It was the second Merton Social semi-final of what has been a great season. Sitting second in the league in our first ever year in the Premier Division and 2 semi-finals is a pretty decent run for Chris Anstey's troops. But if we lost this game it would see us fade into an 'Arsenal' of a season with nothing left to play for by mid April.
We turned up in Barnes at the scene of our previous semi final mauling by Error and his boys. Louis turned up straight from filming his scenes in Emmerdale and Heartbeat still wearing his trusty farmer's coat. The lads also welcomed back centre back hardman Rich Brough fresh from announcing to the group that he is now engaged (Congrats mate! Luckily the moment was captured in the image below). Rather unwisely he told Bruiser that he cried during the proposal who made the whole team aware of this much to their amusement- especially as his Mrs-to-be did not. It would also not be the last time that day that Broughy's wailing would be a conversation topic.
Everybody arrived on time including Massey who brought his new Mrs. She kept herself to herself probably put off by Merton 'thug' Harry being on the sideline. An intimidating sight for any fan or loyal follower of the Soash.
It seemed quite a subdued warm up with everybody fairly quiet. But we had a very strong squad, perhaps one of our strongest to date with a selection of pace for once with Moulesy, Massey, Anstey and Jox all available. The referee (Paolo- that common French name) gave us a pre-game talk with his linesman where he made it clear he would send any player off who swore at him. Thuglife Harry's immediate response was 'fucking hell'.
Anyway we lined up in a 4-5-1 formation with Louis up top having bagged in the friendly last week. Massey and Moulesy provided the width again and Bruiser stepped into centre midfield meaning Harry, Quinno and Jox had to settle for a place on the bench.
Aron Anstey Brough Eddie
Moules Bruiser Massey
Merton started the game fairly well and looked good in possession although we did try to force a lot of through balls and didn't keep things as easy as we could have. Louis was keeping himself busy up top and Dom was controlling the game in the middle of the pitch. Our first chance came from a Massey corner from which Dom really should have scored but his header came back off the crossbar.
AFC Centrals did look dangerous on the counter attack though as they had a couple of quick wingers and an Akinfenwa style unit of a striker up top but Brough and Anstey were dealing well with the threat. One counter attack almost led to a shot on goal but Eddie managed to recover to make a last ditch tackle as Akinfenwa unleashed his shot. Some strong running from the orange booted centre mid and the tall left winger were dangerous but again snuffed out more often that not by Merton's impressive back four. A testament perhaps to the recent selection continuity they've managed to find.
With only 15 minutes or so of the game gone, Captain Winters was struggling with illness and decided he was unable to continue bringing Quinn into the action early who moved into the number 10 role with Bruiser tucking in alongside Shep. Shortly afterwards we also rotated bringing Jox on up front for Louis.
This change led to our first goal. A free kick was awarded just inside the Centrals half and Quinno stepped up. A beautiful delivery as ever saw Anstey force his way between two defenders and bundle the ball into Jox's path who made no mistake tucking it into the bottom right corner from close range. 1-0.
Merton continued to dominate the game with Centrals unable to create any chance of note- the back 4 of Aron, Brough, Anstey and Eddie dealing with anything that was thrown at them. When the 6ft 6 winger did get past Aron on the left hand side, Anstey was there to cover. And by cover I mean he did a blatant obstruction taking the winger out and receiving a very justified yellow card. In fairness it was a good foul which stopped a dangerous attack although Anstey did have the audacity in the pub afterwards to ask if it was definitely a yellow..... it definitely was!
Merton then thought they had gone 2-0 up when Massey gassed past the right back and slotted the ball in the corner only for the linesman to somehow give offside, which was actually ridiculous. It is not the first time that Massey or Jox have been undone by their express pace. You would think the standard of officiating would have been better with actual linesmen but it wasn't to be. With that it was half time and the team talk focussed on us keeping the ball a bit better but that we were in control and had been tight at the back. It really didn't look like Centrals were going to score. We felt if we got the second goal it would kill the game.
10 minutes into the second half and Merton got their reward. A long ball into the box to Quinno led to their defender crashing into his back and giving away a needless penalty. Wisely Anstey used this moment to sub himself off to absolutely make sure he couldn't take the penalty and brought Harry on instead with Bruiser dropping to centre back. Quinno dusted himself off and calmly slotted the penalty into the right corner to give Merton a 2-0 lead.
I'm not really sure what happened after this as Merton seemed to take their foot off the gas. The game was quite stop-and-start with the ref blowing for a lot of niggly fouls. The best of which was when Moulesy got a free kick given to him as a Centrals defender headed his foot- his head was too low apparently...
All the stops in the game seemed to distract Broughy in particular. He had an interesting moment at the back where he decided to do a one-two with himself and nearly fell over. Anstey also got nailed by Akinfenwa which led to a few afters. As he started squaring up to Anstey, Broughy showed great camaraderie to back up his gaffer. This led to the culprit then threatening to break Broughy's legs. Brough's response of 'what are you doing sunshine?' clearly left him quaking in his boots.
As the game petered out seemingly heading to a conclusion the ref decided to get involved and give Centrals a chance. As they crossed the ball in from the left, the centre midfielder headed the ball into the ground and Ethon saved it from going in the top corner. From the resulting corner, Merton cleared and nobody claimed for anything. However, the ref unbelievably gave a penalty claiming Brough had pulled a players shirt. The famous high pitched Brough squeals of 'Referee' and 'you cannot be serious, not me' were not enough for the ref to change his mind and the Centrals player smashed it past Ethon in the goal. 2-1.
As Merton went back on the attack, Massey ran down the left and as he scuffed his cross it actually hit the crossbar before going out of play. There was literally no time left on the clock and Centrals gained a corner in what would definitely be the last chance of the game. A great cross was delivered and the Rhino, who had come back on up top inexplicitly (decided to leave this in Eddie. Inexplicitly???) charged full speed ahead and headed the ball in the back of the net for an own goal to make it 2-2. The full time whistle followed and we were quite inexplicitly heading for extra time.
Merton couldn't believe it as we had been the best team by far and the defence had barely been troubled all game. Anstey, Eddie and the Shepherd issued the rallying calls and we were soon back on top in extra time. Moulesy went on a run down the left, cut inside and fired a long range strike which just went wide of the top corner via a deflection. Outside of this I can't really remember too many chances for either side but Merton always looked dangerous from Quinn's set pieces.
And with 6 minutes left and Anstey planning penalty takers, Merton got their winner. It came from a Quinn long throw where Dom buried a header in the bottom corner. All we had to do now was hold on and not do anything stupid.
Eddie then decided it would be a good idea to make things interesting and in the last minute made a rather horrendous handball right on the edge of the penalty area. It was just outside of the box and after a long consultation with his linesman, the ref gave a free kick. Luckily for Eddie the resulting free kick was fired over the bar and the full time whistle followed for Merton to make their way to their first ever cup final- a great achievement and well deserved for a great season.
The feeling was that we definitely deserved to win but probably didn't play to our full potential and will need to be much better next week against Kingston Albion in the league and for the final itself. The lads all went to the pub to watch the National and toast the victory. Harry, Louis, Dom and Eddie had a private meal in the finest Earlsfield chip shop before joining the group where we decided to swiftly leave the outdoor space of the Wandle and head to the Fog instead. Danny was adamant it was better as you get quicker service and lots of space. Unfortunately there was a private party on and it was rammed- they did bring a complimentary cheese board out though to make up for this. And Jox got schooled at pool by a weird local who is still waiting for his friend to join him for a game.
Jox, Eddie, Harry, Quinn, Danny and Dom all ended up going back to Clapham Common and get pretty lashed in the Honky Tonk bar. I can't really remember any of it in fairness other than Eddie and Danny eating a doner kebab with garlic mayonnaise smothered all over it as they left. Dom also couldn't get into any other bars as he was 'too casual'. At least you were warm with all that wool on!
Man Of the Match was Eddie, who secured nearly all of the votes. I have to say this was one of the best games I've seen him play. So much so, that Louis hadn't realised the right winger had even been on the pitch for the previous 80 minutes before he was taken off. Couple of votes for the Shep who was his usual 9 out of 10 and also secured the winner.
Fantastic achievement getting to a final, I'm reliably informed this is the first final we have been in for 10 years. I feel like we definitely deserve some silverware to cap our season after we received the disappointing news that Kingston Albion had effectively clinched the league title, beating AMY 1-0. Fair play to them they've had a very impressive season, but it remains frustrating that we drew against some sides we really should have been beating, proving that we can better Albion by beating them earlier in the season. Let's do it again this weekend to send a message and hit the Cup Final in some good form.