Rusthall 2-0 Bearsted - It was a performance out of character and they owe us a performance because they know they wasn't good enough, says bitterly disappointed Bearsted assistant manager Stephen Sage

Saturday 20th April 2024
Rusthall 2 – 0 Bearsted
Location Jockey Farm Stadium, Nellington Road, Rusthall, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN4 8SH
Kickoff 20/04/2024 15:00

Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division
Saturday 20 April 2024
Stephen McCartney reports from Jockey Farm Stadium

BEARSTED assistant manager Stephen Sage admits he didn’t recognise his side after complacency crept in during their shock defeat at struggling Rusthall which mathematically ended their chances of qualifying for the play-offs.


Bearsted arrived at Jockey Farm Stadium sitting in sixth-place in the Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division table, having extended their unbeaten run to seven games following a comfortable 2-0 win over Sutton Athletic at Honey Lane on Tuesday night.

Second-from-bottom Rusthall came into this game on a 21-match winless run.  Their last victory came in the Challenge Cup Second Round beating First Division side Forest Hill Park 4-0 on 31 October.  You have to go back to 28 November for their last league win – 2-1 at Stansfeld – and this was their first home league win since VCD Athletic were beaten 3-1 here on 26 September.

However, Rusthall were clinical in the first half with winger Jack Lyons and central midfielder Ben Branch scoring inside the opening 27 minutes to move five points clear of basement side Welling Town going into the last seven days of the campaign.

“Gutted to be honest. Obviously, we kept an eye on results elsewhere. We knew everything today was kind of in our hands,” said Sage.

“Nine months of hard work, not taking away what we’ve achieved this year in terms of the highest level we’ve ever performed. It’s been the best performance in terms of the league at this level for the club, but it was still within touching distance and obviously that’s got away and it’s kind of a bitter pill to swallow.

“Do you know what, full credit to them.  We said to the boys that we knew exactly what we were stepping into today. We knew that we had to perform and if we got our result, regardless of what happened elsewhere, we could be happy.

“I think it’s 21 games that Rusthall haven’t won a game but I don’t want to take anything away from these (Rusthall) boys today because I thought they were excellent.  They were clinical. I thought they applied themselves better, their attitude was a lot better than our boys and thoroughly deserved the result.

“But it is, as you quite rightly say, a shock. We came here with a side that we thought was more than good enough to get the result. 

“Bearing in mind the run of form that they’re on, they’re fighting for their lives and simply put, take our footballing side away from it, those (Rusthall) boys wanted it more today and I think that was evident today on the pitch.”

With Rusthall manager Jimmy Anderson serving a one-match stadium ban, assistant manager Oliver Saunders took part in the post-match press conference.

“Our players took our moments very well.  We dug in. We put a real shift in which you have to against a team like Bearsted.  They’re exceptionally well coached, they’ve got very good rotations, very good individual players that also can take their chances in their moments as well,” said Saunders, following their fifth league win of the season.

“I’m so very proud of them. They put an absolutely shift in and we took our chances. We had to really dig in, in the second half, which was relentless pressure.”

When asked about their winless run of results, Saunders replied: “If we look at the results, you’re absolutely right. I think when we looked at performances, we’ve had some extremely good performances and we’ve been on the wrong side of the result.”

Saunders added: ““I think the difference being is the players have learnt from the mistakes they’ve made, they’ve grown as a team, they’ve grown as a group and we’re seeing the results now of that growth.”

Rusthall lost centre-half Callum Adonis-Taylor to an ankle injury in their last outing 10 days ago, throwing away two leads in their 4-2 home defeat to Corinthian.

Bearsted, however, made six changes to their side that beat Sutton Athletic comfortably and they put in a disjoined, poor-performance against a side that are fighting for their lives and Rustics’ ran out deserved winners, as Bearsted offered very little in attack.

Sage revealed that midfielder Joel Wakefield (ankle) is expected to return to the squad for Monday night’s trip to Tunbridge Wells, while six-goal winger Nathan Palmer was “left at home” today because he misses the trip to Culverden Stadium through work commitments.

Sage explained: “Just simply, availability of the boys. A couple of the boys have got a couple of niggles. Obviously after a long hard season and we go again (at Tunbridge Wells) on Monday as well, so just the short-turnaround.

“We thought that we had picked a side here today that was more than good enough ability wise to go and get a result here and then obviously we’ll make a couple of changes on Monday night with that short recovery time and pick two sides across the week and hopefully go and do the business to get the results.”

Bearsted set the tone for their poor performance when holding midfielder Adam Turton gave the ball away and Lyons cut inside and onto his left-foot and from 25-yards forced visiting goalkeeper Frankie Leonard into a full-length diving save to his right after only 34 seconds.

“He, Turton that is, he’s a very good player. It’s not a mistake I expect him to make so you’re right, as soon as Jack latched onto it. We know Jack very well and he was very direct with it and we’re happy with that start,” said Saunders.

“It just showed that we were ready to pounce on any mistake or anything they gave us, to try to take our chances.”

Lyons went down within the centre-circle and was replaced by Danny Powell in the 66th minute and Saunders was asked about Lyons’ condition.

“We’re unsure really. I think it’s just general calves were getting tight up against the hard surface, so a bit of rest and he’ll be fine.”

Sage added: “Fantastic save firstly. I thought Frankie’s had a good game today, he’s probably one of only one or two players that could hold his head high.

“We were slightly alarmed probably for the first time in a long time during the warm-up, we felt a little bit of complacency and they got their first ball in 34 seconds into the game.”

Recalled Rusthall right-back Jeffrey Njuguna fouled the ineffective winger Malachi Hudson on the left and Turton swept in a quality delivery into the Rusthall box and recalled Bearsted centre-half Ryan Blake steered his header from within a crowd of players past the left-hand post.

“I think we’re clutching at straws,” admitted Sage, as his side created very little in both halves today.

“I think there were one or two deliveries from set-pieces – we’ve been good at set-pieces all year – it’s something that we’ve worked quite hard on. We have a number of routines, just didn’t really, sums us up, a free header, seven or eight-yards out, haven’t hit the target, it’s gone wide.

“We were just very reluctant to go and attack the ball, second phase as well wasn’t great, just very unlike us and that’s probably the most disappointing thing.”

Bearsted then enjoyed a brief spell on pressure and Turton played the ball into striker William Johnson-Cole, whose flicked pass played in Hudson but his deflected shot from inside the penalty area was comfortably gathered by Rusthall goalkeeper Serine Sanneh.

Sanneh played in the same England Under 15 side against the likes of Cole Palmer (now Chelsea) and Jude Bellingham (now Real Madrid) in a game against Belgium back in February 2017.

Rusthall produced a well-worked move to take the lead with 12 minutes and 49 seconds on the clock.

Recalled left-back Abdullah Khalil, centre-half Daniel Blunn and left-winger Kalani Barton linked up down the left inside their own half before the excellent Jack Kirby (who plays in the number 10 position) released Barton down the left.

Barton easily cut inside Bearsted right-back Jordan Tingley and cut into the box and his angled drive was parried by Leonard and the ball rolled out to Lyons unmarked at the far post and the winger tapped in his left-footed shot into the bottom right-hand corner from two-yards to score his sixth goal of the season.

“It looked simple but he did his best to scuff it, didn’t he,” said Saunders.

“It was before that as well, very good build-up play. We won the ball back and we turned it over and we knew Kalani’s a very direct player as well and it was nice to see Jack put into practice, what we’ve kind of asked him to join in and get into those areas on the six-yard box.  If anything pops out or the keeper makes a save or a clearance doesn’t quite work, he’s there to tap it in. Not the cleanest of tap-ins but one we’ve been working on.”

Sage added: “As I say, second phases, losing balls, switching off, not going with runners, things that we haven’t done for a long time.

“Sometimes we have bad performances and blips and you can understand that but goes back to what I said about attitude and application today and we didn’t do it.

“Frankie’s made another good save. I think there were warning signs before that. We didn’t track runners and we have been duly punished.”

Flat Bearsted were punished for a second time when Rusthall received a huge slice of luck with their second goal, timed at 26 minutes and 38 seconds on the clock.

Kirby counter-attacked through the heart of the pitch before playing the ball to Lyons on his outside, who had Bearsted players in front of him.  He waited for support and it arrived in the shape of central midfielder Branch, who drilled a right-footed shot over Leonard and against the underside of the crossbar.  The ball dropped down and the officials signalled that the ball bounced over the line.

Usually when you’re down at the bottom, the ball hits the underside of the crossbar and bounces away from the goal-line but Rusthall deserved their slice of luck and deserved their 2-0 lead at this point in proceedings.

Saunders said: “It’s been recently and we’ve discussed it as management and we don’t attribute things in terms of when we’ve lost or when we’ve won or towards officials. However, there’s been moments where key decisions haven’t gone our way.  That happens in football and that was one where it had gone over the line and we had that key decision and that makes a massive difference in the game.

“Any manager will tell you; goals change games and that obviously had an impact. It started to frustrate Bearsted, I felt, in my opinion, towards half-time and it gave us that little cushion which is vital.”

Sage added: “The ball’s come on Rusthall’s left-hand side, having necessarily tracked the runner. The left-back (Conrad Lee) got caught too narrow. The ball’s come back inside, not necessarily tracking runners again and got loads of time. 

“You’ve probably got a better view than me (standing behind the away team’s dug-out), we were unsure if it did go over the line or not.  I’m not sure Frankie got a touch to it but we’re clutching at straws there. It’s been given.  Probably first half-an-hour, it is what it is. Rusthall fully deserved the lead.

“You’ve watched us enough times this year, I think it’s fair to say that most teams would agree and know that sometimes when they play against us, they’re not going to see a lot of the ball and might sit in.

“We’ve had times this year when we’ve struggled against sides that sat in a mid-to-low block and struggled to break them down. 

“We didn’t have a lot of possession of the ball today in the first half, didn’t string one or two passes together, which is very unlike us. 

“The performance today was lethargic. Whether the boys are leggy. I don’t really want to give them any excuse because we prepared them the best that we can do.  We’ve had more than enough time to recover. We gave a couple of the boys a night off (from training) on Thursday night to recover, to get them ready for this and the Tunbridge Wells game.

“Ultimately, we’re bitterly disappointed with the result. The boys have to have a look at themselves in their performance today because it’s undone what potentially could’ve been achievable.”

It should have been 3-0 in the 34th minute when Barton cut in from the left wing before playing a reverse pass to release Kirby, who easily beat Tingley to reach the by-line down the left, before the ball was played along the deck into the danger area.  The ball was cleared out to Barton, who lacked composure and drilled his first-time right-footed shot into the base of the side-netting from 15-yards.

“One we probably expected Kalani to get on target but a very good counter-attacking move again for us to try to pounce on something and I wouldn’t say it was something we worked on, or something coming over a long period of time, us being clinical, knowing we’re going to have a few chances but it’s one we expected Kalani to get on target. I know he’ll be disappointed with it,” said Saunders.”

Rusthall wasted a glorious chance to kill the game off just four minutes later and once again the outstanding Kirby was involved.

Kirby fed Branch, who released striker Steadman Callender in behind Bearsted centre-half Blake and when faced with Leonard, drilled a right-footed angled drive which bounced just past the foot of the far post.

“Their goalkeeper had a very good game in the first half. We thought we made him work hard and I felt he performed very well,” added Saunders, who started Callender as a central striker before moving him wide right in the second half before he was replaced by Stacey Petrou on 79 minutes.

“Steadman gives us very good work-rate, he gives us good running. He follows, listen to instructions and he can execute when we need him to in terms of changing positions and being flexible, so we’re happy with his general contribution towards the team and performance today,”

Rusthall centre-half Daniel Blunn had a great game alongside Ryan Styles and shut the door shut as Eniola Hassan drove into the Rusthall penalty area as the away side failed to alarm Sanneh in goal.

“Him (Blunn) and Lenny (Styles) have forged a very good partnership. We’ve got players that are absent – Callum Taylor is recently injured – and they formed a very good partnership and they’re starting to rebuild on that and I think that’s vital to keeping a clean sheet as we did today,” explained Saunders.

“We limited set-pieces from Bearsted. We know Bearsted like to deliver the ball under or into the goalkeeper under the crossbar in dangerous areas and we were prepared for that, so we defended quite deep from set-pieces.”

Both were asked about their thoughts going into the interval.

Saunders said: “Same. Just keep doing the same things. There was no magic formular. Everyone agreed. Just keep doing the same things again, cut and paste and we’ll be ok.”

Bearsted manager Kevin Stevens hooked Jack Palmby, Hassan and Hudson at the break to bring on Jacob Kalonda (centre midfield), striker Ollie Freeman and left-winger Dieko Falade.

Sage said: “We weren’t happy with some of the performances. We weren’t happy in terms of the dynamic and the balance in the midfield, didn’t necessarily felt it was working.

“Jack Palmby has been playing recently, the last four games, with a dislocated shoulder. The surface out here today is a little bit dry, a little bit bobbly, probably a little bit weary of that because the shoulder does keep popping out. He had to come out on Tuesday might after 27 minutes, so he is a genuine injury.  He probably shouldn’t be playing but we’re a little bit light in midfield.

“We didn’t think the midfield was working hard enough. We thought we were quite narrow today in terms of width with our wingers and it was a like-for-like swap.”

Bearsted coach Elyon Marshall-Katung demanded more aggression from his players, as Rusthall bossed the key areas over the park.

Rusthall were almost 3-0 up on the hour-mark.

Kirby broke and cracked a right-footed 35-yard drive, which sailed over Leonard’s head before crashing against the crossbar.

“With that opportunity came round because we discussed it.  The goalkeeper sometimes plays a bit higher because they’re very good in possession and he liked to be an option if we go get a transition/turn over,” said Saunders, who attended Bearsted’s last home game on a scouting mission.

“It might be an opportunity to either drive through on goal and know he’s going to be quite high and Jack in that instance took the opportunity to try to catch him off his line. It was good execution. I don’t know if he had it covered or not, but it was hard luck that it hit the bar.”

Saunders admitted the arrival of Kirby to the club has boosted their chances of survival.

“I completely agree. Jack Kirby has made an extremely positive difference. He’s been one of the links, I feel, that when we’ve been looking and searching for goals in games that we were losing 1-0 or 2-0, creating but also speed of thought and play that he brings, so when he gets on the ball he will drive. He will look for a pass and he’ll often be able to execute some of the harder passes as well, so he’s brought a hell of a lot to us.  We’re happy to have him and really glad he’s here.”

Reflecting upon his scouting mission, Saunders replied: “I watched them against Sutton and worked on a game plan and we all brought into that and it’s paid off for us today.”

Sage admitted: “Our defensive record this year speaks volumes I think it’s the second best defensive record in the league (conceding 42).  We just looked at sixes and sevens today.  Yes, we made a couple of changes.  Ryan Blake has come back in as club captain after a two-match ban after picking up 10 bookings.  He has played really well this season, was in a great run of form before.

“There’s no excuses, he (Kirby) had the freedom of midfield, and we gave him enough time. Just a moment of, he hasn’t scored, potluck, chance. He’s done very well. I thought he was unlucky not to score.”

Rusthall were playing with confidence and Styles rolled the ball out to Lyon, who cut in from the right and his cross deflected off Bearsted’s left-back Conrad Lee and was comfortably gathered by Leonard at his near-post.

Bearsted centre-half Phillip Headley (who finished the game as an emergency targetman) gave the ball away to Khalil inside his own half, who fed substitute striker Powell, who cut inside before hitting a 30-yard right-footed drive, which dipped over the crossbar.

Bearsted had a bit of a go during the late exchanges but it proved to be too little too late, as Rusthall kept their first-clean sheet since a goal-less home draw against Glebe on 3 February, the game before they lost 3-0 at Bearsted.

Turton played the ball out to winger Robbie Roberts, who played the ball inside to Freeman, who played the ball back to Roberts, who lashed his left-footed drive on the angle from 15-yards, high over the bar and into the neighbouring farm (40:48).

Substitute left-back Callum McCarthy released Roberts who cut into the box down the left but lacked composure at a tight angle and his attempt screamed across the face of goal in the air instead of troubling Sanneh.

“I think it would’ve been a consolation. Did we really deserve it? No.  We huffed and puffed. I thought we were better second half. We had a lot more of the possession, but the damage was done,” admitted Sage.

“Rusthall all sat in, they knew what they had to do.  They could defend. I thought they defended the hill and the environment and the pitch here at Jockey Farm a bit better and they were half-chances.

“We could still be out there now and probably still not hit the target today.  I don’t think the keeper had to make a save today. Just kind of sums up our overall performance.”

Saunders added: “You don’t want to give up a lead and how much that lead meant to us and getting the points is extremely important to survival but all of us got us over the line because the boys have grown really well over the last three to four weeks especially.”

Champions Deal Town (86 points from 38 of 40 games) will be playing Isthmian League football for the first time next season.

The four teams in the play-offs are Faversham Town (80 points), Glebe (80), Corinthian (79) and Erith Town (77, with a game in hand).

Whitstable Town are now in sixth-place on 70 points, Bearsted are now in seventh on 68 points (with a game in hand) and Lydd Town are in eight-place on their maiden campaign at this level on 64 points.

Meanwhile, Kennington (31 points, a game in hand) and Stansfeld (25) are mathematically safe – both clubs operate without a playing budget. Rusthall are now third-from-bottom on 23 points, while Sutton Athletic follow on 23 and Welling Town (18) play at home to Kennington on Tuesday night before completing their campaign at home to Snodland Town on Saturday, needing to win both to avoid ending their fifth-year stay at this level.

“As long as it’s mathematically that we’re not safe then we can’t be and everything’s out of our hands. We can only take control with what we have in front of us,” said Saunders.

“Our next game away to Glebe is going to be an extremely tough one. They’re getting prepared for play-offs and we’re facing a very well organised team and very well coached team and also some outstanding individuals as you’d expect in play-of teams.

“We can only think about our next game, with regards to safety, until it’s mathematically done, I don’t take anything for granted.

“Knowing the group of boys that we’ve got, the growth we’ve been through, the hard times, the bad, we’ve gone through, I’m very happy we’ve managed to get across over the other side of those cloudy moments, so yes, we’re in a good position.”

Teams going into the play-offs must not make too many changes going into their final league game – as momentum is a key vital ingredient going into these tense winner-takes-all showdowns, played in front of larger crowds than usual.

Saunders said: “We’re expecting an extremely difficult game. I don’t think because they’ve secured a place, I don’t think that makes much of a difference to our preparation or theirs.  They want to be on a winning run and going into those play-offs with good habits.  Winning breads winning…”

This victory should keep Rusthall in this division next season.  Welling Town lost 4-1 at Faversham Town today and extended their winless run to 20 games.  However, football is not played on paper and not many people would have predicted Rusthall to beat Bearsted today, a comfortable victory too.

“For everybody here outside of the dressing room, it means a hell of a lot.  We say thank you to the community for their support.  We’re extremely happy. They are really buzzing with our result,” said Saunders.

“Within the dressing room and the management team, it will be something we have been striving for so long.  You’ve pulled the stats out with regards to not having a win for so long. It really is something we know and believe in ourselves to get the evidence now is extremely important.

“It means so much to the community, especially here. Everyone puts in a hell of a lot of time. I know it’s something that gets repeated a lot in non-league football but a lot of people put in a hell of a lot of time, volunteer their time and it’s nice to get on the pitch and give something back with regards to keeping ourselves in the SCEFL Prem.”

Bearsted end their best ever campaign in the ninth-tier with a trip to fifteenth-placed side Tunbridge Wells (11 wins, nine draws and 16 defeats) on Monday night before hosting thirteenth-placed Fisher next Saturday.

Sage said: “Look, as much as we’re bitterly disappointed at the moment and because it does close the play-off door, probably once we get over the result tonight and the performance, we’ve said to the boys, we’ve still got two games to go and we still want to finish the highest that we can do.

“We still want to get the most amount of points that we can do. We want to finish sixth. We want to narrowly miss out on the play-offs and be the next best and use the experience of this year to go ahead and plan for next year.

“Myself and the gaffer had a conversation this morning at the club. If someone had offered us to finish sixth, we would’ve bitten their hand off.

“I hate talking about that we haven’t got a massive amount of money as a club. We’re trying to improve the facilities at Honey Lane.

“We’re probably slightly over-achieved this year and we know that and being so close and be in and amongst it, it hurts today. It still a massive achievement.

“We’ve watched Tunbridge Wells. We’ve got a game in hand, to go there on Monday and there will be a couple of changes in the side, so we’ll accommodate that and the short recovery but we’re looking at possibly go and get six points against Tunbridge Wells and Fisher and finish the season strongly and that’s what we said to the boys this afternoon.  That’s important.

“They owe us a reaction from today because they know they wasn’t good enough and it was a performance out of character. We didn’t necessarily recognise that side today.  It kind of goes against our blue print and it’s down to them to turn up on Monday and next Saturday and get a result and finish the season strongly and ready for next year.”

Stevens and his management team have fought tooth and nail to challenge the big-hitters this season and can be proud of their achievements this season, despite falling short within the final week of the league season.

Sage added: “They know they’ve let themselves down (today) but at the same time they’ve worked exceptionally hard to even have an opportunity to have a sniff of the play-offs.

“We’ve said to the boys, they owe us a performance on Monday. We don’t want this to ultimately end our season. We’ve still got two games to go. We’ve over-achieved this year.  We have broken club history. It’s the highest ever points today that we’ve got in the league. It’s potentially will be our highest finish. We’re aiming to finish just outside the play-offs and be the next best team and finish sixth in the league.”


26 August 2023 – Rusthall 3-1 Stansfeld – League
9 September 2023 – Rusthall 2-1 Kennington – League
26 September 2023 – Rusthall 3-1 VCD Athletic – League
31 October 2024 – Rusthall 4-0 Forest Hill Park – Challenge Cup Second Round


18. Stansfeld – 25 Points – Safety secured

Saturday 27 April – Away – Deal Town

19. Rusthall – 23 Points
Saturday 27 April – Away - Glebe

20. Sutton Athletic – 23 Points
Saturday 27 April – Home – Hollands & Blair

21. Welling Town – 18 Points
Tuesday 23 April – Home – Kennington
Saturday 27 April – Away – Snodland Town

Rusthall: Serine Sanneh, Jeffrey Njuguna, Abdullah Khalil, Dylan Riches, Ryan Styles, Daniel Blunn, Kalani Barton, Ben Branch, Steadman Callender (Stacey Petrou 79), Jack Kirby, Jack Lyons (Danny Powell 66).
Subs: Malcom Dixon, Daniel Watson, Frank Little

Goals: Jack Lyons 13, Ben Branch 27

Booked: Jack Kirby 45

Bearsted: Frankie Leonard, Jordan Tingley, Conrad Lee (Callum McCarthy 65), Adam Turton, Ryan Blake, Phillip Headley, Robbie Roberts, Jack Palmby (Jacob Kalonda 46), William Johnson-Cole (Marvin Okundalaiye 75), Eniola Hassan (Ollie Freeman 46), Malachi Hudson (Dieko Falade 46).

Booked: Phillip Headley 20, Adam Turton 37, Jacob Kalonda 88

Attendance: 176
Referee: Mr Richard Myers
Assistants: Mr Byron Beard & Mr Daniel Roberts