Friday, 29 April 2016

East Thurrock United 2 Tonbridge 0

Match 93/15/1298 - Thursday, 28th April 2016 - Ryman Premier PO SF

East Thurrock United (2) 2 Hayles 8, Marlow 45+2
Tonbridge (0) 0
Attendance: 849

Entrance: £5 Senior
Programme: £2
Mileage: 87/6,637

Match Report

It was a miserable evening in more ways than one in Essex as Tonbridge's hopes of a return to National League South ended at the hands of East Thurrock United.

Since their inception back in the 1980s, I wouldn’t mind a quid for every time one of football’s pundits, let alone the man on the street, has said the play-offs are a lottery. At non-league level it is most certainly correct, in fact, they really are brutal. One-off matches in the week after the final fixture with home advantage given to the two teams finishing highest; added to which they will be played on pitches that have seen the wear and tear of a season and are well past their best.

Tonbridge Angels’ supporters needed to have been at their most optimistic arriving at Rookery Hill after a tedious journey through the Dartford Tunnel having suffered defeat at the hands of East Thurrock United in both of the regular season fixtures. Those that managed to get through the tunnel in advance of the problems that ensued half-an-hour or so later were dealt a shock when the team sheet was pinned to the tea hut wall, Nick Wheeler’s name was missing. Genuine mistake or was somebody being just a little mischievous? It was actually Charlie Webster that hadn’t recovered from a knock at Burgess Hill and we breathed a little easier when somebody corrected the sheet.

In the regular season fixtures, Sam Higgins, 43 goals this term, had certainly been a nuisance to the Tonbridge back line and with manager Steve McKimm needing to accommodate the continuing absence of Sonny Miles, he chose to partner Jerrome Sobers with Tommy Parkinson.

The traffic problems caused a build-up of people at the turnstiles prior to kick-off and the start was delayed by five minutes. When the game got under way, the hosts were quickly on the front foot. Anthony Di Bernardo made an early save from a shot from outside of the area by Ben Marlow, but after eight minutes East Thurrock were in front. A throw into the box wasn’t cleared to any great effect with the ball falling at the feet of Rickie Hayles, who joyously shot past the goalkeeper into the bottom corner for his first-ever goal for the club.

Tonbridge struggled to get a foothold in the game in the opening 20 minutes but started to dominate possession after that opening period. Just past the half-hour mark, Luke Allen sent Nathan Elder through, muscling his way past Joe Ellul, only to shoot wide of the post.

Playing against the wind and up the slope, Tonbridge would probably have been more than happy to have gone into the break just the goal behind and, overall, had their share of the possession. The switch of Parkinson to central defender had kept Higgins to a solitary shot, although his presence was obviously missed in the middle of the field. But it all counted for nothing when after two minutes of added time, another throw into the box was poorly dealt with and this time the ball fell to Marlow whose shot took a deflection on its way into the net. Now the job had become a whole lot harder.

Tonbridge got out of the blocks quickly in the second period with Elder and Luke Blewden having efforts saved by Lukas Lidakevicius.

The game was delayed for several minutes when a challenge left Ky Ruel needed his leg to be splinted before being carried from the field on a stretcher.

Tonbridge huffed and puffed their way without causing too much concern for an impressive East Thurrock back line. Sammy Knott may have had a word or two too many that caused irritation but he gave Wheeler very few opportunities to display his player of the year credentials, whilst in the middle Ellul and Hayles were as strong as any combination I’ve seen at this level.

With 15 minutes remaining, McKimm made the decision to gamble, what was there to lose, and release Parkinson from his policing duties and push him further forward with Laurence Ball taking his place in the back line. The ploy had worked in the manner it was intended but at a cost of Parkinson’s influence in the middle.

In the final throes of the game, it was more likely that the home side would add to their advantage rather than Tonbridge score even a consolation goal.

I have to admit I can't get my head around the way I felt walking away from Rookery Hill. I've seen a few of these play-offs over the years with both Tonbridge and Gillingham. I've walked away absolutely ecstatic, utterly depressed or seething with anger. This time it felt strange. I would love to use the word gutted, but frankly I wasn't. On the night we were not quite good enough, so though the feeling should be that of acceptance, it felt more like the beginning of something that might turn out to be quite special.

I'm not under any illusions that next season will be one-way traffic to the title, but the foundations are well and truly in place for a real crack at it. It's going to be an interesting summer, there are some obvious areas where new blood is required. Hopefully, McKimm will be given the funds to strengthen where he sees fit.

The following photographs courtesy of David Couldridge

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