Phoenix Sports 3-1 Ashford United - Losing 9-1 at Ramsgate just made me work harder and now I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, says Phoenix Sports boss Steve O'Boyle

Saturday 16th December 2023
Phoenix Sports 3 – 1 Ashford United
Location Mayplace Ground, Mayplace Road East, Barnehurst, Kent DA7 6JT
Kickoff 16/12/2023 15:00

Isthmian League South East Division
Saturday 16 December 2023
Stephen McCartney reports from Mayplace Road East

PHOENIX SPORTS manager Steve O’Boyle insists his side are not dead and buried after picking up back-to-back home wins to ease their relegation fears going into the Christmas break.

O’Boyle revealed that other manager's contacted the club to apply for his job after Phoenix Sports suffered a humiliating 9-1 defeat at Ramsgate on 18 November, but seven points from their last five games has seen the club climb up the table into fourteenth-place with 15 points (four wins, three draws and 11 defeats) from their 18 league outings.

However, Ashford United have slipped down to tenth-place in the pecking order with 22 points (seven wins, one draw and six defeats) from their 14 league games after suffering their third league defeat on the bounce.

Kevin Watson’s side lost back-to-back home games to unbeaten side Cray Valley (0-2) and Lancing (3-4) and are now five points adrift of the play-off zone going into Christmas.

The outstanding Andy Pugh, 34, scored from two free headers to put Phoenix Sports into a commanding two-goal lead, before Ashford United pulled a goal back through substitute left-back Tariq Ossai cracking in a sublime volley following a set-piece.

Phoenix Sports’ player-assistant manager Ryan Hayes, 38, dinked in a classy third to ensure they completed the double over the Nuts & Bolts this season -  having won 5-3 at Homelands Stadium on 16 September – as they moved six points clear of the relegation zone to give O’Boyle an early Christmas present.

“I’ve just said that in there to the boys, that was my Christmas present,” said O’Boyle.

“I wanted back-to-back wins. We’ve played Sevenoaks and Ashford in the last two weeks and come out with six points and to be honest with you, no one saw that.

“I’ve been saying it for weeks now, the last few weeks have been a massive improvement in our play and the recruitment, we’ve brought in some good players. We ain’t bad, we’re ok.  Two good wins for us in the last two weeks and I’m absolutely buzzing after that.

“They gave us everything they had.  I’ve got players here who ain’t 100% fit and we’ve had players coming back from injury.  Bertie Valler has been out for six weeks with a broken jaw. It was Cameron Brodie’s first game back.  Ryan Hayes and Andy Pugh are not 100% fit, so we’ve got players that gave me their all today and that’s all I can ask for. Win, lose or draw, give the club 100% and that’s all they want.”

Watson said: “How would I sum that up?  When you lose a game, a lot of managers come out with similar things don’t they?  That wasn’t good enough today. We dissect it a little bit more.

“We went into this game with a very clear understanding of how it may play out in terms of the opposition, in terms of what our strengths would be, in terms of the conditions and I don’t think we executed that convincingly and well enough to deserve to win the game.

“Look, I thought we created some opportunities in the first half and squandered some opportunities and they’ve scored two headers in the game haven’t they, from a ball in from their right-hand side.

“We’ve spoken about it and then making it happen out on the pitch are two different things.”

Phoenix Sports came out with all guns blazing, creating their first opening after only 29 seconds.

Gael Kileba threw the ball into the box from the left and attacking midfielder Daniel Duncanson cut into the six-yard box before his shot was smothered at the near post by debutant goalkeeper Chris Lewington.

The 35-year-old, who played under Watson at Cray Valley, is currently on dual-registration with National League South side Dartford.

Lewington pulled off a fine save to prevent Pugh giving Phoenix Sports the lead, with 218 seconds on the clock.

A big kick from Phoenix Sports’ 42-year-old goalkeeper Andy Walker was headed away before Phoenix’s two central midfielders, Denzelle Olopade and Daniel Duncanson linked up before the ball was worked to the unmarked Pugh, who drove a right-footed rasping drive towards the top right hand corner from 16-yards, only for Lewington to stick out a strong left hand to push the ball over his crossbar.

O’Boyle said: “Did we start well? We started well. I thought we started really well second half.

“First half, we got a way of playing now and to be honest with you, we are working on it continuously and I think it’s working.”

When asked about Lewington’s debut, Watson’s reply was interrupted by a gust of wind. “He made some good saves, his kicking was good, organisation…..”

Ashford United created their opening on the counter-attack inside the opening 12 minutes.

Right-back Bradley Simms intercepted Pugh’s low cross across the face of the Ashford United penalty area before breaking and releasing Lanre Azeez.

The right-winger easily cut inside Kileba before switching the play over to left-winger Kymani Thomas, who cut inside and cracked a right-footed angled drive drifting past the far post from 16-yards.

“It was half an opportunity.  You expect Kymani to hit the target there, maybe trying to be a little bit accurate with too much power and missed the target,” added Watson.

Phoenix Sports’ left-back Temi Oladejo took a touch before whipping in a cross over to Hayes on the right, who controlled the ball before curling his shot just past the foot of the far post from 20-yards at the other end.

Ashford United central midfielder Harvey Brand covered a lot of ground during this game and he cracked a first-time left-footed drive which screamed just past the right-hand post from 30-yards, as the away side started to get back into the game.

Ashford United’s deep striker Vance Bola played the ball out to Tom Carlse and the left-back drove forward before cutting into the box and putting it on a plate for Thomas, who swept a first-time shot towards the bottom near corner from 12-yards, only to be denied by Walker, who used his legs to make the save at his near-post.

“I thought in the first half we created some opportunities but if you don’t convert them, that cliché of wasted opportunities,” said Watson.  “Then I think the longer the game goes on, you leave yourself a little bit more from the will of the opposition to get an opportunity and they did and they scored theirs and we didn’t ours.”

Ashford United kept knocking on the door with 35-year-old Ian Draycott flashing an angled drive past the near post, as the away side were a threat down the right with Phoenix Sports’ left-back Oladejo the weak link in defence.

Ashford United missed a glorious chance to take a 28th minute lead during their dominant spell.

Thomas played the ball up to Bola, who switched the ball out to right-winger Azeez, who ran forward before waiting for Simms to make up ground before playing the ball in behind Oladejo on the inside.

Simms put in a low cross, which should have been cleared by Phoenix Sports’ holding midfielder Bertie Valler, but he opened the gate for Bola, who strode forward but lacked composure and lashed his left-footed shot over the crossbar as Walker rushed off his line to narrow the angle.

Watson said: “That was one of the good ones really and that we do finish in training.  We train a lot, we’ve got a really good surface that we train on. We went through some tactical things and we’ve done some finishing but obviously it’s a slightly different surface but even still we needed to hit the target more than we did.

“Andy Walker is a really good goalkeeper but I didn’t think we’ve made him make as many saves as we maybe we should with the areas that we got in and the opportunities we had.”

O’Boyle added: “They’re a good side Ashford.  I actually think they’re a team that have got a lot about them going forward and in the first half they had a few chances and we rode our luck at times.

“My main critic for us today were our clearances.  We were still under pressure when we cleared the ball and I think that’s something that we needed to improve on today.  I thought we cleared the ball a lot today and we were still under pressure, they were on us.”

Phoenix winger Kileba suffered similar fate as his pacey run took him past Ashford United’s holding midfielder Connor Dymond before he was faced by Ben Gorham, only for Kileba to drill his left-footed shot past the near post.

Phoenix Sports grabbed the lead on the counter-attack with 37 minutes and 28 seconds on the clock.

Ashford United centre-half Jonah Tololupe found himself hunted by two opposing players on the touchline and he had his pocket picked by the outstanding Denzelle Olopade, who cut in from the right wing before playing the ball down the line to Hayes.

Hayes floated an accurate cross towards the unmarked Pugh, who powered his header into the roof of the net from two-yards out, getting in behind Gorham, who had switched off.

“Do you know what, what a great first goal by us!  Ball out wide, Ryno putting the ball in and a great header by Pughie,” said O’Boyle.

“Man-of-the-match, Denzelle Olopade. I thought he was excellent. Good player, isn’t he?  He’s a good centre midfielder, saw it from day one when he was playing for Ramsgate.  Fantastic signing for us. He’s exactly what we need in there.

“He gets it out to Ryan, you know what Ryan does and when Pughie’s in front of goal, you know how it’s ending, don’t you.

“Pughie’s been outstanding for weeks now, he’s been outstanding for weeks.”

Watson added: “We needed to try to stop deliveries into the box and nullify that source and then like I say it was disappointing that Pugh had so much time to score.”

Phoenix Sports’ game-plan was not to press the Ashford United midfield and an example of this came in the 40th minute.

Dymond fed the ball into Thomas, who swept a first-time right-footed shot across Walker and harmlessly past the far post from 22-yards out.

The home side survived three scrambles towards the end of the first half, which were gobbled up by the brave Walker, as Phoenix Sports went into the break with a slender lead.

O’Boyle added: “They were knocking on the door, yes, where we held firm and we stayed clean and we needed a little bit of luck.”

Both manager’s were asked their thoughts going into the interval.

O’Boyle said: “I basically said to them about the clearances. I wanted the clearances better.  I thought we could’ve done a little bit better in the first half. I wanted us to come out second half with a fast start and that’s what they done.”

Watson added: “We feel we may play a little bit more than we did, the way the game played out, playing out through the base of midfield a little bit more.  I don’t think we particularly did that in the second half.

“When you’re behind like that it’s easy to say those things tactically but I think people get caught up in the emotion and it feels quite desperate from the first minute of the second half, so we spoke about a few bits and pieces.

“We had to make a change (because Tom Carlse rolled his ankle).  We didn’t start the second half ok but after about seven or eight minutes we started to get some territory and a foothold in the game and put them under quite a lot of pressure.”

Phoenix Sports were to be denied a second goal inside the opening 129 seconds by the crossbar.

Pugh got away with a push on Gorham in the build-up inside the Ashford United box before the ball was cut back to Olopade, who cut onto his right-foot and drilled a shot which crashed off the crossbar from 25-yards, as the former Ramsgate and Erith & Belvedere midfielder aimed for the top far corner.

O’Boyle said: “What a shot! Great strike. It deserved to go in didn’t it. I could maybe blame myself there. I put the goal just half an inch too wide today when I put the goals out but fantastic strike – it deserved a goal!”

Watson added: “A great strike from the lad. He’s a talented lad, trying to get his career back on track after a spell at Erith & Belvedere.  We could’ve got out to shut it down a little bit quicker but it was a great strike.”

Phoenix Sports were a threat down their left with left-back Oladejo and winger Kileba often linking up and threatening Simms, the Ashford United right-back.

Kileba played Oladejo on the overlap and his cross came in from within the channel towards the near post and the unmarked Pugh tried to score with his chest, the ball flashing across Lewington and just past the far post.

Phoenix Sports doubled their lead with nine minutes and 41 seconds on the clock, another counter-attacking raid.

Centre-half Dexter Peter kept composed and cleared his lines up field to a deep Pugh, who swept the ball out to Hayes on the right.  Hayes’ cross was on the money and found Pugh in space in the middle of the box and he powered his header across the keeper into the far corner from 12-yards.

“Don’t give Pughie that chance! He heads it, it’s a goal.  Good player,” said O’Boyle, who revealed the striker was withdrawn in the 81st minute because he had a dead leg.

O’Boyle also revealed that Tom O’Connor (groin) and Daniel Thompson (recovering after being involved in a car accident) were ruled out today but will be added to the squad for their next game.

“I said it to him before the game today, he’s been working so well for us up there on his own. He holds the ball up brilliantly but he hasn’t had the chances really but the chances fell to him today and he’s scored two, so it’s fantastic.”

Watson added: “Relatively similar to the first half in terms of they countered on us a little bit.  A lovely ball in and a good header.  Disappointing that he had so much time in the box.”

Ashford United pulled a goal back with 16 minutes and 11 seconds on the clock, courtesy of a well-worked set-piece.

Gorham was inside his half when he floated a long free-kick into the Phoenix Sports penalty area.

Dymond rose at the far post and knocked his free header across the face of goal towards the other post where Ossai cracked a sublime left-footed volley screaming into the top far corner from 15-yards on the angle.

“A great strike from Tariq, wonderful technique. It’s such a shame a goal like that doesn’t get you some points,” admitted Watson.

“Incredible technique. Look, he can use both feet, his prominently right footed but a great strike on his left-foot.”

O’Boyle admitted: “I’m disappointed with the goal. It’s travelled a long, long way and the geezer had a free header and we’ve got to defend that a lot better.  I’m not happy with that and there was an overload on the far post and when you go 2-0 up, I think we’ve got to kill games a little bit  and that’s a bad goal to give away.”

Phoenix Sports’ hit Ashford United again on the counter-attack when Cameron Brodie (who replaced Duncanson at the interval) hit a 60-yard diagonal ball out to Hayes, who switched the ball over to the other side of the pitch towards Klleba, who cut inside and fed Olopade, who slid in to hit a first-time shot towards the near post, which was beaten away by Lewington.

Ashford United dominated the possession towards the final quarter of the game but lacked quality in the final third when it mattered, with too many of their attacking players going missing.

Gorham played a free-kick back to his goalkeeper before launching another long ball from inside his own half and Dymond’s header went to Bola, whose left-footed shot on the turn sailed just over the crossbar from 20-yards.

Simms’ third of four long throws dropped into the Phoenix Sports penalty area and Dymond’s poked shot trickled towards the bottom far corner from inside the six-yard box, which was comfortably gathered by Walker, low to his right.

The home side were hanging on, with O’Boyle’s stress levels going through the roof as he often barked out instructions to his players.

“Listen, I don’t hide from the fact that I’m not going to change now. I kick every ball don’t I and I always have done and I always will do.  If anyone thinks they’re going to change me, I can’t help it. It’s who I am and I love this football club. To win a game here today, it means a lot to me,” added O’Boyle.

Two Ashford United substitutes combined in the final 17 minutes when midfielder Anthony Edgar played in striker Danny Parish, but Walker rushed off his line and towards the edge of the box to smother at his feet.

“Danny’s had an injury previously to that. He’s a forward player who can score some goals. We needed goals in the game so it made sense to make that change,” Watson replied when asked why six-goal Parrish was left on the bench until the 61st minute.

Brand hit a half-volley up field, which was flicked on by Parish inside the box, before Brand raced into the penalty area before hitting his shot over the crossbar from 15-yards.

Phoenix Sports sealed the deal by scoring their third goal with 39 minutes and 42 seconds on the clock, courtesy of a sublime Hayes finish.

Gorham’s poor pass was intercepted by a pressing Hayes inside the final third and the winger stormed into the penalty area before dinking his left-footed shot over the advancing Lewington and dropping into the empty net from 15-yards.

“I would actually go as far as saying, it was class, wasn’t it,” said O’Boyle, who believes Hayes is managerial material once he hangs up his boots.

“If that’s on Match of The Day tonight. Did you see his goal last week? It’s 40 yards and he’s dinked that one today. He’s just class mate and he’s on a contract (until the end of the season).

“We’ve got a few oldies but we’ve also got some real good youngsters as well.  We’ve got some real good youngsters and that’s what we’ve done and I’m really happy with what we’ve got out there at the minute.”

When asked about appointing Hayes as his assistant-manager following Keith McMahon’s short stint in the role, O’Boyle replied: “The thinking is Ryan is now 38 years old. He can’t play for ever. He’s got my back 100%. I want someone in there who’s going…He’s the obvious replacement for Keith. I wanted to keep it in house and what’s Ryan going to do when he stops playing football? I don’t know, only Ryan can tell you that.

“I would like to, maybe, help him on his way and maybe one day he can become a manager and maybe give him his first steps.

“When he was a young player, we played together (at Thamesmead Town Reserves) when I was finishing up at the end (of my playing career) and I’d like to think I’ve given him an opportunity here and I’m hoping he takes it and maybe one day I can see him managing.”

Watson added: “A really good goal from their perspective, obviously from ours, disappointing.

“How do I sum up the loss? Frustrating and disappointing but you always say that after a loss don’t you?

“It’s important. We need to consider what we can do better as a collective.  Yes, look, it’s not about losing to Phoenix, it’s three losses on the bounce and if you aspire to be competitive this season in the league, you’ve got to put a real run together after losing three consecutive league games.”

Ashford United kept plugging away and another long ball from Gorham was met by Brand’s looping header from the edge of the box, which dropped over the empty goal inside stoppage time (48:22).

“Harvey had a couple of chances to be fair to him, he’s done a lot of running today and made up some ground to get into the box,” added Watson.

O’Boyle revealed he has worked hard to turn around the club’s fortunes and is now looking to start climbing the league table.  He takes his side to unbeaten Cray Valley (Paper Mills) on Boxing Day (26 December, 13:00).

“I’ll be honest with you, a lot of people wrote us off.  Away to Ramsgate, getting beat, we were stuffed 9-1.  I took it very badly. I’ve never been beat like that in all my life!

“We had manager’s emailing the club for my job. I think that’s embarrassing! One thing I ain’t going to do, I ain’t going to give up. A lot of managers may have thrown the towel in after a 9-1 defeat. Not me. It just made me work harder and now I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I think we’ve got a competitive team and the team that we’ve got out there I think we’ll be fine and we will do well.

“I had to make signings because all of the players that got us promoted last season wanted to play Step Five football.

“Cray Valley (fifth-place, 27 points, eight wins, three draws, no league defeats) will be tough.  Another tough one. Tough game but we’ll go there full of confidence and we’ll see where it takes us.

“If you offered me fourteenth now, I’ll take it and build for next year.  I’ll take that all day long at the moment because everyone thought we were relegated three or four weeks ago.  People were going to me ‘just knock it on the head’.  Everyone thought we were dead and buried. We ain’t dead and buried. I think you can see that today. We’re not dead and buried and that’s the way it is. I’ve got some good boys here.

“I’m looking forward to Christmas.  We’ve got 10 days off now and I’ve got 10 days off and it’s just not me but we’ve got 10 days of feeling really good about ourselves now and that’s a fantastic day. We’ve got a good night tonight, our Christmas party and I’m going to enjoy myself.”

Ashford United, meanwhile, welcome eleventh-placed Isthmian League South Central Division side Westfield to Homelands Stadium on Tuesday night in the fourth round of the Velocity Cup, before a home game against local rivals Hythe Town follows on Boxing Day.

Watson revealed he is going to make changes for the League Cup Last Sixteen tie against their Woking-based opposition.

“We want to win it. People who haven’t had minutes today, they will have minutes on Tuesday,” said Watson.

“We still want to win the game and look, if they’re part of our squad, whichever personnel we put out, we expect them to put in good performances.  We want to progress in the cup, although Westfield will be tough opposition. It’s pleasing that it’s at home because with some of the adverse weather the pitches have been quite difficult if their grass but we’ve got a really good surface at home.”

Steven Watt’s Hythe Town side, meanwhile, have reached the last 32 of The FA Trophy but lost 2-0 to Chichester City today – their first league home defeat since losing to Ramsgate last Boxing Day.

“That (game against Hythe) will be tough. We need to re-group and improve by that point so yes, I’ve got lots of planning and thinking to do.

“I still think there’s a lot of games to play but we’re on the back of three losses so there’s got to be some huge improvements if we’ve got desires to challenge for the play-offs, which we have – but I think a lot of teams in the league have.

“I think the league is strong and exciting, nothing can be taken for granted. If you look at the fixtures each week and you can’t make assumptions of who’s going to win games.

“Phoenix didn’t have a great start, they’ve beaten us twice, they’ve won against Sevenoaks so they’ve still got plenty of games left to move up the table.

“But we must improve.  We’ve come into a spell where we’ve had three losses on the bounce and for any team that’s difficult and you can slip places in the league and it’s going to be more difficult to make that up.”

Adem Ramadan attended the match for some treatment with the club’s medical team and Watson provided the latest update on the player, who has been ruled out for the entire season after breaking his leg in late August.

“It’s a slow recovery for Adem, bless him.  He went back and had another scan and it’s healing slower than he would’ve liked but it was always going to be a long period of recovery for him so we’ll continue to support him through it as much as we can.”

Phoenix Sports: Andy Walker, Henry Douglas, Temi Oladejo, Bertie Valler (Kieron King 61), Dexter Peter, Adejola Lahan, Gael Kileba, Denzelle Olopade, Andy Pugh (Ashdon Day 81), Daniel Duncanson (Cameron Brodie 46), Ryan Hayes.
Sub: Ali Mansaray

Goals: Andy Pugh 38, 55, Ryan Hayes 85

Booked: Ryan Hayes 60, Temi Oladejo 82, Ashdon Day 84

Ashford United: Chris Lewington, Bradley Simms, Tom Carlse (Tariq Ossai 46), Connor Dymond, Ben Gorham, Jonah Tololupe, Kymani Thomas, Harvey Brand, Vance Bola, Ian Draycott (Anthony Edgar 69), Lanre Azeez (Danny Parish 61).
Subs: David Ozogbia, Rhyle Ovenden

Goal: Tariq Ossai 62

Booked: Connor Dymond 32

Attendance: 159
Referee: Mr Ross Murphy
Assistants: Mr Gary Baker & Mr Oliver Hind