This is the Second Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, isn’t it? By this stage of the competition, we would usually be wearing something approaching our winter woollies and sipping at Bovril which remains scalding hot for three minutes for turning stone cold in the amount of time that it takes to blink, but summer has come late this year, and Surrey is unusually temperate this afternoon. Today is shirt sleeves and ice cold drinks weather. It doesn’t feel right, yet here we are, in spitting distance of one of the southernmost tips of the M25, for a match that will leave the winners two matches from the First Round Proper and one win from a possible tie against a Blue Square Premier side.
The biggest clubs may not be taking the FA Cup as seriously as they used to but, for the likes of Merstham FC and AFC Sudbury, this afternoon is a big deal. The money is important – there is £4,500 on offer to the winners this afternoon – but the publicity that an FA Cup run brings can be a life-changing event for a club of this size. Strong reputations have, over the years, been cemented by jabbing bigger clubs on the nose in this competition and the creation of a club’s legacy can carry almost intangible benefits to smaller clubs. An FA Cup run can kick-start potential that may have lain dormant for years and can reignite the support of those that may, for whatever reason, have drifted away from a club over the course of time. For reasons both prosaic and romantic, the world’s oldest cup competition still matters to clubs of this size.
Merstham FC was founded in 1892, but were only promoted into the Ryman League from the Combined Counties League in 2008. Since then, they have had mixed fortunes in their new league, with an encouraging eighth placed finish in their first season followed by finishing in sixteenth and nineteenth place over the last couple of seasons. AFC Sudbury, meanwhile, were formed by the merger of Sudbury Town in 1999 ( the ‘A’ in ‘AFC Sudbury’ stands for ‘Amalgamated’). The club won the Eastern Counties League for five successive years between 2001 and 2005 and achieved a unique hat-trick in losing three successive FA Vase finals between 2003 and 2005. Since taking their place in the Ryman League, however, the club’s upward momentum has been checked and they suffered thanks an enforced transfer to the Midland Division of the Southern Football League for two years before being transferred back for the start of last season.
Merstham and AFC Sudbury play at the same level of the game but are separated by their geography, with this afternoon’s home side playing in Division One South of the Ryman League, and Sudbury in Division One North. Whilst Merstham are comfortable in mid-table, Sudbury are, perhaps uncharacteristically, struggling in nineteenth place in their division, with just one win from their opening seven league matches of the season, and they’ve already changed their manager as well. Attempting to draw comparisons between the quality of two divisions playing at the same level on the basis of cup matches may be a fruitless exercise, but with home advantage, Merstham should start this afternoon as the favourites to secure a place in the next round of the competition.
The first half is characterised by the very distinctive style of football that is still found at the level at which Merstham and Sudbury ply their trade. As the Premier League has become more and more tactical over time, the lower levels of non-league football have retained the subtle air of chaos which all football matches used to carry. The ball pings around the pitch like a pinball, spending as much time in the air as it does on the ground and, while the exhortations from the dug-outs to “get rid of it” (where “it” equals “the ball”, of course) may, from the point of view of the managers concerned, be from a sense of self-preservation through keeping blood pressure levels low, but this suits the visitors more than the home team, and having comfortably weathered an early storm which requires goalkeeper Danny Gay to make two smart saves with his legs from one-on-ones, Sudbury look the better co-ordinated of the two teams and can count themselves a little unlucky to still be level at half-time.
It doesn’t take long at the start of the second half for Sudbury to take the lead, though, with a cross into the penalty area six minutes in being bundled over the line by Nathan Clarke. From here on, there is a lot of huff and puff from Merstham, and the closest that they come is with appeals for a goal from a deep cross from the right that Gay catches on the line amid – admittedly half-hearted – protests that he might have carried the ball over his own goal-line. It’s difficult to imagine that such a protest would have been so muted in the Premier League. In the closing minutes, though, the Merstham goalkeeper David Wilkinson gets caught out after rushing forty yards from his goal, and the ball ends up at the feet of Sudbury substitute David Lorimer, who, with a defender in vain pursuit, rolls the ball into the empty goal to put the result beyond any reasonable doubt.
It’s AFC Sudbury, then, that progress to the Third Qualifying Round of this year’s FA Cup. They’ve made the First Round Proper once before, when their reward was a trip to Feethams to play Darlington and a 6-1 defeat. They are now just two wins from repeating that achievement, although it goes without saying that their task will most likely become considerably more difficult over the course of the next two rounds. This tournament has provided them with a little light relief so far this season with wins against St Ives Town, Leiston and now Merstham having provided a little consolation from a season that hasn’t seen the team win in the league since the twenty-third of August. Regardless of what happens in the next round of this competition, a win in the FA Cup may give them greater confidence in the league. For Merstham, meanwhile, the only healthy philosophy to take from a disappointing afternoon such as this will be one that has rung through the entire, one hundred and forty year history of this competition: There’s Always Next Year.
You can see a slightly out of focus collection of photos from our trip to Merstham here.
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