Match report by Ed Purnell.
AFC Wimbledon put in another solid performance to ensure we kept right on the heels of the leading teams in the CCL. This made it 10 league victories on the spin and it seems as though Terry Eames is developing a squad with such depth and ability that it is going to take some stopping the Dons at the moment. The leaders have their work cut out in two weeks time, there’s no doubting that.
On arrival in Merstham, I became quickly aware that the Dons supporters had turned out in force. Dons fans were to be found on every street of this sleepy little village, and when I finally made it to the "ground" I was amazed to see that the pitch was already lined with at least three people deep and kick off had been delayed for 15 minutes, whilst a solitary entrance gate coped with incoming fivers. The main stand was an extraordinary-looking Bedouin tent affair that couldn't have fitted many more than 100, so by the time the kick off came, a healthy crowd in excess of 1500 were piled on top of the pitch and ready for action.
The line up had a couple of enforced changes from previous weeks, with the superb Oakins and stalwart Readings nursing wounds picked up from Tuesday's game. So drafted back in came Sim Johnston, with Keith Ward resuming his usual service at right back. Bolger and Sheerin are still out, so Robson started alongside Passmore in the centre of the park and Ali Russell continued his flourishing partnership with Kevin Cooper.
The first ten minutes of the match saw a good competitive start from both teams, with Merstham almost capitalising on a poor Shimell clearance and Cooper being denied by a good save only for Russell to hit the side netting with the follow up. The big Merstham number 10 then had the best chance they would get all day when left totally free from a long throw in only to blaze the ball over the bar from 8 yards.
However, soon the Dons machine took full effect. A succession of corners swung in by Robson and Sullivan caused havoc and the midfield began to stamp their authority on the game. First Andy Sullivan tried his luck from the edge of the area, then Robson rode a couple of challenges before firing straight at the keeper. Mark Nicholas also got in on the act hitting a true shot just over the bar. Surely a goal was just around the corner?
Sure enough, midway through the first half, the first goal came. An innocuous looking challenge in the midfield gave Nicholas the chance to lift the ball into the area with the resulting free kick. Ward rose to meet the ball in the air and knock it across the goal for Kevin Cooper to force the ball into the net – a true assassin's goal for his 15th of the season.
The team powered forward for the next twenty minutes in search of more goals. Kevin Cooper was on fire – one of his finest performances in yellow and blue. Indeed, his mazy dribbling often took him into the penalty area only to be thwarted by last-ditch tackling by an under pressure Merstham defence. Russell and Ward both came close with a volley and a diving header respectively, the latter bringing a top quality save out of their keeper.
Merstham would not lie down though and Shimell was called into action when a long clearance fell straight to the feet of their number 9. Fortunately, the Dons managed to push further ahead with a second goal. Good work by Cooper released Sullivan down the centre of the park. Sully dropped a shoulder, glided past the last defender and lifted the ball expertly over the onrushing keeper for his second goal this term - a fine goal to round off a fine first half of football.
Eames must have been relatively happy with the first half performance, although there would no doubt have been a few words of warning to the defence, as the sticky conditions underfoot had seen them caught out once or twice in the early moments.
The second half got underway with considerable anticipation from the crowd to see more goals. Russell was working particularly hard up front volleying wide from just inside the box, then shooting just over from 30 yards. Cooper too was causing havoc with his neat footwork and came close on the hour when he forced the keeper to make a good save.
Merstham had not given up hope, however, and a momentary lapse of concentration allowed their big striker to steal in and head powerfully towards goal, only for Shimell to pull off the save of the game, contorting his body one way then another to keep the ball from crossing the line.
Ali Russell was forced off the pitch with ten minutes to go, allowing Chris Theodore to continue his progression in the first team. A young player, with lots of potential, Theodore played the last ten minutes well, linking up nicely with Sidwell and Cooper on a couple of occasions to ensure that the Merstham goal remained under pressure right up to the final whistle.
As the whistle blew for time, we were all in agreement that it had been a thoroughly professional performance from the lads. A solid 2-0 win that saw us keep up the pressure on the leaders and emphasised the gap between AFC Wimbledon and a Merstham side that worked tirelessly but lacked a cutting edge.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Kevin Cooper.
There is no doubt in my mind that Kevin Cooper should be man-of-the-match for the constant pressure he put the Merstham defence under for the entire game. But recognition should also go to the team as a whole for a disciplined and well-competed game of football. The Dons go from strength to strength.