Saturday 10 September. The day the season began for the Merton 4s. And a lovely setting it appeared to be for the launch of the 2016/17 campaign. The Hood was abuzz with yellow, with four teams playing at home on the day – albeit that the other three games were friendlies.

As a result, many eyes were on the 4s, who were taking on Old Actonians – a side with whom they had got relegated at the end of last season. Confidence was abound though, given that Merton had done the double over these foes last time around, so under gloomy skies and with a slick surface, it seemed like the perfect platform to launch the new campaign.

The only notable absentee was the manager (how big a miss he would prove to be). Sam in goal, a solid back four of John, Will, Mike and Ryan, with Dan and Joe plugging central midfield. Doddsy and Chris were the two wingers, with Sonny and Dom the two frontmen in a bog standard 4-4-2

Yet Actonians were barely recognisable from last season; littered with youth, and as soon as the game kicked off, it was abundantly clear that they were the side more up for the occasion. Merton were penned in their own half, and the visitors were winning every first and second ball. Frustrations were simmering, Dom and Sonny were receiving the square root of zero in terms of service upfront, and Merton couldn’t seem to find a way to gain a foothold in the match.

Yet for all of Actonians’ superiority, the defence were at least able to contain things, and the opponents couldn’t really lay claim to having any genuine chances. It’s what made the opening goal all the more frustrating. The corner swung in, and their striker nodded in a free header from point blank. It resembled a training ground exercise, and was almost inexplicable for a team who never usually concede from corners.

Nevertheless, it was 1-0, and the grumblings continued. Danny pulled up with an injury and had to be replaced, and the remaining 10 minutes of the half followed much the same pattern. Merton doing nothing, Actonians with all the endeavour, and goalmouth activity minimal.

The sanctuary of half time arrived, and the talk was largely positive. The plan was to go 4-5-1 for the start of the second half, with Sonny sacrificed to make way for a midfield three of Doddsy, Joe and Carl, with Arnold and Chris the two wide men. And for the first 10 minutes of the second stanza, it worked a treat. Merton were contesting balls in the middle, stringing together some passes, and keeping Actonians at bay.

And then came the chance – a glorious one. Joe found Carl’s feet, and he dinked a delightful ball over the defence. Arnold, who had timed his run to perfection, found himself one on one with the keeper. Unfortunately, his finish snuck past the left-hand upright, and the chance was gone.

What followed next set the tone for the rest of a bitter match. Actonians played a through ball, and their striker was almost certainly offside. Yet the defence made the classic mistake of not playing to the whistle. The finish was clinical; Sam with no chance, and 2-0 it was.

But then things turned ugly. The recriminations began, and they were somewhat unfairly targeted at Sam. Yes, he made some errors, and on a few occasions failed to come off his line when he might have done. But in a game in which almost everyone to a man put in a performance ranging from mediocre to poor, it seemed slightly ludicrous to pinpoint Sam’s faults – not to mention the fact that he made an outstanding save to keep it at 2-0.

The third goal arrived amid the sea of negativity, with Actonians completing a deft manoeuvre down the right, and the little winger producing a superb finish to Sam’s left.

Ironically though, it was Sam who turned provider for Merton’s riposte. A high, handsome kick caused mayhem in the visitor’s defence, and Dom couldn’t believe his luck as he found himself one on one with the keeper. A man of his quality was never going to miss: 3-1 it was, and with 20 minutes to go, there was still hope.

But the negative atmosphere made that seem like a distant dream. The bickering continued; again, largely targeted at Sam, and the final quarter was actually thoroughly unenjoyable. The fourth goal came for Actonians towards the end. Another bit of irony in that one too, given that it came via an excellent chip that caught Sam off his line (just as he’d been ordered to be).

By the time the final whistle went, heads were well and truly down, tempers were flaring, and everyone couldn’t wait to get off the park. An attempt at mending fences by the skipper in the changing room afterwards didn’t go according to plan, and it remains to be seen whether the 4s have now lost the services of Sam for the season.

Whoever was right or wrong, it mattered not. This was a sorry affair, and a poor start to the season. It’s difficult to believe such fractious scenes would have taken place in the presence of the manager, and his return next week can’t come quickly enough. This is a team in need of some soul searching (and perhaps a goalkeeper), and will need to very quickly consign the day’s events to history, and start again.

Saturday 17 September. The day the season began. Let’s hope so.

Team: Sam Singer Ripley (GK), John Gridley, Mike Todt, Will Harrison, Ryan Burchell, Chris Outred, Joe Plumridge, Dan Gridley, Chris Dodd, Sonny Kennedy, Dom Plumridge

Subs: Arnold Collier, Carl Kewley

Goal: Dom Plumridge

Booked: Dan Gridley

MOTM: Ryan Burchell

Posted in Match Reports 4s