CLUNIS CRACKER WINS IT FOR FIGHTBACK HAMLET
Merstham 2 Dulwich Hamlet 3
Force Ten football on the North Downs as the gales whipped their way through leafy Surrey, even arboreal sheltered Moatside was not spared the cruel lash of Boreas' bitter tongue. Cruel too the conclusion to this rip-roaring, topsy-turvy tie that seemed to be first Hamlet's for the taking after early dominance before lackadaisical defending handed the hosts the advantage on the half hour. That lead was swiftly doubled in a second half that Merstham played into the throats of the chill wind but delving deep into a well of courage. Dulwich, like some punch-drunk pugilist, refused to be beaten and clambered off the canvas to level matters before Nyren Clunis' laser-sharp shot snatched the victory almost as the last bell tolled.
Casting a glance at the pre-match team sheet, it was a curious line-up for the Hamlet with Ray Powell donning the number nine jersey to lead the attack alongside Rob Gradwell. Justin Bowen returned to make his first start for many a month to add experience to formidable back four, boasting Asher Hudson and Lewis Gonsalves in the full back roles whilst Dean Carpenter was pushed forward into a wingman role.
Merstham had travails of their own, missing leading scorer Harry Ottaway, injured in midweek against the not so Corinthian Walton Casuals whilst travelling supporters would have to miss their usual cheery banter with maverick custodian, Ian Chatfield, ever-present between the sticks in the league but forced out by injury and replaced by assistant coach Dave Tidy.
As the chill winds howled through the treetops, Dulwich began to generate a hot rhythm that threatened to overwhelm their hosts in the early exchanges. Though the pitch had clearly seen better days, turfs of grass poking through the rollered mud, the Hamlet adjusted quickly.
Holding off a plethora of old gold shirts, Gradwell latched on to the cross of Hudson, twisting and turning before spotting Quade Taylor languidly advancing on the box. The ball was slipped across but the shot lacked venom and the goalkeeper was able to make a Tidy save.
A burst of pacer from Gradwell and he was away from his marker. A neat chip over the advancing Tidy and supporters held their breath as the ball bounced towards the back corner of the net, over to smack against the far upright, wrong footing Taylor who'd been tracking the effort in as the ball spun back into play.
On 18 minutes the Moatsiders threatened fro the firs time with a wicked free kick from Dale Marvell, the player with the name of magician and skills to live up to it. The was whipped in from far out on the left flank, swirling on the wind, but not catching James Dunn unawares as he sprung up to tip the ball out from under his crossbar.
Corners for the Hamlet kept the pressure on the home team. Gradwell was outjumped by Tiago Andrade but Bowen managed to win an aerial battle but unable to direct his header on target. The tourniquet tightened, staying up skipper Francis Duku latched on to the loose ball shimmying into the area only for the backtracking Bradley Duke to batter down his adversary's effort.
A kick in the proverbials for prevailing Hamlet as the half hour drew near. Gonsalves was crumpled under challenge, the blues and twos going like the clappers as the physio rushed to the scene. One young scamp with Day-Glo orange stretcher was dispatched to the incident but fortunately his services were not required. Unfortunately though it was to be the end of Gonsalves afternoon. He limped from the fray; Ethan Pinnock came on in his stead. As if the loss of a key player was not bad enough, the loss of goal almost instantly rubbed salt into the wounds. Dulwich dozed as Andrade prospered, the striker profiting from a poor free kick before his precise pass released Ross White for an unhindered run through on goal before he drew Dunn from his line and popped the ball past him inside the near post.
Dulwich had the opportunities to bring matters back in hand before the break, Gradwell tumbling as he met Junior Kadi's cross and finding only Tidy. With half time fast approaching, Kadi swept a free kick across the six-yard box. Bowen rose highest but failed to connect with his header. The ball was kept alive, dumped but in the box only for Tidy to claw the ball away for a corner as Hudson attempted to force the ball home from close range.
Dulwich began the second half at fell pelt, springing from the traps like hounds upon the hare but on 53 minutes they were caught with a sucker punch as Merstham launched a rapid counterattack, Andrade, proving an able deputy for the injured Ottaway as he arrived in the box to smash home a fierce volley from Marvell's cross.
Dulwich might have been dead and buried, or so it seemed, but with the hosts losing Duke to injury, their defence lost cohesion, something the Hamlet were swift to exploit. On the hour mark Gradwell held up a throw in, bopping a cross in and stand-in striker Powell took advantage, chasing the bouncing ball into the area before larruping his shot beyond Tidy to throw Hamlet a much-needed lifeline.
Three minutes later Gradwell was a whisker away from levelling things as he hooked Taylor's cross a fraction wide of the angle of post and crossbar. However five minutes later there was no mistake as a Kadi corner caused chaos in the box. Gradwell arrived at the back of the box to meet the ball, his smashed shot glancing off a defender and looped beyond the thrashing hands of Tidy.
All Hamlet now as the Moatsiders were put under siege, forced back into their own territory as wave upon wave of Hamlet attacks crashed down upon their barricades. Clunis wasted a chance, shooting off target when wellplaced. A Kadi free kick whizzed across the area somehow evading first Powell, then Duku then Gradwell in front of goal.
Fresh legs for the Hamlet as Omar Lawson came on for Gradwell, the nippy youngster revealing in his role as Dulwich attacked at will. Reinforcements for the backs-to-the-wall hosts, the experience of Michael Corbett added to an under pressure defence. A Kadi corner, curled in close, almost sneaked inside the near post only for White to nod the ball out at the last moment.
It seemed time would prove Hamlet's greatest enemy as the game entered stoppage time with the winner still awaited. Then deep, deep into added time home hearts were shattered, Hudson feeding Lawson wide out on the right, the serpentine substitute lashing across a fiendish ball in, one that was met with a venomous volley by Clunis to burst the net behind the beaten Tidy.