The boys served us up another of those 'I was there!' days in the FA Cup at Merthyr's Penydarren Park ground. A stunning 1-0 win that was deserved against the Southern Premier Division side, and the response from the home fans at the end as the boys walked off was a superb tribute to the players and a credit to the hosts, a really impressive supporter-owned community club that I've no doubt could go far in the future, which made the performance all the more special.
...anything would be a bonus after the excellent result at Fleet, but after the first 10 minutes the feeling grew that - if we kept our consistency and focus - we could certainly achieve something special.
The game itself wasn't what I expected, if I'm honest. I went there feeling anything would be a bonus after the excellent result at Fleet, but after the first 10 minutes the feeling grew that - if we kept our consistency and focus - we could certainly achieve something special. But during the game I found myself trying to suppress that feeling; trying to say 'whatever happens it's fine'. 0-0 at half-time in one of those games where a neutral who didn't know the teams would have assumed we both played at the same level. Indeed, both Ross Cook and Sam Argent had opportunities early on, and if Merthyr had thought they were in for a comfortable afternoon, they soon enough knew they wouldn't be. Of course they looked dangerous themselves at times - they're not a Southern Premier League side for nothing - and their pacey left winger was being fed the ball often and looked especially dangerous. But they were over hitting long balls and misplacing passes, much to the obvious displeasure of some of their supporters, and it gave Atko (keeper Craig Atkinson) plenty of handling practice and, as usual, he was faultless.
Meanwhile, Ross was bravely battling through the pain of a hand injury and looking for any opportunity, while Sam was again tremendous in the air - we perhaps didn't latch on to the loose balls as much as we should have, but that's the only thing I'd say we could have done better; the rest of it was superb. And what I feel again won it for us was the exact same thing that won the replay at Fleet; our consistency and concentration all over the pitch from the first minute to the final whistle; and our discipline with the officials - though to be fair, it was played in a way by both sides that made the ref's afternoon a relatively easy one. That was refreshing - for once it was all about the football, not the decision-making. Massive credit to both sets of players and the officials for that, too.
It was clear, as the game went on, that one slip could win it for one or the other. Both sides hit post and bar. Ross Cook kept a ball in play by the touchline that seemed out, he didn't give it up. The first chance was blocked away but the ball remained alive in and around Merthyr's penalty box. All I can remember in the blur that it is now is Callum Eagle and another of our players on the ground, fishing the ball away from the feet of Merthyr players, it comes loose and Zac Horkan connects with it. It may have taken a deflection but whatever happened, it eluded the home keeper at his near post and hit the net. We were a long way from home but they probably heard the Hartley roar back in our clubhouse, as chants of "one nil to the village team" echoed around the ground, not long followed by a rendition of the Hartley Wintney anthem from three sides of the ground. Special, special feeling.
Of course Merthyr came at us with everything after that and we defended superbly - Callum, Tom Walsh, Noaksey (Steve Noakes) and Shane Hollamby were each solid as rocks, and Atko was picking the ball out of the air time after time. Joe Paris in midfield played a blinder for 90+ minutes - a real blinder. With Aaron Parfitt unavailable, Max Elward started in the centre with Joe and put in a real shift. Ian Jones replaced Maxi early in the second half and picked up the pace instantly.
And then there was Steve Duff and Zac on the flanks of course, offering an outlet and creating chances. Steve hit a beauty of a free-kick that unluckily hit the woodwork. I need to see a video really, because my recollection of the order of events is a blur, I didn't make notes, and because I still can't fathom how Merthyr's big centreforward didn't score when one-on-one with Atko, though credit Craig for standing tall and making him beat him. The home fans were already roaring the 'certain' goal and then time seemed to stand still around me as the ball bobbled against the far post and was cleared out. I think it was then I dared believe it was a sign that it really might be our day.
Late on, Nathan Nurse and Liam Eagle came on to help see the game out, with Ross and Zac making way after an excellent afternoon's work from them both, and there was still time for both Liam and Nath to make important defensive contributions. The scenes at the final whistle.... can't be explained well in words alone. I surpressed the pounding need to shout at the top of my voice long enough to snap a couple of pictures. Afternoons like that is why we all love the game and love the FA Cup.
I know it sounds tongue in cheek, but it did feel like a European tie - like Burton Albion going to Juventus and winning in the European Cup. Almost unbelievable... except we've done similar before. It wasn't a game like that crazy night in Clevedon though, but Merthyr are a level above that - and we are a level above what we were back then. The way in which the team applied itself on that pitch must have made Dan, Millers, Joe and Tuffs hugely proud. It certainly made the supporters proud. Thanks boys, stuff of legend. [KOB]