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A decade of Champions: Looking back at the 2016/17 season when Danny Lye’s Ashford United clinched the Southern Counties East Football League title


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Some managers don’t ever get to taste that title-winning feeling but it didn’t take long for Danny Lye - although the ride was far from smooth.

In his one and only full season as manager of the Nuts & Bolts, Lye’s team lifted the Kent Senior Trophy and clinched the Southern Counties East Premier Division crown, success gained despite a world of problems going on off the pitch.

Ashford manager Danny Lye and team celebrate Picture: Gary Browne
Ashford manager Danny Lye and team celebrate Picture: Gary Browne

Background to the season;

Lye had taken over early on the previous season after Paul Chambers’ early exit, after four years in charge. He was appointed player manager and led the team to a third place finish - it would have been second had it not been for a 10 point deduction.

Off-field problems were never far away. A delay in installing a 3G pitch led to legal wranglings dragging on throughout much of the 16/17 campaign and in December, with the team sitting top of the table, there were fears the club might be denied promotion even if they won the league.

The company who had financed the installation of the pitch (V Bar Limited via its lending arm of Minotaur) claimed not all financial matters had been disclosed at the time of the investment and demanded repayment of the loan.

Ashford United fans cheering their team on from the stands
Ashford United fans cheering their team on from the stands

“I think that is what makes it so special for the club,” said Lye.

“The club was struggling because Minotaur was trying to take it over. I was doing a lot of things I wouldn’t normally have been doing as the directors had been banned from the club. I was organising stuff as well, but it helped a lot because it meant I could do it my own way.

“We had good backing, our budget was good, it allowed me to go and get players I had played with previously that we needed to win the league.”

Ryan Palmer in action for the Nuts & Bolts
Ryan Palmer in action for the Nuts & Bolts

The building of the team;

Popular striker Stuart Zanone had left but Lye had already brought in experienced striker Shaun Welford as his player-assistant. He would go onto break the goalscoring record at the club that season.

Striker Paul Booth was also there, having signed the year before, as was winger Ryan Palmer and goalkeeper George Kamurasi. Ben Davisson was the man with the vision in midfield. Rory Hill also joined, along with Lordswood pair Jack Healy and Tom Michelson.

“It was just about adding to the team and there were good strong additions,” Lye said. He would make some more signings to help them along as the season progressed.

Stuart West captained the side to their double success Picture: Andy Jones
Stuart West captained the side to their double success Picture: Andy Jones

The skipper;

Stuart West was another player who arrived at the start of the season, from Hollands & Blair, and he was immediately made captain.

“A lot of people questioned why,” Lye said.

“He was a great strong player and I made him captain for confidence. He had come to a bigger club that he wasn’t used to and we had Pat Kingwell at the back as well, as the old head.

“He was a different captain, not like I was. If something needed to be said it would be said. He was quite quiet but he got respect for the way he played, he put everything into the game and that was one of the reasons I wanted him as captain; He was like me, he would go to the end. He wouldn't take c**p off the players and he said things when he needed to.

“I remember away at Fisher, Rory and Stuart had an argument on the pitch, I let them have it and then stepped in when needed. We had been rubbish first half but we came out and bashed them in the second. That was like my team was. If something needed to be said it would be.

Fraser Walker in action for Ashford United Picture: Andy Jones
Fraser Walker in action for Ashford United Picture: Andy Jones

The key to success;

Like most successful teams, it was how the team were united off it as much as on it that made a difference.

Lye said: “Anyone will tell you that winning the league is about having the players but also about having the right dressing room. That is what wins you the league.

“When you are going through your tough period you need to know you can rely on everyone and count on people to help out. I had experienced bad vibes in dressing rooms before.

“Myself and Shaun had won things before and I had Shaun Holland as my coach too, who was pivotal because when Shaun Welford was playing every week, Shaun Holland was my assistant during the game times. A good mate of mine Micky Phillips, who played for Maidstone, was part of the team at the start of the season and I could have honest chats with him too. He would tell me where he thought I was going wrong, which was a good sounding board.”

Adrian Stones in action for Ashford United Picture: Andy Jones
Adrian Stones in action for Ashford United Picture: Andy Jones

A little white lie;

Ashford had been ticking over nicely despite the off-field problems but there was one major issue that threatened to take the wheels right off.

Lye’s side were top of the league in December but the club had not registered with the FA for acceptance for promotion.

“It was a tough one,” said Lye. “The application hadn’t been sorted because we needed a FIFA inspection on our 3G pitch. We needed it to be tested and Minotaur were refusing to let us have it tested.

“It went on and on and I think a week before the deadline we got the test done and it passed but that was an uneasy time for the boys. They were disappointed, thinking they had worked so hard and they wouldn’t be able to go up.

“To be honest, sometimes you have to tell the boys a little white lie. I said to them ‘no it’s all good, everything is okay, everything is fine.’ I did the worrying for them. They trusted what I said and I managed to keep them quite calm regarding it. I was speaking to the directors every day saying ‘come on, this needs to be sorted, we can’t slip up on it.”

The club appealed and in mid-February the FA accepted the application.

Jason Goodchild on the ball for Ashford United Picture: Gary Browne
Jason Goodchild on the ball for Ashford United Picture: Gary Browne

Additions and one big departure;

A couple of results went against Lye’s team and he knew he needed reinforcements.

Lye said: “I went to the board and said, ‘if you want to win this league you will have to add a couple of players’. I was told my squad was good but we needed to strengthen. Those last few months would be tough and it would give the squad a boost.

“I managed to get Richard Avery in and Joe Vines, two players who had won things and they were so experienced. Vinesy was suspended early on and was on the bench with me. I used him as a sounding board and for extra experience and those two gave us a boost to push on.

Lye had made several other changes throughout the season. Midfielder Jason Goodchild came in as an aid to veteran striker Welford.

A great season for the Ashford United fans to enjoy
A great season for the Ashford United fans to enjoy

“He was a holding midfielder but I played him behind Welford to do his running," said Lye.

“He had watched one of our games at Tunbridge Wells to see his mate Adrian Stone. He claimed he was fitter than all of my players and had only just come back from a lads’ holiday.

“Welford is so honest, he would run everywhere but he needed to save his legs. I put Goodchild in there. Teams couldn’t get out because he would win the ball off their back four and we would be straight into attack. He was a really important signing for us, in the second part of the season.”

David Botterill was another mid-season signing, joining from Chatham. But with additions, it meant Lye had to make a big decision.

He had to let centre-half Ryan James go.

“He was fantastic for us and it was a really big decision to make,” said Lye.

“He was on contract and a lot of money but for me to afford a new player I had to release him to get a midfielder, someone who was more energetic.

“The boys in the dressing room were looking at me and saying, ‘are you sure Dan?’ It turned out to be the right decision. We had cover in defence and we needed legs in midfield. I made the decision to help.

Rory Hill scored around 20 goals during the title winning season including three against Crowborough
Rory Hill scored around 20 goals during the title winning season including three against Crowborough

The rivals and a key game;

Crowborough had finished seventh the year before but an injection of funds gave them championship potential.

It was a two-horse race for much of the season, with Sevenoaks Town waiting close by should there be a slip up. Micky Collins and Sevenoaks would get their success the following season.

A key game between the two sides came in April, at Homelands. The Crows were unbeaten on their travels and went a goal infront but Ashford rallied and a hat-trick from Rory Hill led them to victory.

“We changed our tactics slightly for the game,” Lye recalled.

“We brought Dan Stubbs in and dropped Ryan Palmer. Everyone was asking why had I dropped Ryan Palmer but we went for more stability and we suffocated them.

“I knew we would score goals because we had so much fire power. That spurred us on, wobbled them a bit, and allowed us to go on a really good run.

“Our mentality was always, work harder than them.”

Ashford United beat Cray Valley to win the Kent Senior Trophy Picture: Andy Jones
Ashford United beat Cray Valley to win the Kent Senior Trophy Picture: Andy Jones

The final weekend;

Lye’s men finished the season strongly, winning their last five games and also clinching the Kent Senior Trophy.

Ashford and Crowborough were still neck and neck on points as the season went to the last game.

Crowborough - up against Hollands & Blair - could only have clinched the title if Ashford slipped up badly on the final day but with a home game against lowly Rochester United, that was unlikely to happen.

Ashford romped to a 7-0 victory while the Crows were held to a goalless draw.

Welford was delayed getting to the game after suffering a puncture on the M20 but put that behind him to score a second successive hat-trick to take his tally for the season to 48 - a new club record.

“That was the icing on the cake,” Lye said.

Shaun Welford gets his hat-trick against Rochester United Picture: Gary Browne
Shaun Welford gets his hat-trick against Rochester United Picture: Gary Browne

“We had already won the Kent Senior Trophy as well, before we won the league. That gave us a boost, we celebrated a little bit, but we said, ‘this isn’t what we want, this is easy, we want the league.’

While Welford took personal honours, the club broke plenty of other records too, including most league wins, most league points, a highest league attendance at Homelands of 807 and scoring the most amount of goals in a season - 119.

“There were some tough games out there but we were so strong,” said Lye.

“If we were 60-70% of what we could do we would win most games in the league, which was a good advantage to have.

What happened next?

Just two games into the new season and Lye quit.

Explaining his departure, he said: “When I started the season my budget was less than the season before when we won the league below. I agreed with it but I had to let a lot of my experienced players go.

“I had a strong XI but not enough help. We lost 1-0 in our first game at Carshalton, which wasn’t too bad, but we got three injuries in that first game and then we got bashed 5-0 by South Park.

“The director wasn’t best pleased, we agreed to disagree, but we spoke the following day and I didn’t want to put myself through 50 games of not seeing my family and friends and making a big commitment if I wasn’t going to be backed. The budget was discussed, we weren’t going to agree, and I stepped down.

“I don’t want to be a manager fighting to stay up, I want to push on. We improved for two years I was there but would then be going backwards. Maybe I was too impatient, maybe I should have settled for a tough season and pushed on the next, but I like to challenge and push as much as I can, I wear myself into the ground trying to succeed rather than making do.”

Ashford United's double winning manager Danny Lye Picture: Martin Apps
Ashford United's double winning manager Danny Lye Picture: Martin Apps

What now?

Lye had a season as manager of Kings Hill - he was already coaching his son’s junior team there - after answering an SOS from their chairman, after the previous manager had departed and the players left too.

Survival was achieved but Lye said: “There was a danger of the first team folding. I agreed to take it over, I got Micky and Shaun Welford and a few others to play, we won enough games not to get relegated, they were safe, but that was hard, I didn’t enjoy it.”

He had a brief spell as part of the management team at Sheppey United last summer but left before the season started.

“I am a leader and a manager,” said Lye. He knew he would struggle to implement ideas different to his own.

He turned down a job as under-18 manager at Maidstone United and is currently happy managing his son’s team on a Sunday and have family time on a Saturday.

Lye would take a job again if it was right, but said: “I have got it out of my system that I miss football on a Saturday. Of course, you wake up and think, ‘wow yes, it would be nice to play today,’ but I do other things with my life now.”

Read more from the 'Decade of Champions' series;

Part 1: Herne Bay 2011/12

Part 2: Folkestone Invicta 2015/16

Part 3: Faversham Town 2009/10

Part 4: Welling United 2012/13

Part 5: Dartford 2009/10

Part 6: Hythe Town 2010/11

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