Sunday 3 February 2019

Even With Three - Merstham FC Vs Bishop's Stortford FC, Isthmian League Cup Quarter-Final, Moatside (16/01/19)

As I punch RH1 3QB into my Sat Nav, I come over in a cold sweat, the palms of my hands turn clammy, and I think surely lightning can’t strike twice. The sky is ominous, I try not to take it as a bad sign, I cross the car park outside my block of flats at double time because its just started to rain. By the time I reach Tom at our usual rendezvous, the end of my road, he’s cowering under the open boot of his car, performing some kind of costume change. He waves an umbrella in my general direction, asking me if I think he should bring it.

Tom’s busy day meant he “missed lunch” which results in no end of belly aching, about two and a half hours of it to be precise. He rummages around in his bag only to find some out of date Polo’s, which despite being a good six months past their use by date, he necks a handful of, to stave off the hunger pains. Such is his starvation, at one point I’m sure I catch him peering in the windows of passing cars, trying to get a glimpse of what our fellow users of the M25 are eating.

“I’m feeling weak” he murmurs, having now not eaten for a whole four hours. When he asks me if there is a chance my daughter may have dropped anything down the side of her car seat that he could have, I think he is only half joking.

Its slow going, a combination of the rain, which is at least easing and the time of night, means we are all but creeping along, but at least we are moving. It was at about this time, the last time we tried to pay Merstham FC (MFC) a visit, that the traffic came to a stand still and it quickly became apparent that we weren't going to make it.

So far there is no sign of a caravan that's lost its wheel or the need for any emergency resurfacing, which I still don't know what that is, but the speed at which we are plodding along, rarely out of second gear, means it's likely we are going to be late, but at least we are going to get there.

A hush falls over the car as we near the service station where we eventually aborted our last attempt, turning round there and heading home after nearly five hours of sitting in gridlock. Thinking back to 2015, and our first time at Moatside, when Walton Casuals were the lodgers, that journey wasn't exactly straightforward either. A healthy mixture of naivety and stupidity, meant our Oystercards were not valid, so on arrival at the local train station, we were effectively locked in. Crawling on our knees under the barrier, it was only thanks to continued cost cutting, that no staff were present and we got away with it, without being collared.

Having made it, late, but delighted to have got here all the same, my mouth filled with the very odd residual taste of out of date Polos, the last thing I was expecting to hear was Axl Rose, whaling over the rooftops, in this quiet corner of Surrey. “That must piss the neighbours off” says Tom, with his neighbourhood watch hat on. I deduce the music is not coming from the Baptist Church we have just parked outside of, but from somewhere beyond, somewhere masked by tall trees, and illuminated by dazzling floodlights.

Standing at the end of a long, narrow alleyway, it doesn't exactly give away where the music is coming from. Above a chain link gate in the shadow of a towering pine tree the sign reads Welcome To The Specsavers Stadium (Moatside). A few steps later and Axl now at his loudest, we are standing pitchside.

Greeted at the door of the boardroom by the tall, club tie wearing, grey goatee sporting MFC Media Officer, Chris, it is hard to decline his invitation to come in, mainly because of the offer of a cup of tea, and the numerous plates of biscuits scattered about the place. A cracking cuppa in a china mug is the perfect accompaniment to a custard cream, that Tom is doing his best to eat as many of as he can, but as discreetly as possible.

On the large table behind us, the other side of the MFC player engrossed by something on his phone, proper boardroom types, not obvious interlopers like us, sit around chatting, before they are joined by the referee, with the important business of the team sheets to be sorted.

The Surrey Senior Cup glistens centre stage, black and yellow ribbons hanging from it’s handles, Chris saying they’ve almost “adopted” it, considering how many times they have won it. The walls around us groan under the weight of signed shirts and framed mementos from the clubs past. In one corner the tea lady in her grey apron is churning out hot drink, after hot drink.

An encounter with the MFC manger, tightly done up in his blue duffle coat is short but sweet, “you two are very hairy”, he says with a grin. Back outside the music has taken a great turn, Ozzy has replaced Axl and things only keep improving, when the southern tones of Lynyrd Skynyrd come over the airwaves. Tom is perhaps not such a champion of what he calls “Dad Rock” as me. To be clear I won't touch The Quo, Genesis or Nonce-Sense Collins, but I’ll happily listen to a bit of Queen on a long car drive.

What was before a bare trestle table by the turnstiles, now has a bright yellow sign in front of it, with three of my favourite things written across it in black, programmes, golden goal, 50/50 draw. Behind it in a yellow and black hat, yellow and black being the MFC colours, a man is selling tonight's programme from a cardboard box. He reaches down inside, retrieving one and handing it to me, part one of the ultimate football trifecta is complete.

Next up the golden goal, and I take a moment to agonise over which of the folded tickets at the bottom of the rusted sweet tin it is I should pick, but with a fair few sets of eyes on me, wondering why is he taking so long, I snatch at a couple and put them in my pocket. Part two now complete and I think it's important to point out that both transactions were completed almost solely using sign language. Standing directly under a speaker, “down down, deeper and down” sing Status Quo, yuk, I’m struggling to hear myself think, let alone conduct a conversation.

Despite the suggestion of the sign, that the programme, and both forms of gambling could be purchased in one place, the man in the black and yellow hat, points me towards man with short silver hair, who is standing in what I can only describe as a century box, for my 50/50 tickets.

“Three for two” he says like music to my ears, having covered the short distance between the programme seller and him in the blink of an eye. The sound of more classic rock, which has to be said in a Jeremy Clarkson voice over kind of way, mingles with the sound of the players warming up. The man selling the 50/50 tickets says it really depends on “which Merstham turns up” tonight, as far as the game is concerned, it was “1 - 1 in the league” so it's a tough one to call.

The sky is jet black, its mild and still, the scrapping sound of a man dragging faux grass covered steps, shatters the strange mixture of the shooting practise and Deep Purple. Along one side of the changing rooms might just be non leagues largest whiteboard, although it's not technically white, its yellow, but you get what I mean, that is about to have the team's scrawled out across it. With a marker in one hand, and the team sheet in the other, the man ascends the green steps and begins to write.

The players finished, they head inside, a few of the visiting team stop to except hand shakes and words of encouragement, from their fans on the edge of the pitch.

I can just make out the barrow boy cries of the programme seller as the man who just painstakingly wrote out the teams, welcomes us all to the “Specsavers Stadium”, then starts to read them out, and considering he is reading his own handwriting, it’s curious that he struggles with a few of the players names. As is tradition the away teams names are read out in a very droll and monotone fashion, turning it on, when it’s time for the “mighty Moatsiders”. His voice changes completely, plenty of penance, and such is his professionalism, the major reverb from the microphone doesn't throw him.

Now mingling in the doorway leading to the changing room, the man on the mic just has enough time to wish the visitors, Bishop’s Stortford FC (BS) a “safe trip home” before asking all in attendance to “welcome out the two sides”. It is at this point that the music takes a complete one eighty from the kind you would find on a Father's Day CD, to that which you would find in the collection of my dance music loving fiancee.

There is no tunnel to speak of it's literally a single step down from the white double doors and onto the pitch, but not before you’ve passed through the black wrought iron gate, that someone has pinched from a B&Q. “Come on Merstham” shouts the programme seller, still behind his station.

BS for no apparent reason, other than to fill the time between walking out and kick off, run around in circles and as I make my way around the pitch to catch up with Tom, I notice a late arrival, the current Leyton Orient and once Spurs left back, who nearly ruined the 1999 League Cup final by getting sent off, Justin Edinburgh, with his slicked back hair.

A few more shouts of “come on Moatsiders” reverberate from the opposite side of the pitch, from one of the small groups dotted about. The majority of the crowd line the barrier in front of the boardroom and the main stand with its, yes you’ve guessed it, yellow and black seats.

“We ain't started yet, we’re second to everything” bemoans one BS player, MT are well on top straight away. When they zip a shot across the greasy surface after six minutes the BS keeper who's stature has not been lost on Tom, “he’s tiny”, the ball kicks up into his face, forcing him at the second attempt to smother it, before a player in yellow can pounce. MFC spray the ball around confidently, their number 2 in front of us, a regular outlet.

Although he admits that the “biscuits” kept him “going” the power of the bourbons have started to wean and Tom confesses that recent noise was his “stomach rumbling” and not that of a low flying police helicopter. The game has slowed after a very energetic start, Tom thinks it's going to be “really close” in this match up between “Wolves” and “Derby”. His ability to find suitable league teams, that tonight's shirts look a bit like, has clearly been affected by his hunger pains. MFC’s yellow shirt is the completely wrong shade and BS has light grey hoops across theirs, the man is clearly delirious.

If it's not food or the lack of it, Tom will be going on about the weather, “I really need some fingerless gloves” he says for the fiftieth time this winter. It was not that long ago he was talking about doing a DIY job on a pair he had already, but that was all hot air.

Patrolling his area, yet to sit down the BS manager who in a departure from what your usual man in charge would wear, he’s in neither a suit or has gone full Tony Pulis, boots and jogging bottoms, he is
instead in a jeans and trainers, the kind your Dad does the decorating in on dress down Saturday. He does his best to organises his team who are looking very susceptible to MFC’s use of the “long ball” as Tom points out.

Many attempts at pinged ones over the back line have been attempted, and there have been a couple of close calls, but so far his defence have held fast.

“Come on you Moatsiders” shouts the same man as before, the only person attempting to inject any kind of verve in to proceedings. Tom thinks “if nobody scores this half its 0 - 0”, shortly after and BS probably go the closest they have in the first twenty minutes to scoring, when one player cuts in off the right and sends a shot over.

Tom distracts himself from his growing famine, by putting on his Pep hat and getting all technical on me, suggesting MFC should consider playing “two up front”, and “bringing in the 11” whatever that means, and “spreading the midfield” which just sounds rude.

A clear foul on a BS player, “he’s a lenient one” says Tom, sees nothing given much to the annoyance of the BS bench. “Poor lino” says one coach, to the assistant in front of us, who in Toms professional opinion has a very dodgy haircut. Not the sort to simply take his judgement being called in to account on the chin, he is more than happy to give as good as he gets and a terse exchange plays out between the two.

What looks like a audacious attempt at a lob from one BS player, takes their attempts on goal tally to two. “Get hold of it” demands one home fan, the match having descended into a middle of the pitch scramble, the fault of a very “congested middlefield” claims out Tom, who flits between tactical analysis and thinking what he is going to eat at half time, “I could do a hotdog”.

Highlighting the lack of action, the clapping that follows the awarding of a home corner from one fan, is so enthusiastic that you would think they had scored, and his enthusiasm only subsides when the BS keeper is fouled and a free kick is awarded to the visitors. The linesman in front of us is not the only official whose hair is worthy of comment. The referee looks like he’s had a platinum dye job done, referee by day, Manumission podium dancer by night.

The abundance of trees that surrounded the ground, almost but not completely filter out the sound of a nearby busy road. The home number 2 who is always free and unmarked, stands with his arms constantly in the air, wanting the ball. “Come on Merstham” shouts the fan who is clearly a huge fan of a corner, as he manically claps his hands together at the sight of his team getting another one.

Whipped in with real danger, it's just about cleared, only for MFC to regain possession and to cross again. The home team look a real threat from every set piece, “better” says Tom as the needle on the action’o’meter twitches.

“Its coming” urges one MFC player, the BS keeper having just spilled another shot, but recovered well to block the rebounded second attempt. The resulting corner sees a very “cheeky” as Tom puts it in this best Carry On voice, attempt at a near post Zola back healed finish.

“Thirty six minutes, thirty six minutes” confirms the voice over the PA, confirming the time of the MFC goal, and that neither of my golden goal tickets are winners. Another corner, a flick on and stab home from close range, and the home side find themselves deservedly in front.

What the hell is he doing, I wonder as I find myself edging way from Tom, who is taking turns at standing on alternate legs, and kicking out his foot. “I’m trying a new tactic” he says, like I’m the crazy one, “my feet always get cold, too much standing around” so he reckons a bit of calisthenics will sort him out, that's his “theory” anyway. Never short of a theory or two, he thinks his recent holiday excesses are to blame for why he is so hungry, “I ate so much over Christmas I've stretched my stomach”.

A half short of thrills might be the best way to describe the first forty five minutes. MFC’s number 11 has impressed Tom, although as he put it he is a little “greedy”. BS have the final effort of the half, a shot from outside the box which is about “ten foot wide” chuckles Tom and soon the familiar feeling of abandonment washes over me, Tom is off in search of food, but at least I have Freddie, Brian, Roger and John for company, although I think it's fair to say that everyone will hope that one side or the other will “rock” us the second half.

I spend the break scouring the horizon for Justin Edinburgh, but can't see his overly slicked hair self anywhere. The “Dad Rock” classics are coming thick and fast, Summer Of 69, You Give Love a Bad Name are all belted out while someone fiddles with the volume, but they have their levels sorted just in time for what is probably the zenith of too much guitar, and not enough substance, Layla.

“Even with three” sniggers Tom, when I inform him that even with my copious amount of tickets, I still cant bag the 50/50. He returns just before the players do, BS are out first, and not long behind them those of the home team, with a “Big MFC Burger”. He breaks down its grandiose name for me, explaining it’s “basically a double cheeseburger”.

The final words over the PA are just what Tom wanted to hear, Tom who is far from a fan of extra time after a midweek cup match, when he tells us the game tonight will go “straight to penalties” should it be a draw after ninety minutes.

An early BS shot, that is pushed around the post for a corner, does little to raise the volume here, its library quiet. Tom like an animal on the Serengeti, who wants solitude to devour its prey, has removed himself from me slightly to destroy his burger in peace.

A burst of pace sees one MFC attacker into the box, tackled he claims for a penalty almost mid air, but it’s declined, and so as to not waste the chance at a shot he still manages to get one off, which is good enough to win a corner. A corner which they don’t hang around to take and it results in their second shot on target, in as many minutes, which creeps just over the bar.

BS’s equaliser is a tad unexpected, they have threatened rarely, but it gives us something to talk about. The goal itself is a close range finish into the roof of the net, the kind that leaves the keeper at full stretch, hands above his head, but such is the velocity of the shot, he is completely hapless.

The goal does little to knock MFC out of their dominant stride and only a couple of minutes after BS drew things level, they almost restore parity with a daisy cutter of a free kick, which the referee said went wide of the foot of the post, awarding BS a goal kick, when it was clearly “saved”. Tom confirming what I was sure I saw, but the referee missed.

People clutching their mugs, grimace at the sound of a big challenge, that leaves one BS players on his back poleaxed, the MFC player responsible looking nervous and his teammates do their best to plead his case, “ref it's a 50/50”.

The nearby arrival of one MFC fan with a blue bag of beers at his feet is a welcome injection of interest. He’s not exactly forthcoming with songs and imaginative chants, it’s more like he is quoting the very basic of inspirational Instagram posts, things like “let’s go” and “keep it together”, but it's something at least.

MFC’s most creative and inventive player suffers from a dose of not knowing when to give it up once again, “11 needs to learn how to pass” tuts Tom. He does all the good work of getting into a great position, just on the edge of the box, and with a teammate screaming for it in the box, but instead of passing, he takes it that bit too far, the move breaks down and it pretty much sums up MFC’s night.

“It's coming, its comings” cries MFC’s number 12, after a chance from the edge of the six yard box is
poked over. Number 2 alone and still almost always unmarked was found well, his cross was just as good, but the finish was well, it was lacking.

The PA wrestles with the pronunciation of the latest comings and goings, “he didn't have much of a clue” laughs Tom as he mangles the name of the BS substitute. MFC are now exclusively attacking down their right wing. The exploits of the marauding number 2 wins another corner, which leaves one BS defender winded, his hard fall to the pitch is followed by a loud thud, his teammate is less than sympathetic, “get up, get up”.

MFC’s number 11 attacks again, MFC’s number 11 gets in to the box, over egged the pudding and loses the ball again. The gaggle of black and yellow scarf and hat wearing fans behind the goal, including the programme and 50/50 seller, mutter to each other as the ball rolls out of play.

Just short of thirty minutes gone and the home crowd let out a collective “arghhhhh”. Their team have just spurred golden chance number eight or nine. The big haired attacker, a man from the Kid & Play school of hairdos, rushes his shot, dragging it right across the front of goal. Inadvertently his effort, turns into an excellent cross straight down the ‘corridor of uncertainty’, but no one is there to get on the end of it.

A new home change, and the introduction of their ever so sprightly number 15, who only seconds after getting on the pitch, wriggles away from three defenders with ease, joins the all out attack, as Tom puts it, “no one wants pens”. A thought echoed by the shouts of the home fans, “come on I’m getting cold”.

I wouldn't go as far as saying the MFC supporters are getting frustrated, but considering their control on the game, there is a feeling that it should have been put well of out of sight, long ago. One fan thinks some players are just not giving it their all, “come on Merstham don't stand still”. I’m not sure I agree, players are darting from left to right all over the place, it's like a display by the Red Arrows, there is though just a distinct lack of final product. They are doing all the figurative barrel rolls and loop, the loops, but there is just no smoke at the end of it.

Beer in a bag man continues to dish out plenty of slurred advice, and lets out an angry “come on” when BS almost steal the show, with a back post header that drops neatly to a forward in the box whose snap shot is well blocked by the MFC keeper who has had next to nothing to do all match and as of yet is to be distracted by the strange noises coming over the PA, because someone has failed to turn the microphone off.

BS’s keeper does his best Ederson impression with a charging sliding clearance well outside his box, reaching the ball just before the MFC number 11. “Not long to go” shouts one BS player, less than five minutes in fact for them to hold out. MFC flood forward at every opportunity, another shot takes a deflection and nearly creeps in. The visitors have a very late and very short moment of pressure with a quick break, but can't though find the intended target in the box.

“Come on Merstham” pleads a supporter with what must be only seconds of the half left to play and they very nearly secure the win their second half efforts deserve, but again the BS keeper is equal to the task, he is becoming quite the immovable object. The low drive is stopped in its tracks, the rebound falls into the six yard box, but no one is on hand to finish. The final MFC attempt, the last of so many this half, is a thunderous one from the industrious number 2, but not to be crude it's straight up the arse of a BS defender who should be applauded for his bravery.

“Hold it, hold it” demands the home number 8, but his teammate does the opposite, losing possession and allowing BS to break. Luckily for the player who number 8 is currently burning a hole in the back of his head with his death stare, the BS shot was wild and it disappears into the trees behind the goal.

The final whistles sounds, people are on their toes, waiting for the toss of the coin, and the end for the shoot out to be decided. One MFC fan lets out a reluctant sigh, “here we go”.

Still in her apron the tea lady announces, "I'm going back in, you know I don't watch them". Another fan in a mobility scooter moving ends, is accused of cutting and running before the tie is concluded, "you can't bugger off" says someone as he weaves through the crowd, but he has an excuse already prepared, "I'm scared".

Strung out across the half way line, the takers having been agreed, separated by a linesman in the middle, the two teams await their turn. Each bench stands arms interlocked, Brazil at USA 94 style in the mouth of their dugout, watching on nervously.

It's just about the most ideal start for a keeper in a shootout, saving the first kick he comes up against, and that's just what BS's does, a keeper who I later learned only joined the club the day before, "well played" shouts a fan from the crowd. He is not the only man between the sticks capable of a spot kick save though, MFC's pulls off one too as things grow tenser.

MFC's manager breaks free from the confines of his technical area and asks his team for more noise, more encouragement for the players making the long walk to the twelve yard spot, but when the big haired MFC forward hits the wood work, returning to the half way line and tossing his shin pads away, BS score next and a mighty groan goes up.

The final penalty is left to the still fresh legged second half substitute MFC's number 15, who had the demeanour of someone never totally confident. His penalty was hit cleanly enough, but too close to the new boy in goal for BS, who gets down low and with one hand, wins the match for the visitors winning 3 - 2.

I can't say that anyone in yellow and black seemed overly distraught, the man on the PA certainly didn't, the disposition of the announcer, is normally a good litmus test of the mood of the crowd. He is quick to congratulate BS, and wishes them luck in the next round against Enfield, whose name by mistake stood instead of BS's on tonight programme. Chris made it clear the League Cup, as it is at every level, in every league, is very low down the priority list, in fact its the lowest, "fourth out of four" he told me.

The man with beers in a bag has a few choice words for the BS players as they celebrate, the single MFC flag on the green fence stays put and Justin Edinburgh is nowhere to be seen, Chris telling me his son was playing for BS this evening, so they've just shot up our list of teams to go see.

Reasons to want to watch a league cup game ever again, except for the final, are minimal, its just so apparent that fans and players just don't give a toss. Reasons to come back to Moatside are plentiful, the main being that according to Chris, is that the chairman is a "butcher" and his "sausages are rather good".

For all of our photographs from the match, click HERE

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