Tunbridge Wells 2-1 VCD Athletic - The honest truth is we've had enough of bad luck stories, admits Tunbridge Wells manager Steve Ives

Tuesday 06th February 2024
Tunbridge Wells 2 – 1 VCD Athletic
Location Culverden Stadium, Culverden Down, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN4 9SG
Kickoff 06/02/2024 19:45

Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division
Tuesday 6 February 2024
Stephen McCartney reports from Culverden Stadium

TUNBRIDGE WELLS manager Steve Ives says he has had enough of bad luck stories and acknowledges the fact that a club of this stature has to start challenging for promotion from the Southern Counties East Football League Premier Division next season.

Tunbridge Wells leapfrogged over Hollands & Blair into fifteenth-place in the table with 27 points (seven wins, six draws and 11 defeats) from their 24 games, 11 points clear of relegation threatened side Welling Town.

Thirteenth-placed side VCD Athletic (30 points, seven wins, nine draws and now 11 defeats), arrived at a wet and windy Culverden Stadium on a seven match unbeaten run, having last tasted a defeat in a 2-0 reverse at Faversham Town on 9 December.

Tunbridge Wells celebrated their first victory since beating their local rivals Rusthall 2-0 at Jockey Farm Stadium on 30 December.

Centre-half Siji Akinlusi headed in his first goal for Tunbridge Wells following a set-piece, but a mistake from goalkeeper George Bentley, 23, gifted Vickers’ right-back Harry Lawrence an equaliser right on the stroke of half-time.

The Wells claimed a morale bosting victory through winger Regan Corke’s sixth goal of the season.

“I sum that up as a performance full of commitment and desire,” said Ives.

“We have got a significant number of home games coming up, so it’s vitally important we make the pitch a stronghold for us, an advantage.  The rain obviously isn’t helping. It was difficult but we’re just trying to find a way that gives us the best chance of us picking up points on it.

“That statistic (four games without a win before tonight), certainly is one way of making it look like we were desperate for a win.  I would point out we actually started their unbeaten run with a credible 0-0 draw over there (12 December) and we have subsequently beaten Rusthall and drawn with Faversham and Lydd, so it’s not like we’re on our backsides.

“In fact, I think we’ve only lost once in the league since we played them but they are in good form. I’m sure they didn’t come here expecting to lose.”

VCD Athletic joint-manager Ross Baker added: “A game of two halves really.  First half I thought we defended well, looked lively going up the hill in poor conditions on a poor pitch really.

“We just didn’t come out second half, didn’t come out.  The game plan second half, the boys did it for about 10 minutes and all off a sudden we just switched off.

“I thought we played for about an hour tonight and then the last 30 minutes we were quite poor, probably the worst we’ve been in 10 or 12 weeks.

“I don’t want to be disrespectful to Tunbridge Wells because people are volunteers and they do their work here but it’s not the best surface to play on and you can see for yourself it’s not the best but listen, I’m not blaming the pitch or blaming the conditions.  We weren’t up to the job today, simple.”

VCD Athletic had five players cautioned by referee Paul Agyei-Tabi, including substitute Richard Jimoh, who wasn’t even on the pitch at the time.

“I’m not one to dig out officials because they’re doing their job but I’ve got to be honest, I thought the man was extremely poor tonight,” claimed Baker.

“I think there was a number of bookings for both sides, a number of fouls that wasn’t fouls, just wasn’t free-kicks.  Some of the decisions he made, I thought they were a little bit bizarre really.”

Both sides played direct football on a difficult playing surface and Tunbridge Wells were to be denied the lead inside the opening seven minutes following a set-piece.

Holding midfielder James Shield delivered a right-footed free-kick some 35-yards from goal and the Vickers defence gave Billy Lewins a pocket of space inside the box and his stooping header forced Vickers keeper Joe Hyde to make a fine save, getting down low to his right and using a strong right hand to thwart the attacking midfielder.

“It looked like an unorthodox header from Bill from where I was standing. He’s not the biggest lad and I was surprised he had that much space if I’m honest but the keeper made a good save, which he made quite a few times in fairness to him,” added Ives.

Baker said: “Joe’s been in and out for a couple of months now and he’s been unreal for us. He’s a good goalkeeper, he’s a lovely fella and he’s made one or two good stops tonight.  Not only tonight, the last couple of weeks he’s made some good stops at crucial times and today was up there as probably one of the best ones he’s made.”

VCD Athletic were almost gifted the lead shortly afterwards when attacking midfielder Bethel Gboda drilled a free-kick into the Tunbridge Wells’ penalty area, goalkeeper George Bentley went to punch the ball and completely missed the ball and the ball fell at Vickers’ centre-half Michael Fenn, completely unmarked but he lacked composure and the ball bounced off him and flashed past the right-hand post.

“I don’t think Fenn knew it was coming to him, I’ve got to be honest with you.  I think everyone in the ground thought the keeper was coming to claim it and he didn’t.  Fenno is quite decent in the box, I just don’t think he knew much about it,” admitted Baker.

Ives added: “There was a bit of a hairy moment there for sure.  It is difficult conditions for goalkeepers especially. It’s difficult conditions for everyone, particularly for goalkeepers.

“I’m pleased that George has come in with conviction at the end of the day.  I’d rather he took it clean but he’s come in with conviction and that’s a good start for me. That’s what I want from my goalkeeper’s.”

VCD Athletic started to get into their stride and they produced a well-worked move in the 14th minute.

Holding midfielder Zak Byron drilled a first-time ball out to Steadman Callender on the right and the attacker cut into the box before cutting the ball back to Byron, who hit his first time shot over the crossbar.

“Steadman has come in, it’s his second game in four or five days. He’s been good for us.  He’s only just finding his feet,” said Baker.

“Zak’s had a shot. I thought it was in from where I was standing. Zak’s got that in his locker and he’s just finding his feet again and he’s another one whose been really good for us in the last 12 weeks.”

VCD Athletic – who won the corner-count by 5-2 – floated in their first from Gboda’s right-foot from the right and central midfielder Lee Bird found space at the far post but his lofted ball back in was comfortably caught by Bentley at his near-post.

The horrible conditions was not conducive of producing much quality football with both sides often hitting the ball long - and the home side went close from another set-piece in the 25th minute.

Left-back Nico Cotton – a recent arrival from tenth-tier Canterbury City – drilled a deep left-footed free-kick into the Vickers’ penalty area from close to the centre-circle and Akinlusi ghosted in to plant his header just past the near post.

Tunbridge Wells’ 22-goal striker Trevor McCreadie experienced a quiet night and his only chance arrived just before the half-hour.

Right-back Daniel Tear threw the ball to the Eastbourne-based striker, who had his back to goal (with Charlie Heatley close by), before bringing the ball under control, spinning and stroking a weak left-footed angled drive from the corner of the penalty area, which rolled into Hyde’s gloves at the near-post for a comfortably pick-up.

“I was probably consistently pleased with our performance throughout the 90,” said Ives.

“It can kind of be the proverbial game of two halves here because of the slope, so I guess if I’m being hyper fussy, I would rather get more than one goal when we’re going down it, thinking the second half is going to be tough.

“If we set up that resolutely and we managed the game as well as we can, I didn’t really feel that VCD ever had a consistent spell. They had chances – everyone’s going to have chances - but I didn’t really feel ever like we were under significant pressure.”

Ives said: “We’re probably at that stage firing a few warning shots.  Correct me if I’m wrong, there weren’t many clear-cut chances in the whole game, so you’ll probably going to point out quite a few half-chances. That was the nature of the game. It was quite scrappy. It’s going to be, let’s be realistic.”

Baker said: “I was very pleased, honestly, I was saying to my management team after 25-30 minutes, we weathered a little bit of storm after 10 minutes, which I fully expected being away from home.  I thought we were good value for our money and I was expecting big things from us, especially towards the end of the half.  It just wasn’t our night tonight.

“Everyone at this level knows Trevor. He’s a very good centre forward and he’s good at what he does.  I thought tonight we done well especially (centre-halves) Harry Sargent and Michael Fenn.

“Fenno finds himself a little bit unlucky because he’s been good when he comes in for us.  We had Ben Fitchett, the skipper, missing tonight. He got a knock on Saturday so we couldn’t risk him tonight.

“Josh Leach has been in outstanding form and he’s another one who picked up a knock on Saturday, so with games coming thick and fast you have to use your squad.

“Tom Cousins has come in and done really well (at left-back), Fenno’s done really well.”

Winger Heatley cut in from the left into the centre before feeding Callender (more right wing than central striker) and the former Erith Town and Whitstable Town attacker teed up Bird, whose first time right-footed drive from 20-yards only just cleared the crossbar.

Tunbridge Wells grabbed the lead, however, with 38 minutes and 34 seconds on the clock, following a set-piece.

Left-winger Matthew Astle swung in a quality right-footed delivery into the box for Akinlusi to bury his towering header over a grounded goalkeeper to find the far corner from eight-yards.

Baker claimed the goal should have been ruled out for a foul on keeper Hyde.

Ives said: “I sometimes refrain from making a sweeping statement until I watch the video back because quite often your eyes can deceive you but as far as I’m concerned it was a great inswinging delivery and Siji has met it with total conviction, absolutely cleanly and beat the keeper, so I do not understand how anybody can have a compliant.  However, if I watch the Veo and I have to eat my words, I will do so.”

Baker said: “I’ve got to be honest and I spoke to the referee at half-time and I thought it was a foul on the goalkeeper from where I was.

“I didn’t think it was a free-kick in the first place but there was a number of decisions that the referee gave that I was bewildered with.”

VCD Athletic showed great character to recover from that set-back though.

Callender switched the ball over to Bird on the left and he waited until left-back Tom Cousins to make an over-lapping run before Cousins reached the by-line and Callender’s header was blocked inside the Tunbridge Wells penalty area.

VCD Athletic were level just 28 seconds later, the leveller coming with 46:39 on the clock.

Heatley played the ball in from the right and an unmarked Lawrence drilled his right-footed shot towards goal from 25-yards.  It should have been caught by Bentley, who allowed the rasping drive to slip through his fingers before dropping apologetically over the goal-line.

Baker said: “Listen, we showed good character.  We went through a little spell eight or 10 weeks ago where we were playing really well and not getting results and we’ve turned the corner with that and showed real good character to get out of the little rut that we was in and that’s been one of our strong points lately.

“I thought their goal kind of kicked us back into life.  I thought we had a little bit of a flat spot, kicked back into life and H drives well, he does drive well forward and he always pops up in the box from time to time and he got his goal. I thought he deserved it to be fair to him.”

Ives added: “I already written in my notes to say to the boys’ at half-time that I felt we’ve been guilty of a couple of occasions of standing off them around the edge of our box.

“I really want us to defend front foot in our defensive third and I felt firstly we shouldn’t be letting them get any shot off there.

“Let’s be honest though, it should be a comfortable save.  George has made a mistake. I’m sure the weather plays a part in that and he knows he should be saving that and we said at half-time that we now need to dig him out by making sure that doesn’t become a defining moment in the game.”

Both manager’s were asked their thoughts at the interval.

Ives said: “We basically said they’ve been given a free route back into the game. What we didn’t really feel that they deserved.

“George was otherwise very good. He needed to re-group mentally to make sure if didn’t effect the second half and the team needed to re-group and make sure we didn’t have to come to speak to people like yourself after the game about how George Bentley has cost us two points and thankfully that wasn’t the case.”

Baker added: “I just wanted them to keep going.  I know we go on about the pitch. We wanted to keep playing. We do play some nice football.  We want to play in certain areas, especially going down the slop here.

“I was just a little bit disappointed the way that we came out second half.  The first 5-10 minutes we came out alright and then we sort of just went flat.”

Bentley showed bags of character though as he pulled off two brilliant second half saves to ensure Tunbridge Wells claimed the victory.

There were only 207 seconds on the clock by the time that Fenn intercepted a Tunbridge Wells raid and ran and ran and ran up field before reaching the final third before lashing a half-volley dipping just over the top of the far post from 25-yards.

Callender cut in from the right before cracking a left-footed drive towards the top far corner from 25-yards, which Bentley dived high to his right to fingertip the ball onto his crossbar with three minutes and 23 seconds on the clock.

Baker said: “I thought it was a good stop from the keeper to be fair.  I mean, a foot either side of the keeper, I think that goes in and it’s a completely different story tonight but listen, you’ve got to take your chances.

“Steads come in and done well, cut inside. I think he skipped past one or two and got his shot off.  Another night that’s 2-1.

“Danny (Joy) and me have liked Steads for the last two or three years. An opportunity arose to get someone in that we like.  I’ve got to be honest, you’ve got to be a fool if you don’t want to sign somebody of his quality.”

Ives said: “It was a fantastic save.  You’ve been and watched us quite a few times this season and you know how hard it can be defending that bottom goal when a team starts swinging balls at you and hitting speculative shots and I thought George was absolutely fantastic in the second half.”

Tunbridge Wells grabbed the victory with a well-worked three-man move, with 16 minutes and 45 seconds on the clock.

An unmarked Shield floated the ball into the Vickers’ penalty area, the ball was flicked on by Lewins into the path of Corke, who drilled an unstoppable first time right-footed drive screaming into the roof of the net.

“Billy’s awareness, he meant that, to flick that into an area where we expect Regan to be and we’re constantly saying to him to be that guy that gambles off the shoulder and I’m really pleased for Regan because he’s set-up countless goals for us this season and it’s nice to see him actually score one,” said Ives.

Baker admitted: “I think we switched off for their goal really. I think we switched off for that movement before it went out to him.  I think probably from them on, I thought we were a little bit poor defensively, giving the ball away in certain areas to kind of give them the opportunity to get back into the game.”

Bentley pulled off another brilliant save to frustrate VCD Athletic in the 67th minute, tipping over Steadman’s right-footed central free-kick from 35-yards.

Ives added: “Determined to make sure his name was held in a positive light in the summary of this game and I felt that’s character.  That’s what our team need to show because there’s been a few times where we have let a few leads slip and people question our character and our naivety and our game management but I think George epitomised the whole team there, where he just refused to let this be another sob story.”

McCreadie pinged the ball over to Astle on the left wing before he played the ball inside to Cotton, who cut onto his left-foot before unleashing a rasping drive from the corner of the penalty area, which proved to be too hot for Hyde to handle at his near post.

Ives said: “Nico is a dangerous striker of the ball. We’ve put him on dead-ball delivery. He had a couple of attempts, one that went over the crossbar and there was one when the goalkeeper found it too hot to handle.  On another day that’s kind of Trev’s hunting ground, slippery conditions, you’ve got to try your luck haven’t you.”

VCD Athletic kept plugging away in search of an equaliser.

Lawrence swung in a free-kick from the left touchline, which was cleared away for Bird to drilled a right-footed drive from 25-yards, which screamed low past a crowd of players and past the far post.

VCD Athletic created one chance in stoppage time (45:56, the final whistle was blown by referee Paul Agyei-Tabi at 49:37).

Byron fed substitute Emmanuel Shoderu, who charged down the heart of the pitch before playing in substitute striker Charlie Edmundson but Bentley was not going to be beaten for a second time.

“Towards that sort of time, I thought the conditions had got worse.  The pitch has got worse and we kept plugging away.  Take nothing away from Tunbridge Wells, they deserved their three points, like we wasn’t good enough for 90 minutes tonight,” admitted Baker, who was then asked what was missing.

“Just that little spark.  Hollands & Blair made it hard for us on Saturday (during our 3-1 win).  One or two were carrying knocks. I just don’t think tonight was our night. 

“The pitch didn’t suit us, the conditions didn’t suit us. I don’t want to be a side that only plays on nice pitches and in fair weather. Everything tonight, it just wasn’t our night tonight, unfortunately.”

Beneath Tunbridge Wells in the league table tonight are Hollands & Blair (26 points from 25 of 40 games), Kennington (21 points from 26 games), Stansfeld (19 points from 27 games), Rusthall (18 points from 27 games), Sutton Athletic (18 points from 25 games) and Welling Town (16 points from 26 games).

VCD Athletic welcome sixth-placed Whitstable Town to Oakwood on Saturday.  Their assistant manager Craig Coles claimed Whitstable Town are ‘far too big for Step Five football and deserve to be in Step Four,” after winning 1-0 at Snodland Town last Wednesday.

“I did see that.  Whitstable is a massive club, let’s not beat no bones about it, they’re a massive club,” claimed Baker.

“I’ve met Marcel Nimani a couple of times, he’s a nice fella. We’ve got some work to do (at training) on Thursday night for the game on Saturday.

“We got beat tonight but I’m still confident that the boys can go and get something on Saturday.  They deserve it. 

“It’s a great changing room we’ve got here and a great young changing room and the boys are hungry to push us up the table where this club should be. Let’s have it right. Whitstable are a big club, VCD are a big club, so we deserve to be up there as well.

“The conversation we’ve had is finish as high as possible and build for next season and that’s what we’re doing.

“You can see with the young side that we’ve got here, we are building for next season. There’s no excuses, we should be higher up the table.  We had a nice run, confidence is still there.  The boys are disappointed that we’ve not won tonight but you’re not going to win every week at this level of football, so we’ll take that on the chin.  We move onto Thursday and the boys know we have to put it right on Saturday.”

Fitchett and Leach are rated ‘touch and go’’ for Saturday, while Ollie Andrews returns from suspension.

Tunbridge Wells, meanwhile, welcome Sutton Athletic to Culverden Stadium on Saturday and volunteers covered around 30% of the pitch with protective sheeting following tonight’s game.

“My thoughts are we’ve got a good percentage of home games coming up and regardless of the opponent, we need to get points on the board to get us up to where we as a group feel is a more realistic reflection of what we feel we are as a football team,” said Ives.

“It’s been a tough season at times but with the exception (of our 3-0 defeat at) Deal Town on Saturday, I don’t think there’s been any games where we’ve looked out of our depth and the honest truth is we’ve had enough of bad luck stores.

“We had a 4-4 draw with Sutton so any neutral looking for an exciting game, it could be the one.”

Ives says he is feeling “hopeful” that Jack Walder is going to be available on Saturday.

“It’s been a transitional season but we can’t keep going on about that now. We now have a settled group. We’re doing our best to take forward steps.  We’ve been in every single game, so we just need to find that little bit of resilience, that little bit of toughness and that little bit of management to turn some of the draws into wins, some of the narrow loses into at least a draw and then we start to build momentum into the summer and beyond because this is a long-term project.

“We’ve just announced a new sponsor today (PK Motors), who are going to sponsor both the kits, all the training gear for the management and the tracksuits for the boys.  There’s some good news around the place.

“We’ve had some positive news about the clubhouse, which we’re desperately need to get (back up and running after the fire in January 2023).

“It’s just about investment and timing because when the weather’s like this, the first thing that needs to happen is the roof needs to go on. The roof pitches have been measured up, the panels are on the verge of being secured. It’s all starting to come together.

“We need to do our bit on the pitch. We need to put on a performance that encourages supporters’ to come back through the gates.  Hopefully when the clubhouse is there it becomes a little bit more of a hospitable environment for people that stimulates revenue and we can start getting Tunbridge Wells Football Club back to where it needs to be.

“The way I look at it most of the top teams in this division have either had long-term stability. When you look at the likes of Corinthian, Erith Town and Deal, they’ve had management stability for years and they’ve just been allowed to build slowly."

Baker revealed pre-match that he had a conversation with a player, who demanded £400 per week, another one of his players was on £180 per week - in the ninth-tier of part-time English football!

Ives said: "Let’s be honest, this has got to be one of the most financially lucrative Step Five divisions in the country.  I can only speak from where I’ve come from and Sussex is not awash with the kind of budgets that is allegedly available (in our division), but money doesn’t guarantee you anything but if you’re astute, if flipping helps!

“Scott (Bartlett) our chairman is ambitious. He would love to get us up to Step Four.  The reason we’ve secured Trevor McCreadie for another season is because we’re ambitious.  We don’t want to be letting our best players go.  We’ve had several approaches for Regan Corke.  He’s committed to the cause. Nobody has left who we were desperate to keep and we have to sell the boys a vision that we’re going somewhere.”

Tunbridge Wells: George Bentley, Daniel Tear, Nico Cotton, James Shield, James White, Siji Akinlusi, Matthew Astle, Rory Ward, Trevor McCreadie, Billy Lewins, Regan Corke.
Subs: Muiz Alaka, Morgan Vale, Jack Gallagher, Harry Hudson, Bradley Austin

Goals: Siji Akinlusi 39, Regan Corke 62

Booked: Rory Ward 20, Siji Akinlusi 86, Trevor McCreadie 87

VCD Athletic: Joe Hyde, Harry Lawrence, Tom Cousins (Charlie Edmundson 77), Zak Bryon (Emmanuel Shoderu 66), Michael Fenn, Harry Sargent, Reece Deakin (Richard Jimoh 66), Lee Bird, Steadman Callender, Bethel Gboda, Charlie Heatley (Emmanuel Oshinowo 73).
Subs: Josh Leach

Goal: Harry Lawrence 45

Booked: Richard Jimoh 55, Lee Bird 70, Bethel Gboda 87, Harry Lawrence 87, Harry Sargent 90

Attendance: 141
Referee: Mr Paul Agyei-Tabi
Assistants: Mr Ayden Gillespe & Mr Mark Relf
Observer: Mr Peter Ashdown