After a disappointing draw against Colliers Wood last week, The Soash's finest knew that anything but a win against top of the table TFT South West would effectively end their title hopes with Kingston Albion completing the last week of their own personal winter break, racking up their games in hand with wanton abandon.
During the week the record availability klaxon had been sounded and Anstey was pulling his hair out trying to work out who most deserved a place in the much coveted first 14. He consulted captain Danny, vice chairman Webber and even dusted off the old bingo machine but was still none the wiser. With Jox and Bruiser struggling with injuries though it was decided he'd wait until they completed Wednesday night fitness tests. Luckily, because they are two of the squad's most influential players, they both pulled through. However Wednesday was a barmy day for selection with more ins and outs than a bring-your-wife barbecue round John Terry's. First Louis, then Kyle and Kiran all pulled out injured and Alex declared he was under the weather following his Indian summer, leaving the lads looking relatively depleted, but still with 13.
Saturday morning arrived and Eddie too pulled out ill meaning a hasty call from ground control to Major Al who agreed to be an emergency sub but no more. At one point it looked like Aron Jackson would be coming straight from the airport having completed a 20 hour flight from Australia via Dubai to play - but it turns out he is human and reasonably enough didn't make it. Merton effectively down to 12, but knowing that we could go top of the league with a win meant we could be heroes, just for one day.
Most of the lads warmed up under the pleasant and surprisingly excellent guidance of K Quinn, while Broughy and Anst surveyed the 6ft 9 behemoth with the number 10 on his back. Our fears were alleviated somewhat when "Big Sam" was instructed to warm up the keeper and even more so when he failed to control the ball once.
Having played at these pitches in the County Cup earlier in the season we had been anticipating a carpet to impose our natural passing style but had arrived to a complete mudbath with only the two flanks in any sort of condition to play football. We decided to go 4-4-2 to keep the centre of the pitch as decongested as possible:
Matt Anst Brough Andy
First 5 minutes and Merton were struggling a bit with the conditions underfoot but it soon became apparent that it was crucial to not overplay and there was no shame in playing the ball forward early from the back and the midfielders helping he ball on rather than getting it down. Soon enough though, Merton were ahead. Some sharp interplay between quinno and bruiser ended with the latter getting to the byline and squaring to Massey coming in off his wing who made no mistake. 1-0. Shortly afterwards and it was 2-0, Juan Sebastian VerDom playing the ball with the outside of his foot intelligently straight to the centre half who missed it completely with Massey running on to it again to coolly slot home. 2-0 Merton and in control of the game after 10 minutes. TFT were Under Pressure.
Until now Bart had been a spectator but was picking the ball out of his net shortly afterwards. A soft free kick that I'm told was for a foul by Moffatt (slotting in at left back) found the top corner from about 30 yards. One of the best free kicks I've seen at any level.
2 minutes later and it was inexplicably 2-2. Their right back this time striding forward and smashing a shot from virtually the same spot on the pitch which flew past Bart before he could move.
Merton responded well though and kept playing an impressive brand of football considering the conditions. Quinno and Matt were linking well on the right and Bruiser was having a real impact on behind Jox. TFT obviously hadn't clocked that Merton had two of the quickest players in the league and were playing a suicidal high line. The only problem being that their linesman (how many times have we seen this) was flagging every time one of them was put through and the ref was falling for it. Jox needed o start his runs from about 10 yards back for it not to be given but he still had the pace to latch on to a Bruiser through ball and show Massey that he's just as good one-on-one. 3-2 and no less than Merton deserved. And this was only after about 15 minutes!
The rest of the half and TFT came back into it a bit more, striking the bar twice with good efforts and Bart making a couple of good saves. Merton had chances at the other end though and a bobble stopped Massey from squaring to Jox for a tap in while it is scandalous we aren't scoring more from Quinno's dangerous corners.
Just before halftime and barely believably TFT had drawn level, scoring direct from a cross that looped high over Bart into the far corner. Absolutely nothing he could have done.
Halftime and we reassured ourselves that that we were by far the better team and it could conceivably have been 3-0 to us what with the ludicrous nature of their goals.
One positive from effectively only having one sub was that Anstey did not have to ring the ch-ch-ch-ch-changes quite as much. Harry came on in midfield for Anstey and Bruiser slotted in at the back.
A bit weirdly though compared to the first half, the game trundled along for the next 25 minutes with barely anything of note in terms of chances. Massey had spotted Jox clutching his hamstring but Jox denied this (later revealing he had felt it go in the first half). Both teams were setting a platform for a final assault but it was Merton who made the decisive move, Anstey coming back on for Quinno and switching to 3-5-2, Andy and Matt pushing on and PM going back to Downing Street behind Jox and Massey. Not for the first time this season the switch paid dividends straight away, Bruiser playing a ball over the top where Merton had a Starman waiting in behind. Massey made no mistake to clinch his hatrick.
By this point Big Sam had been thrown into the mix but thanks to some crunching tackles from Little Danny didn't really seem to fancy it. Merton had asked Andy and Matt to sit a bit deeper to protect the lead and Danny had gone back into midfield with Bruiser tucking back in to the back 3. TFT had done the opposite and obviously were pushing on leaving even more space in behind. This time it was Moffatt with the through ball to Massey who clinched his fourth with probably his best finish of the day to win the game. Merton then saw out the last 10, Quinno replacing MOM Massey to provide some fresh legs and the Back 5 working hard to snuff out any danger.
Next week we're in the league cup with a 2nd round tie against Lennox. Let's put on our red shoes and dance our way into the next round.