now. I’ll only do what’s right.  I’m experienced enough, I’ve managed over 600 games. I know what I expect and what I want from a club and I know what I can bring to the table in terms of managing, coach or assistant manager. There’s various roles. One of my strengths is being on the grass with the players so I’ll look and if the right opportunity comes along, it does. If it doesn’t then I’ll sit and wait.”

The club are expected to make a statement on Wednesday.

Paul Springett added: “I want to thank Matt for his time at the Deres.  I now have a huge rebuild on my hands but anyone who knows me, knows I’ll give it everything to get this proud club back in a straight line.”

Merstham: Endurance Johnson, Michael Abnett, Harry Murphy, Oliver Khinda, Harry Pointing, Dean Gunner, Ben Senior, Richie Mbele (Benjamin Jordan 78), Tom Collins, Charlie Greenwood (Callum Corbin 84), Lorenzo Lewis (Jaevon Dyer 78).

Goals: Ben Senior 59, Dean Gunner 62

Booked: Lorenzo Lewis 26, Richie Mbele 43

Erith & Belvedere: Dillon Addai, Leo Vowles, Ross Craig, Michael Azayia (Cameron Andrews 43), Robert Strachan, Billy French, Khemani Aiyanyo (Hayden Bullas 63), Zach Dainkeh, Nichal David-Luzolo, Charles Etumu, Marcus Elliott (Maxx Mantelow 86).
Sub: Lee Lewis, Lenny Holden

Booked: Khemani Aiyanyo 17, Michael Azayia 19

Attendance: 129
Referee: Mr Callum Peter
Assistants: Mr Scott Crowhurst & Mr Matthew Funnell