Worcester 2-2 Merton/Mansfield

Mertsfield came back from the dead courtesy of a wonderful brace from Tom Mayou to save a point and very probably the title in an end-to-end thriller against Worcester.

Defeat for Mertsfield would have left them clinging to the summit on goal difference alone after surprise challengers Teddy Hall won at Wadham, while Worcester needed a win to revive their faltering title challenge having slipped to third. With so much at stake, pragmatism ruled the day in a first half in which Mertsfield were set up to contain and to counter, while for Worcester, Niko de Walden was deployed as a lone striker in front of a five-man midfield.   The pattern for the first half was as expected, with Worcester seeing far more of the ball but Mertsfield looking deadly on the break, with the left-winger Benjamin Franz as ever their most effective outlet.

With the exception of a dazzling combination between Oliver Gee and de Walden, in which Gee passed to the striker but couldn’t quite get his head on the end of de Walden’s superb cross, Worcester’s main threat came from set-pieces, with the long throws of fresher Tom Chadwick causing disarray in the Mertsfield penalty area. With Jamie Cooper absent, Franz glittered while Tom Mayou pulled the centre-backs out of position, but without the pace and predatory instinct of Cooper, their combinations failed to produce the usual results, while his replacement, Samuel Firman, was played too far up the pitch to be effective.

It was Worcester who broke the truce first, moving Chadwick forward at the half-hour mark. Mertsfield retreated. They looked outnumbered at every point of the pitch, and Worcester got their just reward moments from time, although not without the assistance of the Mertsfield ‘keeper, Alastair Colin-Jones. The ball was there to be scooped up, but a hesitant Colin-Jones ran out and was rounded easily by de Walden.

In the second half, Mertsfield responded, by dropping Firman into a deeper role, where he began to pull strings, creating openings for the wingers, Franz and Tom Young, and the excellent Mayou.  The momentum belonged to Mertsfield, but it was to be Worcester who got the goal, when the captain, Tom Greene, struck home from Gee’s cross.

But the goal could not change the direction of the game, or indeed, of the league title. Mertsfield made their pressure count, first with a fine header from Mayou, a wonderful effort after good work by Franz. But it was the second goal, to ensure that Mertsfield stayed top and to bring Worcester’s title challenge to a final end, that will live long in the memory, a sweet volley, again from Mayou, to pull Mertsfield level.

Superficially, the draw gives hope to a resurgent Teddy Hall, now just a point behind the league leaders with three games to go. But Mertsfield’s resilience, against one of the best sides in college football at a ground that has produced just four away winners in the past three seasons, highlights how difficult Hall’s path to the title really is. Before Mertsfield lie two matches against a recessional Christ Church and a journey to midtable Wadham. Only an act of God can stop them now.