Phoenix Sports 3-1 Sheppey United - I’ve done my job if I keep Phoenix Sports in the Isthmian League, says manager Steve O’Boyle, while Sheppey United performance was unacceptable for boss Ernie Batten

Monday 01st April 2024
Phoenix Sports 3 – 1 Sheppey United
Location Mayplace Ground, Mayplace Road East, Barnehurst, Kent DA7 6JT
Kickoff 30/03/2024 15:00

Isthmian League South East Division
Easter Saturday 30 March 2024
Stephen McCartney reports from Mayplace Road East

PHOENIX SPORTS manager Steve O’Boyle believes one win from their last six games will retain the club’s Isthmian League South East Division status, while Sheppey United boss Ernie Batten slammed his side’s performance unacceptable.

Sheppey United suffered their fifth league defeat on the spin and are in 12th place in the table with 40 points (11 wins, seven draws and 12 defeats) from their 30 games, while Phoenix Sports gave their survival bid a shot in the arm.

O’Boyle’s men remain third-from-bottom with 28 points (seven wins, seven draws and 18 defeats) but they are above the dotted line and seven points clear of Erith & Belvedere and nine clear of Beckenham Town.

Sheppey United took the lead through winger Danny Leonard’s seventh goal of the season before Phoenix scored twice in the space of two minutes through centre-half Adejola Lahan and a drilled finish from winger Palace Francis, who is playing for his ninth club at the age of 21.

Sheppey United squandered a glorious chance to level but holding midfielder Richard Hamill had his penalty saved, before Phoenix Sports grabbed a stoppage time third through substitute Temi Oladejo.

“It was a much-needed win.  I said to the boys I think maybe two wins from our remaining games will probably be enough and that’s one of them,” said O’Boyle, who guided the club back into the eighth-tier by finishing runners-up to Erith & Belvedere in the Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division last season and sending VCD Athletic down by winning the play-off.

“I’m not saying we’re mathematically safe but I think if we can win one out of six, it gives the teams below us an absolute mountain to climb.  We’ve had a good day.

“I’ve been a manager 19 years and we’re down in a dog-fight and I geared the boys up for that and I told them you’ve got to give the club everything.

“It’s a very good club and they deserve Isthmian football next season and if we do stay up, with everything what’s gone on here this year, I will celebrate that more than I celebrate winning promotion last year.”

Sheppey United manager Ernie Batten made his feelings clear about his side’s performance.

“Well, it’s not acceptable for us as a club. I’ve told the players in there,” said Batten.

“We’ve come up, we knew it was going to be a difficult game.  The pitch is always going to be difficult and you’ve got to play the conditions and I thought they basically wanted it more than us.

“They hung in there. We put them under pressure, missed a penalty, of course and at the end of the day you get what you deserve and the errors we made in the first half, not clearing our lines and letting players come through on our left-hand side.

“It’s completely unacceptable and I’ve let the players’ know that.  We can’t accept that type of performance, especially as a club when we’re trying to progress to higher levels.”

It was not a Sheppey United performance who put in some great showings during their FA Cup run that took them to the First Round and a televised tie against Walsall earlier in the season.

“It’s completely chalk and cheese,” admitted Batten.

“I’ve just made that remark. They’ve had the Cup run, perhaps a few players’ think they’re better than what they are.  The Cup run was fantastic but we’ve got to the end of that and we haven’t kicked on.

“We’ve become too easy to beat.  We haven’t shown enough character and I think when you’re like that, although we have talent in the team, you don’t get the fundamentals right, you don’t do the right things, which is primarily fighting and bring committed to every tackle, chasing back as a team, getting back in behind the ball and keeping your shape.

“If the players aren’t doing hat on a regular basis, at this level, you’re going to get punished.”

Phoenix Sports started the game on the front foot, with O’Boyle kicking every ball vocally with his troops within the technical area.

The Barneshurst-based side created their first opening after only 215 seconds when central midfielder Ryan Hayes swept in a free-kick from just inside the Sheppey half into the box and striker Tashi-Jay Kwayie took a touch inside the box before cracking a left-footed drive over the crossbar from 18-yards, as Sheppey United centre-half Connor Wilkins came out to block.

The home side were denied a goal in the ninth minute when attacking midfielder Denzelle Olopade played Kwayie in behind Olamilekan Majoyegbe and when faced with goalkeeper Aiden Prall, the former Corinthian stopper made a key save with his legs at his near-post.

“We’ve had a lot of bad luck this year but you can’t harp on about it. We’ve had some real bad luck, especially at the top end of the pitch,” said O’Boyle.

“Tashi coming back is a massive bonus for us. He’s been back for a couple of weeks now from his modelling career.  Tashi coming back has been massive because I’ve been looking for a centre forward especially with Andy Pugh having to retire at Christmas.  You can’t replace Pughie, he’s that good a player, you can’t replace him and we have proper struggled.

“I think Tashi’s got to score but I rate Tashi so highly. I think chances like that, there has to be a goal from it. I’m not going to dig him out for it. I thought he was excellent as well today.”

Batten added: “I think they started better than us and it took us a while to settle down and I think they had a couple of opportunities.

“The conversation we had before the game was they’re going to be fighting for their lives.  We have to match that but good sides do match that and good sides overcome that because if you match that and your quality shows through and you’ve got a good chance of winning the game.”

Phoenix Sports were showing the qualities needed to avoid relegation – fighting for every ball and Luke Leppard – who was playing in front of the back four – put in a magnificent performance – as he dropped back further up the pitch following Kwayie’s modelling work commitments in New York.

“I thought Luke Leppard was man-of-the-match. Luke was unbelievable and to be fair he’s not everyone’s cup of tea. He’s a bit like Marmite isn’t he. But do you know what, he just gives us energy in there. I thought he ran that midfield today,” added O’Boyle.

Sheppey United, meanwhile, weathered the early storm and started regaining control the game and 42-year-old goalkeeper Andy Walker denied lone striker Jerson Dos Santos in the 19th minute.

Left-winger James Bessey-Saldanha played the ball in from the left which released Dos Santos through on goal but Walker smothered the shot low to his left.

“Of course, at this level, you’ve got to take your chances.  Jerson will be disappointed he hasn’t slotted it past the goalkeeper but the keeper’s come out and made a good save,” said Batten.

O’Boyle added: “Walks played well today. I think Sheppey have got some really good players. The two wingers, for me, inverting, rotation in midfield.  I think they’ve got some really good ball playing players and when we played them away they absolutely annihilated us (4-0) and they’re very good going forward.

“Look, they were going to create chances. We’ve made two big mistakes for the penalty and for the goal but I thought we defended quite well.”

Sheppey United called Walker into making a comfortable catch following the first of their nine corners.

Attacking midfielder Jacob Lambert recycled the ball back into the box from the left and Dos Santos rose above Lahan at the back post and sent his header straight into Walker’s gloves.

“Another chance.  I think there was a period there when we started to get on top and we started to make our football count.  We started playing in the right areas, which was in their last third and we started to create opportunities,” said Batten.

O’Boyle added: “My centre-half got that (hairdryer treatment) because I don’t expect my centre-halves to be beat in the air in the six-yard box, so yes, a header that he had no right to win.”

Sheppey United deserved their lead when it arrived with 30 minutes and 12 seconds on the clock.

Leonard drove forward before playing the ball out to Lambert on the left before Hamil played in a low cross into the penalty area.  Bessey-Saldanha laid the ball off to Leonard, who drilled a first-time right-footed drive flashing just past the foot of the left-hand post from just outside the D.

Walker took the resulting goal-kick short to centre-half Dexter Peter, who had his pocket picked by Dos Santos on the edge of the penalty area and the striker played square pass inside the box to Leonard, who took a touch, feinted to send the advancing Walker diving to his left before clipping his right-footed shot over the grounded keeper and bouncing into the bottom far corner of the goal from 15-yards.

Batten said: “I thought the goal was good. It was a good goal. We’ve been building in that period when we started to get a grip on the game.

“We built some good opportunities and some good situations and I think that was the combination in that, so we ended up with Danny having a good chance. Jerson laid it off well to him and Danny’s finished it well to put us 1-0 up, which at that point we kind of deserved.”

O’Boyle added: “Terrible. Terrible.  Dexter Peter, he’s been a fantastic player by the way. He’s been a great signing. I really don’t know what he’s doing.  It was terrible decision making from him but he’s a really good player and he’s been fantastic since he’s come in so I can’t hammer him too much.

“We could’ve folded.  We’ve given away a really bad goal. Last week we gave away two really bad goals (during our 3-1 defeat) at Broadbridge Heath.  Second half we absolutely annihilated them.  Like I say, that was Andy Walker last week. Andy Walker made a bad mistake last week. Today, he’s the hero.”

Phoenix Sports showed great character not to fold like a pack of cards and good link-up play down the left involving Olopade and Francis resulted in Francis’ cross being cleared out to Hayes, who drilled a left-footed hooked shot just over the bar from 25-yards.

Phoenix Sports equalised with 36 minutes and 11 seconds on the clock, following the seventh of their 11 corners, the first seven coming in the first half and Hayes taking all but two of them.

Hayes fizzed in a left-footed delivery from the right, which wasn’t dealt with by a crowd of players inside the six-yard box and Lahan had the simplest of task of poking the ball over the line beside the far post from on the line to score his fourth goal of the season.

O’Boyle, laughing, said: “He’s scored a few goals Adejola, might play him up front next week.”

O’Boyle then explained why Hayes, 37, was playing in a central midfield position instead of his usual right-wing role.

“His age. He adds a lot of quality to our team. He sets up a lot of our attacks and he’s got quality on the ball.

“When we played Sheppey away, their left-back Frankie Morgan was basically getting down the line and Ryno just hasn’t got that in his legs to track him, so we played him in there with Denzelle Olopade and since they’ve been in there they’ve done really well and I’ve sort of kept with it.

“You’ve got to play Ryan Hayes. He is on his last legs but he adds so much quality to the team, so we played him in the 10.”

O’Boyle – who played alongside Hayes for Thamesmead Town Reserves before Hayes’ superb non-league career took off - explained why Hayes came off in the 71st minute to be replaced in midfield by Toch Singh.

“I did have one eye on Monday.  When you’re 2-1 up, I don’t need to score another goal and I don’t need him in the team to defend.  Ryan’s done a lot of good things for this football club in two years’ now, won us promotion. I don’t need him on the pitch with 15 minutes to go.

“He was more valuable on the side with me. He’s my assistant manager and Antony Gradley is away this weekend. I wanted Ryno in with me to see this team over the line.”

Batten added: “The ball’s gone across our six-yard box. It has fizzed across. We have missed it on the near-post, it fizzed across and they’ve got two players’ on the far post and they’ve tucked it in. it was a disappointing goal to concede at that point where we were generally on top at that point but being pegged back then was disappointing.”

Francis notched his first goal for Phoenix Sports as some individual quality gave the home side the lead, with 38 minutes and 5 seconds on the clock.

Francis and Hayes linked up well within the left channel before Francis cut into the penalty area and bundled past two Sheppey players before drilling a right-footed angled drive across Prall to find the bottom far corner from eight-yards on the angle.

“It was a fantastic goal.  I’ve been a big admire of Palace for a long time.  The Bromley move, I thought prior to that he was on fire as a player, scored a lot of goals. He’s got loads of ability,” said O’Boyle.

“I tried to sign him on loan from Bromley about two years ago but Bromley didn’t want to send him to us and then I tried to sign him when he was at Sevenoaks and we failed on that one and I’m so happy that he’s finally here and that goal was unbelievable!

“A great goal, a great goal, good player.  I’m really pleased he’s at the club.”

Batten added: “My frustration with that, we’ve got two men against the winger and it was too easy for him. He’s gone inside both of those players and it was a good finish. He struck it well. It was a good goal but the ease which he got through was unacceptable.”

Francis had a slice of luck just before half-time when Hamill played in the away side’s third corner, which the goalscorer sliced just past the foot of his own post as the first defender defending a right-wing corner.

O’Boyle knew exactly what he wanted during the second half.

“Make it the most boring game of football that you’re ever going to be involved in – goal-kicks, throw-ins, game management.

“You’re playing against a good team, don’t give them a sniff.  I thought the game would be they would attack us, we’ve got to soak up the pressure. Can we hit them on the counter-attack.

“We haven’t got to score the next goal but it would be nice if we did.  It was more important that we kept a clean-sheet second half and we sort of killed the game in key moments and that’s part and parcel of the game isn’t it.

“This win means something to us. Second half, if it’s boring, it’s boring, kill momentum.”

Batten added: “Well, I just reminded that there were periods of the game that we done alright but there were periods of the game where we made errors and they capitalised and football is as simple as that sometimes.”

Phoenix Sports now had something to fight for an a dropping deep Dos Santos lost a dual with Peter, who drove through the heart of the pitch towards the edge of the Sheppey United box before right-winger Gael Kileba lacked composure and lashed a first-time drive over the top of the near post from 18-yards.

Sheppey United missed a glorious chance to grab an equaliser with 8:27 on the clock – and putting your highlights online can sometimes give too much information away to opposing clubs – as Walker pulled off the save to deny Hamill.

Sheppey United left-back Frankie Morgan launched a long ball out of defence and Lahan’s poor header back put Peter in trouble as Dos Santos intercepted before the striker was brought down by Peter and referee Ross Murphy pointed to the spot.

Walker dived to his left to push away Hamill’s left-footed penalty.

Batten said: “It was a good save.  The keeper is going to choose an area to dive, he’s gone the right way.  I think from Richie’s point of view, he’ll be a little disappointed, also I think all of our games are screened (online) which sometimes isn’t helpful.

“I’m sure he’s guessing the percentages there.  Richie’s taken penalties before, because it wasn’t right in the corner, he’s given him the opportunity to make the save.

“Walker’s been around a long time and I’m sure he’s had a little look at (our highlights) and guessed the right way.”

O’Boyle said: “My centre-half, it was a poor decision – just kick it out of the ground, kick it out of the ground!  Don’t try to head it back, of you don’t think you can head it back.

“Richie Hamill is an ex-Phoenix player. I’m going to have to buy him a beer because I’ll be honest with you, Richie is an excellent player and I don’t mind holding my hands up – he never got the rub of the green with me.

“He was a left-back, we figured that Richie Hamill isn’t a left-back, he’s a central midfielder but he was a left-back in his early days and he never got the rub of the green with me.

“He’s an excellent player and I got that one wrong.  Richie Hamil is a very good Isthmian player – I was surprised he missed.”

Praising his goalkeeper for making a big save, O’Boyle added: “Walks is 42 years old, he’s been around the block but he’s still the most professional person you’re ever going to meet in football – he’s unbelievable!

“He turns up here 45 minutes early for every game but the homework is done all before that.”

Dos Santos easily shrugged past Leppard before the ball was played out to Bessey-Saldanha, who cut inside and onto his right-foot and his shot beat Walker but Peter made amends by getting back on his line to head the ball away in the 62nd minute.

Batten said: “It was we couldn’t seem to hit the target at times and I think as the game wore on you get more and more, not desperate but more and more frantic trying to score a goal and then you snatch at things.”

O’Boyle said: “They got in between full-back and centre-half. I wasn’t happy about that. I wanted my defence a little bit narrow and you might’ve head me shouting from the side-line.”

When asked about kicking every ball on the sidelines, O’Boyle said: “Nineteen years as a manager, I’m not really every going to change. I live, breath and eat football and it means a lot to me and that’s the way I am. 

“I do shout a lot. I’m not intimidating, it’s passion. It’s only passion and if you want to come and play for me, I’ll love you but you have to take it. If I give it the other way, you have to take it.”

Batten explained why he left 13-goal talisman striker Daniel Bradshaw on the subs bench until hooking Lambert in the 65th minute.

“We just decided to go with one up today, which was Jerson. Dan’s a goalscorer and we introduced him with 25 to go but unfortunately he didn’t get the opportunities to score.”

Phoenix Sports went close in the 28th minute of the second half when Francis played a low ball in from the left for Olopade, whose right-footed drive from 35-yards flashed just past the foot of the left-hand post.

Leppard knocked the ball down before substitute Oladejo cracked a 35-yarder which screamed just past the left-hand post, as the Sheppey United defence gave him space.

Sheppey United were bossing the possession during the second half but their finishing was lacking in the quality needed and Phoenix Sports just wanted it more.

The Ites went close to scoring in the 89th minute when Hamill split Lahan with a fine through ball to put in Dos Santos but the angle was getting tighter and tighter and he swept his shot past the foot of the near-post.

“I think generally second half we had the lions share. We were pressing, pressing and pressing and in these gems you miss your penalty, perhaps had another couple of opportunities as well and then you get the sucker punch right at the end,” added Batten.

When asked whether he thought Batten’s men were going to level proceedings, O’Boyle admitted: “We weren’t comfortable was we?  They’re very good keeping the ball and of course you think that (they’re going to equalise).  When you’re down there, I don’t ask for other results. I worry about us.  I’m thinking if they nick one, they maybe can nick two.”

O’Boyle was barking instructions to hit the corners as time ticked on but his side grabbed a flattering third goal with 50:25 on the clock.

Kileba dropped deep and played the ball back to Leppard, who swept a first time ball into the right-channel from inside his own half.  Substitute striker Joe Thomas latched onto the ball, outmuscled Majoyegbe, before cutting into the box and putting it on a plate for Oladejo to clinically lash a first-time drive past Prall from 12-yards.

“Joe Thomas is another youngster who’s come in. he hasn’t featured and he’s frustrated when not starting. He’s come on and I thought he’s done really well against a decent centre-half.  I rate Majoyegbe massively. Joe’s outmuscled him really, put a good ball in and Temi, a fantastic finish,” said O’Boyle.

“I told (Temi) to take it to the corner.  Temi came on, a good substitution. I brought him on for his defensive duties really and it was a good ball in.”

Batten added: “Fair play to them. They played the game in a way that they were able to win the game and they kept it in areas and the thing is when they get into areas they had runners that they knew the ball was going to go in there and on that occasion with the goal I think we’ll be disappointed.

“I think Leken got over and I think he could’ve dealt with it a bit better.  They nicked it away and the lad squared it and how many times have we seen that happen over the years when you’re pressing, pressing and pressing (to score) and the side finally gets that break and they hit you on it.”

Sheppey United welcome ninth-placed Hythe Town (43 points from 30 games and lost 1-0 at home to Merstham today) to Holm Park on Easter Monday, 1 April (15:00).

Batten was asked how his side will cope with playing Steven Watt’s side before a trip to Horndean on Thursday, Ashford United at home on Saturday and a trip to Beckenham Town on Tuesday 9 April.

Batten’s side are now 15 points adrift of fifth-placed Three Bridges – 3-2 home winners over Beckenham Town – and Batten admitted the play-offs are out of reach.

“I’ve said to the lads, we’ve got 900 tickets sold for Monday and that’s all very well and good, it’s fantastic for the football club but you come here and it becomes irrelevant because if you can’t win these games, if you’re losing five on the trot and confidence is what it is, you’ve got to come to these places and you have to dig out a result,” said Batten.

“I’m so disappointed we haven’t been able to do that and the reasons for that and I’ve said to them you’re incredibly lucky because you’re going to come on Monday in front of a huge crowd at home on a glorious surface and I said we owe them people something now. We’ve got to get the win.

“We’ve just got to do as well as we can. We needed to win today but in terms of the play-offs, we’re so far away from it now and with games piling up.

“With those number of games, it’s going to be extremely difficult to be targeting the play-offs. We’re so far away from it.  What I want to see is some character shown and to go and win some games between now and the end of the season.”

When asked about playing on Thursday night and a trip to Hampshire to play Horndean, Batten added: “Very difficult because we’ve not got the biggest squad. We rely on youngsters coming through as well. We had a couple on the bench today.  It will be an opportunity to look at some of the younger players and see at what level they are at this standard.”

O’Boyle, meanwhile, makes the short trip to Eden Park Avenue to play a Beckenham Town side that have won four of their 32 league games and must hit promotion winning form if they are to avoid relegation after two seasons at this level.

“We’ll go there on Monday, they’ve got to beat us. They’re nine points off us, they’ve got to beat us and they’ve got to win three out of six, that’s tough, because when you’re down there, I’m looking at we’ve got to win one out of six, I’m thinking can we do that?

“I believe one out of six, Beckenham and Erith & Belvedere have got to win three out of six.  When you look at the results, Beckenham have lost, Erith & Belvedere have drawn (2-2 at home to Burgess Hill Town) and we’ve won. We’ve gained points, not lost points and I think that the stage of the season, that was a big, big win for this football club today.

“I want to stay above the dotted line and keep this club in the Isthmian League and then we can start looking forward to next season because we don’t want to be back in the SCEFL.  We want to be in the Isthmian League. It’s where this club wants to be.

“If we can stay in it, I’ve done my job because it’s a hard, hard league. The money in Step Five and Step Six is ridiculous and this club has suffered for that.

“I don’t know where it’s going to end but I’ve done my job this year if we stay up.”

Phoenix Sports: Andy Walker, Henry Douglas, Ross Craig, Luke Leppard, Dexter Peter, Adejola Lahan, Palace Francis (Temi Oladejo 77), Ryan Hayes (Toch Singh 71), Tashi-Jay Kwayie (Joe Thomas 86), Denzelle Olopade, Gael Kileba.
Subs: Leo Mazzone, Daniel Duncanson

Goals: Adejola Lahan 37, Palace Francis 39, Temi Oladejo 90

Booked: Adejola Lahan 90

Sheppey United: Aiden Prall, Mamadou Diallo, Frankie Del Morgan (Oladipo Durowoju 77), Richard Hamill, Olamilekan Majoyegbe, Connor Wilkins, James Bessey-Saldanha, Zacharia Dainkeh (James Taylor 66), Jerson Dos Santos, Jacob Lambert (Daniel Bradshaw 65), Danny Leonard.
Subs: Joseph Ganiwa, Oluwadamiola Taiwo-Pratt

Goal: Danny Leonard 31

Booked: James Taylor 82

Attendance: 150
Referee: Mr Ross Murphy
Assistants: Mr George Barker & Mr Gary Baker