Given it’s the Saturday before Christmas, it would have been appropriate if this weekend’s Bostik Matchday feature had a seasonal theme. Trips to Wingate & Grinchley, Mistletoe and Walton United, Chalfont St Nicholas and Westfield- well, Christmas is all about shopping these days, isn’t it- were considered and discounted, even though they would have brought with them the opportunity to make a collection of lame festive jokes.
Imagine the delight, then, when it was discovered that the premier shopping area in Merstham is named Quality Street. Anyway, enough of that; today’s match with Dorking Wanderers promised to be a cracker.
If you’ve never been to Merstham, no-one will really be surprised. That’s not a criticism of the town, by the way- it’s pleasant and has a marvellous football club (we’ll get to that later), but there’s probably more likelihood that you’ve sped (Southern Rail and Thameslink, so ‘sped’ may not be an appropriate word) through it on a train on the way to spend your holidays in an airport departure lounge waiting for someone to shoot down a drone, or to sit on Brighton beach whilst the shingle gives you the least comfortable sunbathing experience in the world. Actually, however, this small town, which these days seems to be attached entirely to Redhill and fast being encroached upon by Croydon, has a varied and interesting history and a decent array of attractive buildings.
Football or redemption?
Merstham wasn’t always so-named. It has been Mearsoetham, Mastam, Mastahaem, Mersetham, Merstan, Mesteham and Merystham- indeed it’s almost as if ancient scribes demonstrated the level of literary skill practiced by the President of the United States on Twitter- but it seemed to settle on its current name during the 1800’s. It’s been mentioned in the Doomsday Book, it has a quarry which was apparently first created by the Roman Seventh Legion commanded by General Russell Crowe, it has an eleventh century Norman church apparently built by a returning crusader to give thanks for his survival, and was the place where Alfred Nobel first tested dynamite (in the quarry, not on the church, but there’s a terrible irony in the fact that a Merstham Church was destroyed by a parachute mine during the Second World War, which perhaps wouldn’t have been possible had Nobel’s experiments failed seventy-three years previously).
The Merstham General we were interested in today wasn’t a Crowe, but a Bird. Hayden Bird, the manager of the Moatsiders, who is approaching his seventh anniversary as boss at the Specsavers Stadium (insert your own punchline here), must have looked at the list of fixtures his side faced during the festive season and considered that Doomsday was a very appropriate word. Lewes, Dorking Wanderers, Haringey Borough and Kingstonian between the 19th December and New Years Day; the entire top four in fourteen days.
And yet, the visit of the first of that quartet couldn’t have gone much better. The Rooks arrived on Wednesday night knowing that victory could send them top, and left with absolutely nothing, losing the match 3-2 and leaving with even their commentators praising the passing and movement of their opposition. The truth is that when Merstham are good, they are very good indeed- but they were still searching for consistency. Wednesday marked the first occasion this season when they had won two matches in a row. Could they make it three? Fans of Dorking Wanderers would hope not.
Wanderers came into this match trying to recapture their best form. They’d won last time out in the League- an often scrappy 1-0 win at Bognor Regis Town which we covered, as you may recall- but then lost in the FA Trophy last weekend by the same scoreline, which meant that they’d picked up only one victory in their last four matches, or two in their last six if we go back a little further. After looking almost invincible before that period, recent results had shown that they were vulnerable after all, and Bird’s men would be looking to take advantage.
We are Merstham
The last time the two sides met, on August Bank Holiday Monday, the jewel in Dorking manager Marc White’s crown, striker Jason Prior, scored a last minute penalty to earn the Meadowbank side a point in a 2-2 draw. But Prior, after an earlier purple patch, had now gone seven matches without a goal, whilst Merstham had discovered their own jewel in Walter Figueira, with eight goals since arriving from Dulwich Hamlet on loan in September, including two on Wednesday evening. Having now signed a permanent deal, perhaps he might turn out to be the difference between the two sides today? There was only one way to find out.
Before we found out, however, we chanced upon someone qualified to have an opinion- home supporter, programme seller, holder of season ticket number one and match sponsor (and “best looking twin”) Bob McGillivray. Although Bob, resplendent in yellow and black, wasn’t much help when it came to a prediction, as he was undecided.
“We’re an excellent footballing side, but sometimes we get bullied by the top teams. How we’ll do today depends on whether we play the way we did against Folkestone (a hammering) or the way we did against Lewes. But we know we’ll play the ball out from the back, as Hayden is quite clear about what he wants from the team. It can be a bit frightening when it goes wrong, but it’s always good to watch.”
With such a length of experience as a Merstham fan, what were his hopes for the future?
“We’ve probably found our level. It would be good to see us at sixth or seventh, perhaps, but we’re not financially ready for anything higher. To go to the National League we’d need stewards, employees…this place is run entirely by volunteers. The challenges of the next level would probably be beyond us. But we’ve had our moments, particularly under Hayden- winning the Surrey Senior Cup, promotion, and”- this was apparently the highlight- “the FA Cup match with Oxford United.“
The teams emerged into hazy sunshine at three minutes to three, Merstham in their yellow and black, Wanderers in red and white stripes. The away side got us underway, kicking into the sunshine, which was slowly sinking behind some trees away to the right. The ball soon ended up in the same foliage, as the first shot of the match, from Wanderers Matt Briggs, missed the target by rather a wide margin.
Merstham Bob- by far the best looking twin!
Fine interplay between Walter Figueira and Tayshan Hayden-Smith led to a far closer sight of goal, the Merstham winger firing in a shot from twelve yards which was blocked, earning the home side the first corner of the match. A clearance from just in front of the goal followed, and the ball moved from end to end at pace. The sides seemed evenly matched, with similar playing styles. The football was certainly pleasing on the eye.
A foul on Luke Moore just outside the home box gave the away side their first decent sight of goal. An eight man wall looked an imposing barrier, but the ball was played sideways, to Briggs, who fired in a blistering shot which Amadou Tangara touched around. A corner, and Reece Hall- who was playing- and scoring for- the other side the last time these teams met, saw his shot deflected wide. Then it was Merstham’s turn to press, trickery from Figueira earning a corner for his side- and it was only a touch away from a goal, fizzing across the six yard box whilst attackers and defenders flung themselves at it. Twenty minutes gone, and although we had no goals we were certainly not starved of entertainment.
Three minutes later we came the closest so far to a goal. Dorking’s David Ray sent in a header, and it headed unerringly for the corner of the net, only for Harry Osbourne to throw himself at it and hook it expertly off the line. Wanderers were having most of the possession, and Briggs earned his side another corner, but they were over-intricate in taking it and the ball was cleared.
And then the breakthrough, and it came to Merstham. Lewis Taylor was robbed by Gus Sow midway inside the Dorking half. Sow had much to do, and a posse of Wanderers defenders trying to stop him doing it, but he wasn’t at all troubled by their attentions nor distracted by shouts that he should pass it, charging into the box to finish well past Slavomir Huk. It was almost two a minute later, as another fine combination between Hayden-Smith and Figueira led to the later curling in a lovely shot which Huk had to palm over.
The sun goes down- time for Merstham to start living it up!
It was but a brief let off for Wanderers. The corner came in, Tutu Henriques was unmarked, and headed expertly home from twelve yards. Dorking were shellshocked, and before they could recover they were three-nil down. This time it was Figueira’s turn to find the net, and you had to say it was deserved- and only a double save from Huk stopped Hayden-Smith and Kershaney Samuels from making it four. The home fans were beside themselves with delight, and they had every reason to be delighted.
Wanderers tried to respond. Tangara had to charge out to save, before Luke Moore sent the rebound over an unguarded net. To be fair to the Wanderers player he had to adjust his body to try and connect with the ball, but an away supporter at the back of the stand held his head in his hands, and it wasn’t difficult to understand how he felt. From 0-0 with Wanderers on top to 3-0 within four minutes would have seemed fantastic a few minutes earlier, but it wasn’t fantasy any more.
It got worse for Dorking. A challenge by Briggs on Hayden-Smith down by the corner flag was born entirely of frustration, but it earned the Wanderers winger a deserved red card. Merstham didn’t seem like they wanted to show any sympathy, and continued to pour forward. The crowd began to get excited every time the home side entered the opposition half, and it wasn’t difficult to understand why. Their attacking play was quite breathtaking.
Wanderers made three changes at half time, and had the first chance of the second period, a header from Prior which was far too close to Tangara. But the game soon became rather fractious, with both sides picking up bookings. By the fifty fifth minute there were five players on the field on a yellow, and- lest we forget- one player no longer on the field at all. Whether we’d end the match with twenty-one seemed rather doubtful. Mind you, by this point many of the crowd were too distracted by the news that Crystal Palace were beating Manchester City to notice. It always seems rather peculiar that people will pay to watch a football match and then spend ninety minutes glued to their mobile phones whilst commenting on a game that they can’t actually see. These days Terry and Bob from the Likely Lads would have no chance getting to Match of the Day without knowing the score, would they?
Marc White and his bench- before the storm
For those of you under forty, that last comment was written in black and white.
Figueira was replaced twenty minutes into the second half; perhaps to be rested for the forthcoming matches with Haringey Borough and Kingstonian. That was quite understandable, but also a shame, as his partnership with Hayden-Smith had been the highlight of the match.
The atmosphere was quieter now. Merstham were still showing flashes of brilliance- one five man move had everything but a finish, and was sublime to watch- whilst Wanderers were still chasing and harrying, refusing to give up. But we all knew that the game was as good as over. Hall managed a shot that Tangara saved at the second attempt, but the keepers had spent almost half an hour in virtual retirement mode, the action confined to the midfield.
Huk did have a save to make in the 77th minute. In keeping with the kind of day that Wanderers were having, two of their players managed to trip each other, and the ball ran to Hayden-Smith; but the keeper, resplendent in pink, charged out and blocked with his feet. There was action for the home keeper shortly afterwards, and it was picking the ball out of the net- Jason Prior curling a free kick expertly around the wall and into the bottom corner. 3-1; could the unlikely become possible?
Not many worshippers behind the goal
In a word, no. In five words, not in a million years.
Merstham sub Caio Guimaraes brought a diving save from Huk four minutes from time, but that was then topped by a fine, fine finish from Kershaney Samuels- the ball expertly chipped over Huk for four. With two minutes to go, the game was over- and as we moved into added time another sub, Manny Ighorae, was within a whisker of making it five. The cheers at full time were enthusiastic, and they were entirely deserved.
Merstham today delivered the best attacking performance seen in any of our Bostik Matchday features this season; and they were no slouches at the other end, either. On Wednesday evening Lewes fans on social media had described “an excellent performance” from Hayden Bird’s men- and if that was excellent, this one was quite sublime.
Handsome Bob was undoubtedly right when he described the Bostik Premier Division as the ceiling of Merstham’s ambition. This Surrey derby today attracted 181 people, and the obsession many of them seemed to have with Crystal Palace perhaps explained why; but in truth, this is a small town, and that attendance is almost three percent of the population, many of whom are London overflow and arrived here with other allegiances.
But was that necessarily a bad thing? The volunteers at Moatside are lovely- committed to their club, hard working and dedicated. Sometimes the higher you get the more impersonal the football experience becomes- and the best thing about today, despite the performance, wasn’t the football- it was the people. Those glued to their phones worrying about the higher level game are important to this club. Are they important to those at Selhurst Park? Would their absence be noticed? You can form your own conclusions.
What we can conclude, however, is that today’s Merstham heroes will undoubtedly have sparked celebrations on Quality Street this afternoon.
And that we’re terribly disappointed that we couldn’t work a Roses reference into that sentence.