Just 3 men who have had nowhere near as much trouble to get 11 men on a pitch, as AVS, Alex Hall and Ian Taylor.
An all-too-familiar ritual of rinsing the contacts list in their iphones to try and get 11 remotely good footballers to a game on a Saturday has become exhausting.
On Thursday we had 9 very capable players, however this already included one familiar ringer in Sam Winter, meaning that we had only contributed 8 players to our own team.
By Saturday morning we had cobbled together 11, which included Mark’s big bro Joe, and a new guy called Ryan who had made contact earlier in the week.
Fortunately for us the pitch conditions meant that the B team game was cancelled so TK agreed to play for us.
12, thank f**k for that!
Rollers Athletic are not a great oppo, they like to lump the ball over the top, however have used this tactic to great effect in previous games and taken points away from us.
As we boarded the empty train at Waterloo South, Ryan was stuck after his mate’s engine died, and the AA man had not arrived.
Unsurprisingly this meant a reshuffle in personnel, so we decided on:-
If nothing else, this formation would give us width and a genuine attacking threat.
The game started with Merton very much on the front foot.
Saiful and TK set the tone early on with some crunching tackles, Si was closing down the defence in an attempt to stave off his “dad bod” for a few more weeks, and Elwell looked like a seasoned CB, marshalling the rest of the defence and giving their pacey forward nothing to work with.
Our pass and move forward was cutting the Rollers defence to pieces.
There was already a lot of space in front of Rollers defence and both TK and Si were spraying passes around. TK played Sam down the line, and he neatly cut inside the defender onto his stronger foot and slotted the ball past the helpless keeper.
Absolutely no doubt that we deserved to be ahead, we had bossed them early on and they clearly thought that we had come to make up the numbers.
We continued to press them, with the odd long ball their only real threat, although this rarely troubled Elwell or Hall.
A few weeks back a young man approached Jon Wilson and said “I’m not getting a game with Rollers, can I come and play for you guys?”. We were sceptical at first but took a punt and its worked out well. Mark has added genuine pace to our attack, and it has been obvious that he desperately wanted to score against his old mob.
So when he unleashed a missile from 30 yards straight over the keeper’s head, we were naturally elated.
The only problem we had now was the pitch was cutting up and becoming boggy, which does not mix well with a team wanting to play pass and move football.
It does, however, bode well for a team who like to leather the ball over the top.
A long ball was cleared for a corner.
We organised ourselves reasonably well, but as the corner was blasted to the back post, their big man pinned Alex Hall to the floor and our CB could only watch as the ball bounced off his head and into the net. If we had a man at the front post, the ball would probably have been cleared.
Within a matter of minutes, it was a virtually identical scenario.
Corner was defended at the back post, however as the ball bounced in the middle of the box, nobody wearing yellow reacted and their player toe-punted the ball past AVS.
A few things went wrong here.
Joe had reacted slowly and was 20 yards behind the rest of the defensive line, which allowed their strikers to beat the offside trap, we then put in some pretty wimpy tackles, and icing on the cake was the keeper not coming out to smother the ball.
It was a gruesome goal to give away and we know that we are better than that!
In 10 minutes we had transformed from confident, premier league-style players, to a bunch of flabby, nervous Sunday leaguers.
Half time came at exactly the right time for us.
We regrouped, downed some fruit pastilles (god bless you Matthew Elwell), and swaggered back on to the pitch knowing that this lot were there for the taking. It was particularly annoying to be behind against these guys, as we had obviously put in the better first 45; Saiful, TK and Elwell the pick of a tidy bunch.
It was also obvious that our new, young player was not going to make it. Thank Christ that TK had dragged himself out of his comfy warm bed.
We started the second half as we had started the first, playing some really decent football.
We pressed forward and won ourselves a corner.
Not since the old days of Andy Moffatt have we seen somebody with the audacity (or perhaps inaccuracy) to go for goal direct from the corner, but that’s precisely what Sam did. The opposition defender could only head the ball into the roof of the net, after the ball had crossed the line.
However on a slippery pitch mistakes were starting to appear.
Rollers bring their entire squad to a game, even if it means ruining somebody’s Saturday. At Merton we’ve never bought into that ethos, however I must admit that an extra body or two would have been a distinct advantage.
But this was the point that Merton had the chance to swing the momentum in our favour.
Jon Wilson went on a trade mark run, scything through the defence like a knife through warm butter. As Taylor made his way to the local William Hill to bet his mortgage on Wilson scoring, the forward opened up his body and floated the ball delicately over the bar.
The team knew this was a chance to get our noses back in front, and Taylor now had to explain to his wife why they had to move out of their family home.
Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy!
We gave the ball away in midfield and Rollers immediately belted the ball wide down their left flank. As the defence shifted over, we were completely outnumbered, so there were 4 Rollers players waiting in the box to smash the ball past a helpless AVS. We’d let our keeper down on this one, and it was obvious that the bare 11 was starting to feel it in their legs.
When you’re confident and things are going right, these goals go in.
AVS walloped a goal kick to the halfway line and their #8 smashed it back first time straight into the open net. Hard to point fingers on this one.
In amongst all this, there was still some really good football from Merton. Simon was finding the gap between defence and midfield, Saif and TK were making the CM role look very easy and the spirit in the team was still pretty upbeat.
But what’s this…..
A pretty basic error from the opposition keeper, who was having a bit of a shocker, as he decided to shout “LEAVE IT”.
Not the best idea with the league’s leading referee present, who immediately awarded an indirect freekick, approximately 8 yards from goal. A light touch from Sam, and TK leathered the ball into the roof of the net, nearly uprooting the posts in the process.
Momentum had finally swung.
Merton were pretty rampant at this point. Mark, Sam and Wilson were all finding yards of space to exploit, and it was Sam who bolted into the box and had his legs whipped away from underneath him. Having ignored the cries for a penalty in the first half, the ref was in no doubt about this one and pointed to the spot. Wilson dispatched the penner in fine style, to open his account for the season.
But even with a few minutes remaining, we were struggling to clear our lines, and this was resulting in a number of corners for Rollers. In the last few minutes a ball was hammered to the back post, and their speedy striker was free to head goalwards (we seriously need to sort out our set-piece defending!). Fortunately Taylor was able to block the shot on the line, and we survived the scare.
The final whistle blew, and as Hall and Taylor started thinking about penalty takers, the referee informed us that there would be 30 minutes of extra time to play. *sigh*.
11 tired, battered and limping players trudged back onto the field.
Each one had worked their bo**ocks off and deserved to be going through to the next round of the cup.
By this time though, there wasn’t much attack coming from Merton.
Mark had a thigh strain, Wilson’s legs had seized up, Saif was nursing torn abs, and to make matters worse, Taylor put in a tired, lazy tackle which not only gave away a cheap free kick, it buckled the fullback’s knee so he was also now limping.
The resulting freekick was whipped in, about 20 players raced towards the ball, and it somehow smashed one of Rollers’ players in the shins. AVS was moving the other way and just couldn’t get his manicured finger nails to the ball and stop it trickling over the line.
We have experienced very little good luck this season, but this was a truly cruel goal, and watching jubilant scenes from the opposition made this a bitter pill to swallow.
But we didn’t give up.
In the second half of extra time, Mark swivelled on the edge of the box and blasted a shot towards goal. As the keeper closed his eyes, he managed to dive in the right direction and push the shot onto the bar, and the ricochet fell to their player to clear.
The final whistle was blown, and the ref paid us all compliments, but it didn’t make the result any less painful.
Man of the Match
For the first time in a long time, this is a difficult decision, and frankly could go to any of the 11 players who played 120 hard minutes.
Saiful and TK must have run a marathon each in the middle of the park, Mark showed what Rollers are missing, and there’s no way Alex Hall deserved to be on the losing team.
But Man of the Match goes to Matt Elwell. A square peg in a round hole? Not a chance, he was absolute class at centre back, kept their best player very quiet and organised all areas of the pitch, superb performance.
We’ve mentioned it a few times already but we really need some commitment.
We understand that people have things to do at weekends, but this team cannot survive brining in ringers every week.
When we take a strong squad to games, we can take points from any team in this league, so rest those injuries, eat lots of protein-rich Turkey and let’s see you all on 6th January to get 3 points.