Staplehurst Monarchs 1-0 Rochester United - I'd love to take them up there, it's fairytale stuff, hope everyone's on our side to support the underdogs because that's what we are, says Staplehurst Monarchs manager Paul Atkins

Wednesday 01st May 2024
Staplehurst Monarchs United 1 – 0 Rochester United
Location Jubilee Sports Ground, Headcorn Road, Staplehurst, Kent TN12 0DS
Kickoff 01/05/2024 19:45

Southern Counties East Football League First Division Play-Off Semi-Final
Wednesday 1 May 2024
Stephen McCartney reports from Jubilee Sports Ground

STAPLEHURST MONARCHS manager Paul Atkins says the prospect of reaching the Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division for the first time in the clubs history on Saturday will be a fairytale for the village club.

Staplehurst Monarchs reached the First Division Play-Off Final for the first time, courtesy of striker Caine Smith heading home a well-worked set-piece five minutes before half-time, in front of a record crowd of 342 at Jubilee Sports Ground on Headcorn Road.

Staplehurst Monarchs will travel to Larkfield & New Hythe on Saturday for the winner-takes-all showdown, after Danny Lye’s side beat Lewisham Borough 13-12 on penalties after the New Hythe Lane clash finished goal-less after 90 minutes last night.

Neither finalist has played in the ninth-tier of English football before.

Big-spending AFC Whyteleafe claimed the league title having picked up 71 points from their 30 league games, while Larkfield & New Hythe (63), Staplehurst Monarchs (60), Rochester United (59) and Lewisham Borough (52) were the play-off quartet.

Atkins takes pride on his defensive record, having conceded 29 league goals this season and this was the 15th clean sheet in 43 games in all competitions this season.

“I’m buzzing to be fair, absolutely buzzing,” said Atkins during the post-match press conference.

“Look, I’d like to make a comment that stays with you guys.  We’re a village club. We came into the club, me and my assistant (Lee Wells) and they were a point or two points away from relegation, I think.

“First season was hard, 13th and then we just knew what we needed this season to make them stronger and get into the play-offs.

“Our aim, as the chair lady (Nicola Stonebridge) will say, it was play-offs.  We’ve reached that goal and I think if anyone looks down and sees Staplehurst will probably say we’ve been the underdogs all season.

“The team talk is all about underdogs. It always will be. We’re the underdogs every team we play, so yes, look absolutely feel for the boys. They’re a great bunch really, honestly, I mean that.

“At K Sports it was hard and I was manager at Larkfield as well. It’s hard. When you’ve got a group, sometimes it doesn’t gel and those boys in there, the reason we are where we are is that we gel.  They’re great lads and I’m buzzing for them more than anything.”

Rochester United chairman/manager Matt Hume added: “It’s really hard to take, for any team that loses (in a play-off).  You spend all year getting to this point and I really fancied ourselves tonight.

“I don’t think we raised to the occasion tonight. I don’t think we played very well and I think Staplehurst deserved the win.

“I think what they did tonight, they played in a certain way and I think we ended up playing the same way that suited them, instead of playing the way that we should’ve been playing but that’s all credit to them.

“I thought we looked very one dimensional and we’ve got an awful lot more about us usually and I was really disappointed that we didn’t have a plan B, a plan C on the pitch that we’ve done quite well all season.

“I’m really disappointed. I really wanted to go up this year and it’s harsh when it comes down to one game.

“I could tell 10 minutes into the second half. I felt it was going the same way as it was going in the first half where we were resorting into the same sort of way we were playing and I wanted to change it early. I had good players on the bench.  I think it had a little impact but not really the impact I was looking for. I don’t think it lasted for too long.  Today, we just didn’t perform.”

Both sides played a direct style of football with the ball often in the air.  Staplehurst centre-back Grant McIheron threw the ball into the box on seven occasions, while it was nine times for Rochester United’s right-back Bleu Landau.

Atkins said: “We’ve become ugly, we win games ugly. We’ve got the best defensive record in the league. I think we’re the fourth best in non-league football, so we know what we’re good at so that’s what we saw out there today, is that we’ve created that in that changing room.

“My coaching staff have made sure that we’re ugly.  You always have to earn the right to play football, right, and if you do the right things first, then you’ve got a chance to play football.”

Hume admitted: “I think it was awful actually. I don’t think it was particularly nice to watch. There was a lot of kick and rush and definitely a cagey cup final game, I thought.”

Staplehurst Monarchs came out on the front foot, edging a cagey start to the game.

They went close to taking a seventh minute lead when central midfielder Edward Rossetti fed left-back James Delaney, who played the ball in behind Lucas Payne to allow Harley Gorse to reach the left by-lone and he cut the ball back for Smith, who dug the ball out from under his feet before drilling a right-footed drive just over the crossbar from 18-yards.

“Caine gets in those areas, that we’ve been dying for all season. I said to them, look, if we’re going to beat Rochester today, they play a diamond (in midfield), so we had to go round the sides of them.  I don’t think we did well enough, if I’m honest enough, but we do create in wide areas and we can be quite dangerous in the wider areas,” said Atkins.

McIlheron’s first long throw came in from the left and the ball was flicked on at the near-post by winger Daniel Ashton before Gorse flicked his back-post header over the crossbar from eight-yards.

“It was cagey. I’ve been to watch a few (play-offs), I’ve never been involved in them, yes, very cagey. I don’t like the way we were, but I knew we could do it.  That’s the team we are, very cagey but very happy with the result,” said Atkins.

Staplehurst kept knocking on the door at set-pieces, with McIheron’s long throw being met by Ashton’s near-post flicked header screaming just past the near-post after the winger towered over Rochester United’s centre-half Freeman Rogers.

Rochester United lacked composure and quality in vital moments and an example of this came at the half-way mark.

Landau threw the ball down the line, the ball was flicked on by towering target-man Fjord Rogers and attacking midfielder Jack Marsh switched the play over to the unmarked left-back Luke Mercer.  His drilled shot was blocked inside the box and the ball came out to 24-goal forward Fjord Rogers, who took a touch before drilling his right-footed drive high and wide of the near-post from 20-yards.

The best chance of the game, however, fell to Rochester United in the 26th minute.

Inevitably it arrived from Landau’s long throw, which came looping in from the left and Freeman Rogers met it with a near-post header, which was superbly pushed over by Steve Lawrence’s left-hand, which prevented the ball sailing into the top left-hand corner.

Hume said: “A great save.  I think their goalkeeper is very good and I think he pulled off a great save from that one. That was going in the top corner, I think.”

Atkins added: “He’s the best keeper in the league by a long shot! He’s good enough to play a league higher. He’s a good man. He’s a big man. We all call him ‘the big man’. He’s an absolute asset. He’s been absolutely outstanding for us, outstanding!”

This was a good spell from Rochester United and Landau’s fourth long throw was cleared out to central midfielder Harrison Hume, whose left-footed hooked volley from 20-yards lacked power and was comfortably caught by Lawrence.

The winning goal arrived with 39 minutes and 42 seconds on the clock, following a set-piece.

McIlheron was going to line up his fifth long throw into a crowded penalty area but surprised Rochester United by throwing it short to Delaney, who nodded the ball forward and McIheron charged to the left by-line before dinking a cross with his left-foot towards a crowd of players inside the six-yard box and Smith buried his header into the left-hand corner from three-yards to give Staplehurst Monarchs a deserved lead.

“Ok, so we talked about it. We said ‘lets not be obvious,’ because you keep being obvious, right,” said Atkins.

“Let’s play a little dink touch and set and we did that on that occasion and it came off and the biggest man on the pitch is Macca, the centre-back and he’s crossed the ball and we’ve scored.

“Caine took it well. That’s when he’s dangerous in that six-yard box.  I think it was only one goal in it tonight.

“Little Caino, he works for me funnily enough, so I kind of blackmailed him into playing for me.  He’s come in to me at the right time. He’s been playing 23’s football because of commitments elsewhere.

“We’ve missed a striker all season. If you look at our goal ratio, I think we’ve missed a striker all season. He gets one chance and he scores. He’s a good lad as well.”

Hume added: “I’m disappointed that we didn’t pick up the player that dropped in to pick the ball up but all credit to them.  It’s a great ball in.  We still had plenty of bodies in the box to head it. It was a great header. It was a good goal from their pointy but really we weren’t alive to what was going on and they were cute enough to do it.”

Rochester United called Lawrence into action (44:29) when Fjord Rogers bundled his way into the penalty area from the right and from a tight angle his right-footed poke bounced off Lawrence’s feet after he narrowed the angle at his near-post.

Atkins added: “He’s so good at it. He’s been doing that all season. He might have one or two saves to make a game but he tends to excel in those moments.”

Both managers’ were asked their thoughts at the interval.

Atkins said: “Just a little bit of settle a bit more, we’ve got this.  We’re a good side. We defend well. We know what we’re good at, our attributes of being good defensively.

“It’s very difficult to settle when you’ve got teams coming at you all the time and they want to put the ball down your neck but I thought we done well.  I thought we done better second half than we did first half, so yes, happy with that.”

Hume said: “Mix it up a little bit more. Change the way, we’re going to have different aspects to our game. I felt it was a very even first half. I think we were playing in a way that suited them and we needed to work on and play the second half how we can play, which was yes, we have got to win our battles but when we get into that final third, we’ve got to get the ball down and have some composure and I feel we had no composure today.

“We didn’t have players that could like put their foot on the ball, wanted the ball and wanted to play.  I didn’t feel like we played a lot of good football today.”

Rochester United went to pieces into the Staplehurst penalty area and a chance went begging 13 minutes in, following their fourth and final corner.

Harrison Hume delivered a high, hanging delivery from the right, the aerially threatening Freeman Rogers knocked the ball down with his head and the ball came out to Liam Wilkins, whose left-footed volley from 25-yards screamed harmlessly wide.

“We had a couple of good half-chances and we didn’t even hit the target and I said to the boys, without going mad at them today, you’ve got to hit the target when you’re in and around the 18-yard area and we just didn’t do that,” added Hume.

Staplehurst Monarchs produced a well-worked move in open play – there wasn’t too many of them on a night of awful to watch direct football from both sides – as the second half reached the halfway point.

Winger Omar Elmantawy played the ball from the middle out to the left for pacey winger Ashton, who released Smith with a lovely ball down the channel, who cut in to drill a left-footed angled drive from 15-yards, which was comfortably held by Luke Watkins at his near-post.

“We worked the ball well. When we do work the ball well we create space, I just think we don’t do that enough sometimes,” admitted the Staplehurst manager, who revealed he played a much nicer brand of football last season.

“We did do a lot of it last season and then we did do it at the beginning of the season and we tried to go a little bit longer and a little bit more direct but listen, when we do create football, we are a very good side.”

Hume admitted his side found Staplehurst’s defence, well marshalled by McIheron and Jack Bray, a hard nut to crack.

Hume said: “That’s what Staplehurst are good at actually. If you look at their results this year, I knew as soon as they went 1-0 up, it was going to be really tough to break them down.  They’re good defensively. I think generally that’s their game plan this year and it’s worked very well for them.  They get ahead and then they defend very well.”

Staplehurst Monarchs almost grabbed a second on the counter attack (42:17), when 12-goal substitute striker Stanley Oldfield was breaking down the left and was denied by Watkins in a one-one-one situation.  Fellow substitute, Toby Sargeant had a second bite of the cherry but Watkins smothered the shot.

“Stanley should be putting them in.  Stanley’s a top lad. He’s been at (Isthmian League South East Division side) Ashford United, the last few weeks, so we pulled him back in and he’s played for us for most of the season,” said Atkins.

“He should be slotting that in. He’s a great lad. His attitude is unbelievable, his running is phenomenal and Harley Gorse’s legs were cramping up, bless him, so fatigue is where that comes across.  They were there for the taking on the break.”

When asked about injuries for Saturday’s winner-takes-all showdown, Atkins revealed: “Ted, I’d say Ted (Rossetti), hamstring, maybe, we’re not sure so we’ll give him a little bit of rest, ice, same things as you usually do but no apart from that we’re pretty much ready to go.

“We’ve got a couple that we can bring in that missed out tonight. I had 18 today, so they were standing there waiting by.

“Everyone wants to be a part of this. It’s the train that keeps going so now, it’s one last push right, one more, one more, one more.”

Hume added: “Obviously we were pushing for things. We were getting exposed at the back a bit towards the end but that was always to be expected because we were trying to get numbers on.

“Luke’s a great goalkeeper. He’s been a pleasure to have back. He was actually our goalkeeper when we won it last time around. He’s a great lad.  He’s played at a good level of football since he left us last time and he’s come back and he’s been an absolute joy to work with.

“It just didn’t fall for us but I think that’s a lack of quality today. We just didn’t seem to have it. We tried our best and that’s all we can say.

“What was missing tonight? Quality, a bit of quality, a bit of final third composure from our lads. It was too kick and rush and I think that’s what we were missing, just that little bit of quality.

“We’ve got that usually. We’ve got the players who have got that ability to do it. I will say though, they defended very well.”

Referee Mitchell Jukes threw Rochester United centre-half Tony Whitaker in the sin-bin after he slammed the ball down into the ground in frustration (46:11) and Rochester United threw bodies forward late on in search of a goal to force a penalty shoot-out but lacked quality to do so and the final whistle blew (52:06) to spark wild celebrations from inside the home dressing room after the match.

Atkins added: “Another clean-sheet. That man (Lawrence) in there. He’s had more clean sheets than any other keeper in god knows how many league’s. It’s ridiculous! I think he’s fourth best (in non-league).  It’s phenomenal. A little club like Staplehurst – brilliant!”

Larkfield & New Hythe go into Saturday’s finale as firm favourites but Atkins is keen to produce a shock result in a week of play-off upsets.

Ramsgate, Sittingbourne and Faversham Town lost semi-finals to Chichester City, Three Bridges and Corinthian respectively and Atkins wants to take Staplehurst Monarchs to their highest level of football in its history.

“I’d love to take them there. A bit of history, right, a bit of history for the club. I know how much it means to the club and I know how much it means to my staff and how much it means to those boys in there.

“Fairytale stuff, fairytale.  You know what the fairytale might be, is that Larkfield beat us twice and then we go and beat them on their own ground, that’s fairytale stuff.

“I hope everyone’s praying and hope everyone’s on our side to support the underdogs because that’s what we are, we’re the underdogs.

“We know them personally, we know the club as well.  I was manager there once upon a time.  Look, they’re doing well. They’ve got a big budget. They say they haven’t but we all know they have.

“We’ve played them twice and we’ve lost twice but when it really matters, it’s all about showing up on the day isn’t it.  We all know it’s a cup final. We all know we have to play a cup final attitude and tonight you could see it was a cup final because it wasn’t a lot of football.

“We’ve just got to get back in the trenches as quickly as possible, rest and recover and all the stuff that comes with football.”

When asked about the end goal and winning promotion, Atkins replied: “I don’t think I’ll come down. It means so much for the club. I can’t even get emotional about it because the club means a lot to me.

“We’ve given it a lot. This season, it hasn’t been a long season because we’ve not had as many games but it felt like a long season.  Honestly, because when you’re up there, you’ve got to stay up there and be competitive every week and you can’t switch off. You can’t turn off, so it would mean the world to the club.

“Financially, we’re not the, you can tell.  You walk into the club, we’re not glitter and gold. We haven’t got the biggest budget out there.   There is a budget at the club, it’s minimal, so we’ve done what we’ve done with honest players.  It’s great for the club and the chair lady, she’s an absolute treasure.

“If we settle, we can beat them. We fight harder than they do. It’s going to be a little bit scrappy, like most finals.  I think I’ve watched two play-offs and I haven’t enjoyed one of them. If we can play, great, but they won’t let us play.”

For Hume and Rochester – who last played in the Premier Division in 2018 – they want to use this hurt as fuel for next season’s campaign.

“With the money that’s in these leagues now, Whyteleafe are paying a lot of money, we knew Larkfield were. We started off with a reasonable budget but I had to cut that at Christmas, well known factors that most people know about.

“We have a bunch of players that have been at the club a long time. They love the club, so that stuck with us but it’s a long season and when you get to the end of it, you’re really gutted it’s down to one game but that’s the nature of it and it’s all over now so we’ve just got to go again.

“I’ve said to them when you lose, it’s the same as anything in life, when you get obstacles in the way, it’s character now, get up, go again.

“At the beginning of the year we said (our target was) play-offs and we knew we was capable of it and we done what was expected of us.

“The money that’s floating about is ridiculous and that’s why I love the bunch of players. I’m all proud of them because they’re not players’ who jumped ship. Unless I’m massively mistaken, I expect most of them to return next year.  They love the club and I think that’s how we’ve got to compete. 

“We’ve got to have people there who want to die for the cause and tonight I think I couldn’t criticise them.  They gave 100%. They gave everything that they’ve got – it just wasn’t good enough!

“We can only get stronger, get stronger.  One thing when you do lose games and you lose anything in life, you learn from it. You don’t learn from anything from winning most of the time or success.  You do learn a lot from your losses and we have learn a lot today.  We know our frailties and we’ve got to improve next year and I know that’s going to make us stronger.

“My job now is to get their heads up and it’s been a pleasure working with them and this is semi-professional football but fundamentally we’ve all have to enjoy ourselves and as long as they give me everything that they’ve got, it’s all I can expect.

“I’ve got to re-group. We’ve got a good little management team. I’ve got no intensions of stepping down (as manager) but as long as all of the boys want to be involved, at the moment that’s not crossed my mind.

“It’s very quiet in there (dressing room). It wasn’t a grilling. They’ve worked hard all year, so it wasn’t about having a grill with them. It was pick your heads up, it’s done now and we’ve just got to move on.”

Staplehurst Monarchs: Steve Lawrence, Sam Wheeler, James Delaney, James West, Grant McIheron, Jack Bray, Daniel Ashton, Harley Gorse (Toby Sargeant 90), Caine Smith (Stanley Oldfield 71), Edward Rossetti (Jack Hyslop 75), Omar Elmantawy (Harry Beech 85).
Sub: Kieron Pallet

Goal: Caine Smith 40

Booked: Omar Elmantawy 45

Rochester United: Luke Watkins, Bleu Landau, Luke Mercer, Lucas Payne, Tony Whitaker, Freeman Rogers, John Brown (Harvey Brown 56), Harrison Hume (Ben Wyness 65), Fjord Rogers (Tom Loynes 84), Jack Marsh (Charlie Barlow 57), Liam Wilkins (Hicham Akhazzan 84).

Booked: Ben Landau 72, Tony Whitaker 82

Temporary Dismissal: Tony Whitaker 90

Attendance: 342
Referee: Mr Mitchell Jukes
Assistants: Mr Mark Roberts & Mr William Rough
Fourth Official:  Mr Jack Packman