Merton marked Arturs last game for the club with a come-from-behind victory that showed excellent character and will to win.

With torrential rain hammering down all morning, late withdrawals, and a planned pitch inspection at 12 (rather annoyingly after many of the team had to leave for North London to make it for kick-off), there was considerable uncertainty as to whether the game would be on and what the squad would be. However, with no news re: cancellation combined with DQ and Ryan joining the squad after the 2’s were called off (big thanks to those boys), we all arrived more or less on time and with a strong squad of 13.

The pitch had been used for the first team gave immediately before ours, and the centre of the pitch was more or less underwater, with hints of grass still showing on the wings. “Get the ball wide” was the obvious cliché bingo call to look out for and was duly covered in our pre match team talk as Merton lined up 4-3-3 in an attempt to take the game to the opposition. Arturs was made captain for the day, and immediately started playing mind games with the oppo – entering into a debate with the team as to which end we should pick despite losing the toss and the oppo choosing to stay as they were. Crafty stuff, and their confusion carried into the first half as Merton dominated.

With the advantage of the wind and an actual warm up, Merton dominated from the outset without really doing themselves justice when it came to finishing and the final ball. Dave Scott flicked over from the near post after good work from Lofty, DQ tested the keeper from distance after a run from fullback, Lofty slightly miskicked when well set and perhaps had more time (although the miskick was almost a perfect cross for Denys). At the back, the back four of DQ, Vin, Mike and Mustard were looking comfortable, well shielded in particular by Neil who patrolled the lake that was CM very effectively. DQ in particular was proving to be an effective out-ball and was linking up play nicely.

As the half continued, Dan forced a good save from the keeper after a nice one-two with Denys, and Tom had a couple of chances to pick out the strikers from the right, only for the final cross to just be above, or behind the attacking players. All very frustrating, and it feel to Mike Reed, the Merton boar personified, to be the one to change the game. Receiving the ball at left back, Mike burst down the line, forcing his way through two opposition tackles and indeed players to reach the byline. His cross was partly deflected, but still had enough to allow Denys to turn the ball home from 6 yards, using his strength impressively to beat both centreback and goal-keeper to the loose ball. 1-0.

Merton hoped this would be the catalyst for more goals, but the remaining 10 minutes of the half failed to yield further reward, the best chance falling to Denys who fired over after Lofty, Dan and DQ all combined in the box. 1-0 at half time.

Lofty’s half time team talk was frank as he highlighted that we had failed to use the wind and pitch as well as we might have. He also warned that the oppo had played that half very well tactically and urged us to learn from that as we played into the wind. But, with Merton having enjoyed almost all the chances, and the bulk of possession, we were confident we would press on and put the match to bed.

The second half was a totally different proposition. Merton started very flat, with none of the intensity of the first half, and whilst the opposition now enjoyed much more of the ball, the game was drifting a little aimlessly when a defensive mix-up saw Vin step out of defence to win the ball, only to slip, and then collide with Mustard whilst attempting to recover in the slippery conditions. Unfortunately this left the opposition striker clean through. He finished well, dribbling around Arturs and slotting into the net to destroy any hopes of a clean sheet for Arturs in his final game. 1-1. Worse was to follow for Merton.

After being denied a possible penalty when Denys was clipped (it did look accidental but nonetheless it did trip Denys up when clean through), Merton found themselves behind in somewhat unfortunate circumstances. A swift break from St James saw a dangerous cross driven into the box, which Mustard did well to clear to the opposing wing. However, this served only to allow a second, higher, cross to be floated in, which Mustard acrobatically cut out at the near post, diverting the ball instead into the top corner of the net past a despairing Arturs. 1-2.

Lofty reacted, bringing back on DQ and Dan, and sacrificing the hardworking Seb (who had covered the difficult swamp of a CM well) and also himself from midfield in a selfless act of managerial responsibility. Merton changed to 4-4-2 with Denys and DQ now leading the line. Merton began to get back into the game, Tom Benham doing well down the right to put in three or crosses, which couldn’t quite fall to the right man in the right place, with a Dave Scott piledriver over the bar from 25 yards the best chance from these centres. However, with 15 minutes to go, the breakthrough came, and once again it was Mike “The Boar” Reed (aka Mustard) that proved the catalyst. Perhaps he was fired up by the own goal, or possibly from the embarrassment of having harassed the ref all game about foul throws before committing one of the worse foul throws ever seen on a football pitch and being pinged for it. Either way, it did the trick!

The goal was almost a carbon copy of the first, Mike surging down the line from his own half, breaking through tackles to reach the byline. Again, the cross came in, this time via a couple of half blocks and deflections, and helped on by Merton players, but a goal was certain as the ball was squared for Tom 2 yards out near the back post to slot home. Certain, except for the massive puddle in the six yard box which stopped the ball dead just short of reaching Tom. The keeper, thanking his lucky stars, dived for the ball, but Tom was able to react to stab the ball back across goal and DQ gleefully smashed it home. Part 1 of Lofty’s tactically masterclass complete.

At 2-2, Merton felt the game was there for the taking. But so did St James, and  as the game entered the last 10 minutes, it was the home side that were on top and creating the best chances. The best of these saw some smart interplay put their striker clean through on goal, with the game surely there for the taking. Arturs had other ideas, forcing the striker into a wild blaze over the crossbar and taking a knock from the team in the process. Obviously aware of Arturs toughness, the team resolutely ignored his limping to stand 50 yards from him just in the opposition half for the resulting goal kick, in full faith his kicking ability would be fine (it was).
Then, as the game entered the final few minutes, Merton struck. After winning a corner following some good play down the right with Tom, Denys, Dave and DQ involved, Neil played in a delightful cross for Dan (of all people) to head (yes head) goalwards. A rare headed goal seemed inevitable, only for the keeper to claw the ball away for another corner. Undeterred the same combination struck again, this time Neil crossing to the back post for Dan to volley home from a tight angle with 3 minutes to go. Cue celebrations, another nod to Lofty’s management skills, and another rejig of formation to see the game out, with DQ dropping into midfield to sit in front of the back four.

This worked brilliantly, as the newly defensively minded DQ led a counter attack in injury time, held the ball up in the area and played in Tom to stab a deserved goal past the keeper from 10 yards for a 4-2 win.

So, a great, late comeback on a difficult surface that really showed the character in the team and took us to 3rd in the league and saw Arturs off with a win. We will miss him, and wish him all the very best. Next week, a home game with leaders Nottsborough that will be a real test of where we stand this season.

One final point that needs to be made – the sportsmanship and hospitality of St James. Both for the moment at 2-2 when Ryan suddenly stopped with something in his eye, and the opposition striker immediately stopped the game rather than run through on goal, and also for the sharing of their own food back at the pub when they saw we had more players than them. Both actions really appreciated and great to see a new club join the SAL.

MOTM: Mike Reed for 2 outstanding assists
DOTM: Mike Reed for both an OG and for that foul throw
Posted in Match Reports 3s