Merton/Mansfield’s title challenge hit a bump in the road as they dropped a two-goal lead, and two points, to a committed Teddy Hall side. It was a game full of incident and drama, none more so than on the stroke of half time, when the Merton/Mansfield goalkeeper conceded a penalty, and was sent off, bringing Hall back into the game at 2-1 down, and one man up.
It was perverse that Hall should have needed such a break to get back into the game, for in possession terms at least, they dominated much of the first period; they were stung, however, by a combination of the league leaders’ superior cutting edge, and their own defensive frailties. It was the latter at fault for Merton/Mansfield’s opener, as centre-half Dan Hunter was allowed to leap unchallenged and head in from Tom Young’s corner after ten minutes of painfully disjointed play. Young’s delivery from set-pieces was superb throughout, although in the corner-taking stakes, ironically, he was not to have the final say.
Hall continued to enjoy the lion’s share of possession; they looked most dangerous when the diminutive James Hilton ran with the ball down the left, but struggled to create shooting opportunities and did not make best use of their target man up front, Nicolas Boehm. It was a different story with the away side; their little and large combination of Jamie Cooper and Tom Mayou presented a constant threat, and with Benjamin Franz cutting in off the left wing, and Young popping up all over midfield, their attacking options were many and varied. It was, therefore, not too surprising to see them double their lead before the 20 minute mark; Cooper was played through on goal, and although Tom Harrison parried his shot, he could do nothing about Franz, who followed up to put the ball into the unguarded net.
Merton/Mansfield were undoubtedly the better attacking side, but because they saw less of the ball, the game continued to be a sparse one for the small group of spectators at the Parks. Franz almost got his second goal when an exquisite through ball put him one-on-one with Harrison, but then came the penalty, Hilton brought down, the sending off, Colin-Jones dispatched, and the beginning of Merton/Mansfield’s troubles as Hilton converted for 1-2.
Their problems were not immediately apparent, and for twenty minutes either side of the interval, Mayou was dominant up front. His scything cross from the left produced another chance for Cooper, and he almost got on the end of another Young corner as half-time beckoned. With Hall struggling to make their numerical advantage count in the second half, Mayou punished them with an outstanding solo goal, finishing neatly after a driving run from deep.
Two goals down once more, Hall began to look despondent, and were indebted to captain Callum Grant, who grew into a driving force in the game’s final quarter, first in an advanced midfield role and then up front. Despite his efforts, the game seemed to be drifting away from the home side, even as 10 man Merton/Mansfield began to visibly tire. Fittingly, their second goal came in somewhat incongruous circumstances, as the stand-in goalkeeper let Nick Marsh’s cross-cum-shot slip through his hands with ten minutes left on the clock. A revitalised Hall poured forward, although their efforts looked to be coming to nought until Simon Ward-Jones stood over a corner in the 88th minute. He swung it in left footed and watched it carry on swinging, unaided, into the bottom corner of the Merton/Mansfield net. There was little time for further drama, although on this evidence if the Ms can keep all 11 men on the pitch, they have time yet for the title.