Merton-Mansfield started 2011 sitting atop the league JCR Premier and kicked off with firm intentions of continuing the title push, at their home ground which is coincidentally part of the grounds of a college whose team they had failed to beat in three previous meeting, St. Catherine’s.
The league leaders looked immediately dangerous down the wings, Ho-joon Kim and James Cooper linking up down the left. On several occasions in the first half St. Catherine’s took the invitation to run into the space left behind these two speedsters, but it was with sharp passing that Merton-Mansfield got their first goal after a quarter of an hour’s play. A defence-splitting pass found Kim, whose cross was only patted away by Daniel Sperrin in the St. Catherine’s goal as far as Young, rifling home on the volley. They very nearly got another shortly after, this time Sperrin putting in a smart save off the header.
Unflustered, St. Catherine’s took the ball down the length of the pitch for two dangerous breaks. The first of these saw a shot dribble agonisingly wide: the second, a goal. Goalkeeper Alastair Colin-Jones was unlucky that his initial save fell straight into the path of oncoming Carl Assmundson who had no trouble putting home from close range. At 1-1 the game went fast and furious, neither side allowing the other much time on the ball. Cooper continued to exert pressure with his pace down the left wing but St. Catherine’s were able to give almost as good as they got. Amidst the high tempo it became clear neither side was suffering too badly from carrying that extra weight of Christmas turkey. The peculiar sight of a pheasant on the pitch at 33 minutes had little impact on the fast flowing of the game, both wings being fully utilised as the odd foul flew in. Kim scored to see Merton-Mansfield regain the lead, after a good run by Mayou to beat two defenders and get in a well-placed low cross. The away team went into the interval as deserved leaders in a nonetheless close game.
St. Catherine’s re-grouped at half time and emulated some of Merton-Mansfield’s confident early possession, but their defence had to remain wary of Mayou’s ability to create chances and link up with Cooper. A second booking for Merton-Mansfield prefaced a weak penalty appeal as the away side continued to press for a second goal. Both sides will have breathed a sigh of relief as their opponents failed to make more of certain chances, but as St. Catherine’s towering striker Henrik Boe put a long shot onto the bar with half an hour remaining, the pressure was cranked up another notch.
Merton-Mansfield signalled their intention to kill the game off by taking off Cooper and bringing on a more defensive player, but within a minute their opponents had levelled the score again. Assmundson cheekily put the ball between a defender’s legs leaving Boe to slot home holding off a defender. Within the blink of an eye Merton-Mansfield’s next substitution did the trick, Benjamin Franz finishing coolly from a one-on-one with the keeper. The frantic game nearly took another twist as St. Catherine’s Boe had two near misses. Colin-Jones in goal deserves credit for both stops, but there was some good fortune in the heart-stopping second, where a header placed firmly downwards was stopped, wedged between the keeper’s thighs. You could not have blamed the Merton-Mansfield defence for sitting in for the last few minutes of the game, but instead on the stroke of 90 minutes Young put the game beyond doubt by capitalising on a chance allowed him by St. Catherine’s defence.
St. Catherine’s continued to press but to no avail. They can allow themselves to feel a little hard done by, but in this tight league there is no time for feeling sorry for yourself. Merton-Mansfield have quality throughout their team and with a three point lead in the title race, they will start to feel, and rightly so, that the title is theirs for the taking.