Merstham conquer non-league’s day of fear

“Merstham boys, Merstham boys…”

Play-offs. Discuss. Bad if you lose, terrible, in fact. Glorious if you win. A cup final to decide a 46-game programme. They keep a season alive for many, undo nine months of hard work in a single afternoon for some. On Sunday, May 3, Folkestone Invicta’s supporters are probably as anti-play-off as the UKIP party are against the European Union. Merstham – “who?, you might ask” – are undoubtedly enjoying the concept.

There’s no point conducting a straw poll in the Kent coastal town on the virtues of play-offs. They’ve now lost in FOUR consecutive seasons in the play-offs from the Ryman League South. That’s tough to take. “We couldn’t afford to go up if we wanted to,” said one loyal Folkestone man. “We haven’t got the money.”

They have a few shillings after this game, played before almost 1,500 people, the vast majority from Folkestone. The usual crowd is around 300-plus, while Merstham, a large village near Reigate with a population of 8,000, normally attract 160-ish to their Moatside ground.

Folkestone finished second in the league table proper, 11 points behind rampant Burgess Hill Town. The heartbreak was there for all to see, not least in the pained expressions of their manager, Neil Cugley, who stood by the dressing rooms after the game as Merstham cavorted on the pitch, celebrating their emphatic 3-0 win at the Fullicks Stadium. This was a man who has seen his team lose out year-after-year, so his distress was obvious. “We played well, but gave away three bad goals and didn’t take our chances,” he said, as assorted locals came up to him, shook his hand and shared his sorrow. “Good luck to Merstham, they did a job on us.”

Also ably employed for this tense afternoon was a platoon of security guards, menacingly in black and keen to search all baggage coming into the ground. A little excessive, perhaps, but Folkestone had crowd trouble at their play-off semi-final against Whyteleafe, whose fans complained of the “intimidating and violent behaviour” of the home supporters. You can only assume that it was not regular Folkestone people causing the problem.

The game got underway and Merstham silenced the – far from intimidating and violent – crowd with a sixth minute goal. The ball sailed to the far side of the area and Simon Cooper’s low shot rolled past home keeper Tim Roberts. The narrative had been set.

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Folkestone’s response was a succession of corners and although they went close through Frankie Chappell and Richard Atkins, their finishing was sub-optimal. Folkestone’s leading scorer, Ian Draycott, a more prolific striker than when he played for Bedford and Hitchin, was kept very quiet by a take-no-prisoners Merstham defence. His partner, Atkins, was very generous to the visiting defence, notably when he tamely followed-up after Merstham goalkeeper Brannon Daly parried a shot.

In the final minute of the first period, Merstham scored again. Folkestone’s defence allowed Tutu Henriques plenty of room to head home from a corner. Although the home team had dominated, Merstham went in at half-time two goals ahead. “The scoreline did not reflect the balance of play, but we scored at crucial times,” admitted Merstham manager Hayden Bird.

It got worse for Folkestone as Merstham added a third on 51 minutes, a low, curling free kick from their skipper, Fabio Saraiva, that Roberts really should have prevented. That was “game over”, and the mass of supporters at the cricket ground end fell silent while a couple of dozen Merstham supporters sang their heart out to celebrate inevitable promotion.

Folkestone refused to give up and on the hour, Draycott went close when he met a high ball and tried to sneak his header past Daly. With the spirit draining out of Folkestone, however, Merstham were able to find the room to go in search of a fourth goal. Cooper tried to set-up the impressive Peter Adeniyi, but the tall midfielder’s shot was tepid and lacked venom and direction. Cooper then played a neat one-two with substitute Omar Folkes but saw his shot deflected for what was only Merstham’s second corner. The whistle went and the party began.

Time for reflection....Neil Cugley
Time for reflection….Neil Cugley

Hayden Bird acknowledged the travelling fans. “Thanks for coming. Great support,” he called to those that had gathered behind the dugouts. He moved among his people, shaking hands, a hug here, a wave there. An articulate man, he admitted that everything had gone to plan. “We had a feeling we would end up with Faversham and Folkestone in the play-offs and we had watched them a lot over the past few weeks. That said, I was surprised at the margin of our victory.”

Key to Merstham’s success was the performance of midfield duo Peter Adeniyi and Tutu Henriques, who were both dominant in this game. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that without them we would not have been here today or in contention for promotion. They have been outstanding.”

Although it was tough for Folkestone to stand and watch an unnecessary presentation ceremony for a play-off, Bird had some words of encouragement for the crestfallen Folkestone side. “Sometimes, things are meant to be. It was our time today and I hope in 12 months time, Neil [Cugley] and his team will come back and have their time.”

Right now, Cugley, his team, and the club’s supporters, are hoping that in May 2016, a play-off will not be necessary.

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