Report: Whyteleafe 1-0 Merstham
FA Cup business on Saturday and Whyteleafe entertained our local rivals, Merstham from the BetVictor Isthmian Premier. At the same stage last season, we took on another Premier side in Corinthian Casuals, beat them in a replay, but then we all know what happened then, so moving swiftly on.
Leafe had already beaten Merstham in pre-season but as manager Harry Hudson said pre-match, you can’t really gauge anything from pre-season friendlies.
There was a definite buzz around Church Road before kick-off and the mood was jovial with the FA Cup hopes of Leafe fans hanging in the air. Harry was hoping to get back on track after last week’s blip in the league down on the south coast at Hastings FC.
Whyteleafe were at full strength apart that is from the considerable absence of centre-back and captain, Nathan Campbell, who had injured his calf in training on Thursday. Due to the importance of this match he’d even gone to the lengths of acupuncture to find a cure.
He very nearly made it, but he and Harry felt that a place on the bench would be the safer option. Although Cam is a big miss for one game, we don’t want to be without him for a longer period of time.
Merstham could have snatched an opener in the 8th minute when a free kick on Leafe’s left saw a dangerous cross and Merstham forward Omar Folkes going close with a diving header. His reaction says that he felt he should have done better. The rest of the half was pretty even, with the odd Merstham skirmish but nothing to cause the Leafe defence any concern.
With Campbell’s absence Harry had lined up with a back four rather than his more usual three centre backs and two wing backs formation but Corey Holder and Ricardo Thompson were outstanding at the heart of the defence.
Ricardo, incidentally, had sought me out pre-game to assure me that it was a pass rather than a shank that led to Ronnie Sobowale’s hat-trick goal against Guernsey recently. That clears that one up, then! Talking of Ronnie, he seemed back to his best against Merstham, which was good to see.
Once again, Leafe’s midfield was in fine fettle. With Mannie Mensah, Antonio Walker-Barth and birthday boy, Bentley Graham all putting in great shifts. Their interplay and ability to thread passes through to wingers, Jordan Clarke and Corie Andrews, led, in turn, to them causing Merstham’s defence plenty of problems. Even full-backs Matt O’Donoghue and Renedie Masampu contributed to the attacks when the moment arose.
Indeed Matt, the master of the bomb forward overlap, almost scored following a nice move and it would have been richly deserved. Not many work harder than Matt during a game let alone cover his mileage.
A promising Whyteleafe move in the 23rd minute saw some neat work by Jordan Clarke down the left, but his cross was just too deep and evaded the on rushing Sobowale. However, the traffic was becoming one way and it was no real surprise when another great piece of play saw Antonio Walker-Barth bury the ball in the back of the Merstham net with half an hour gone. 1-0 to the Leafe.
Antonio had instigated the move, then continued his run, but still had a couple of defenders to beat before scoring. Merstham kept plugging away but in the 44thminute a fantastic long pass from Bentley Graham led to a pinpoint cross from O’Donoghue that saw Ronnie head what looked like a certain second goal only for Merstham keeper Pierson to pull off an outstanding save, pushing the ball just past his left-hand post.
Most of the home fans were just about to celebrate the second goal when Pierson, who was outstanding for our visitors pulled off that save. Another great effort by Walker-Barth seemed goal-bound but just cleared the crossbar.
In the second half, it was again Whyteleafe with more of the possession and having the best chances. At times, we enjoyed sustained pressure. In the 57thminute, Corie Andrews beat four Merstham defenders but just couldn’t get a shot off, while two minutes later Ronnie again seemed set to score but pulled his shot just past the left post. In the 63rd, again Ronnie seemed certain to get the second only for Pierson to produce another fine save to deny him.
Sobowale saved his best for the 66th minute when following a Merstham corner he picked the clearance up in the Leafe half and proceeded to outpace the two covering defenders get himself set to shoot only to once more drag his shot wide. It would have been a special goal if that had gone in. Crikey, I even saw Leafe chairman Mark Cootes enjoying that one.
Picking a star man for Whyteleafe was a difficult one. The whole team contributed to the excellent victory but Corie Andrews, Antonio Walker-Barth and Bentley Graham really stood out. A couple of Bentley’s long passes were top drawer.
Not a good homecoming for last season’s Whyteleafe manager’s player of the season, Brad Wilson, as he was sent off for two bookable offences in the 83rdminute.
It has to be said that Merstham are a very decent BetVictor Premier side, doing pretty well in their league, thus far, so it puts Leafe’s performance into perspective and it will undoubtedly breed confidence for next Saturday’s tough league match when we entertain Ashford United – Church Road, 3pm. Our visitors from Kent, were last season’s losing play-off finalists, and have started this term very well. Another stern test for Harry Hudson’s young side.
So, back to the Merstahm game and Whyteleafe comfortably saw the game out with suitable celebrations at the final whistle. We’re one of the balls in the velvet bag for the second qualifying round, which could potentially see us up against a big boy from the National League South, which would be a great experience for the team, the club and the fans. By the time you read this our suspense will be over and our opponent known. Finger crossed and all that …
Leafe boss Hudson and his assistant Calum McFarlane are too level-headed to get carried away but as Harry has repeatedly said a good cup run is very good for lifting spirits and building momentum.
WHYTELEAFE LINE UP:
1 Tyler McCarthy 2 Emmanuel Mensah 3 Matt O’Donoghue 4 Ricardo Thompson 5 Renedie Masampu 6 Corey Holder (capt) 7 Corie Andrews (sub 17 Junior Aikhionbare 85’) 8 Bentley Graham 9 Ronnie Sobowale 10 Antonio Walker-Barth 11 Jordan Clarke (sub 12 Dami Olorunnisome - sub 16 Tre Daley 60’)
Substitutes not used: 14 Jack Fuell 15 JJ Malcolm 18 Tyres Sutherland 19 Nathan Campbell
Star men: Bentley Graham, Corie Andrews & Antonio Walker-Barth
Match report by Steve Hole