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Folkestone restore the faith with outstanding performance in crunch clash against their closest Ryman South promotion rivals

MERSTHAM 1

FOLKESTONE INVICTA 3

Folkestone reclaimed third place in Ryman League One South table as they ended Merstham’s impressive 18-match unbeaten league run with a fully deserved 3-1 victory at Moatside on Saturday afternoon.

All four of the game’s goals came in the second half as leading goalscorer Ian Draycott struck twice to give Neil Cugley’s side a 2-0 lead.

Burly striker Tommy Hutchings pulled a late goal back for the home side to set up a tense finale before Ronnie Dolan added a third Invicta goal to secure the points.

Merstham had not lost a league game since their 2-0 defeat away to unbeaten leaders Burgess Hill Town on October 1st.

And at they had been on a 15 match unbeaten home run in all competitions since a 2-0 reverse against second place Faversham way back on August 16 – virtually five months to the day of our visit last weekend.

Home manager Hayden Bird had billed this as a potential play- off dress rehearsal and his and Neil Cugley’s clubs have already started to swop third and fourth places fairly regularly since the start of 2015.

This game will be best remembered for an impressive all-round Invicta performance, an exquisite opening goal from Draycott and a Merstham goal that asked questions of the offside rule.

Invicta went into the game under pressure having lost their last two matches away to Burgess Hill and at home to Whitstable Town.

But, typically, Cugley’s side responded superbly when questions were being asked of their chances of reaching the play-offs for the third year in a row.

You would have been hard pressed to find many Invicta players scoring 7 out of 10 or more at home to Whitstable the previous Saturday, but here there were big performances all over the pitch.

Especially from reunited central defenders Frankie Chappell and Liam Friend and the admirable Micheal Everitt in midfield alongside young tyros Jordan Wright and Dolan, plus the honest endeavour of Richard Atkins up front alongside ‘manager’s dream’ Draycott who combines hard work with genuine quality and goals.

Merstham, in contrast, had been on an excellent run but this was a case of ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’ for them following their midweek Surrey Senior Cup win over Conference South neighbours Sutton United.

The team news saw Invicta captain Friend return after missing four matches with a broken bone in his foot suffered during Boxing Day’s home derby win over Hythe Town.

Jon Pilbeam was the unlucky one to make way as he joined new signing Ashley Miller on the substitutes’ bench.

What always looked likely to be a decent game of football between two of the better sides in this division was evenly contested from the start.

Wright cut in from the left of the penalty area and shot at home goalkeeper Brannon Daly after receiving the ball from Matt Newman on 15 minutes.

At the other end, powerful six feet four ex-Easteigh, Bromley and Dulwich central-midfielder Peter Adeniyi broke down the left and his shot was deflected for the first corner of the game two minutes later.

Following another Merstham corner midway through the half, the admirable Josh Vincent broke forward to find Matt Newman who played the ball on to fellow midfielder Dolan whose good ball released Draycott (pictured right) and the striker’s well struck effort warmed goalkeeper Daly’s hands to force a corner.

Folkestone mounted some excellent pressure from this set-piece as Everitt’s shot was blocked close to the line and a follow-up effort by Newman was charged down when the ball reached him just outside the 18-yard box.

Home right back Simon Cooper – sent off in Merstham’s midweek cup win just three days earlier - became the game’s first booking on the half hour for pulling Wright’s shirt.

Wide man Stefan Cox got past Nat Blanks down the right and crossed towards the far post in the 33rd minute but Dolan cleared and keeper Tim Roberts saved well when a shot from distance was fired back in.

Roberts was again called into action again and did well to touch over a well-struck 37th minute strike by home captain and playmaker Fabio Saraiva when big Tutu Henriques played the ball up to Hutchings who shrugged off Chappell’s strong challenge to create the opening.

If Folkestone had seemed to have more of the ball, in this first period it was Merstham who put together the more clearcut chances and keeper Roberts got down well to save from ex-Maidstone player Saraiva again five minutes later as Newman’s back-header fell inadvertently to Hutchings and the ball broke kindly for the home skipper as his opposite number Friend got in a saving tackle on the centre forward.

Invicta broke forward again on the stroke of half-time as Roberts caught Saraiva’s free kick and hurled the ball out for the increasingly involved Newman to surge on and combine with Blanks, bursting forward from left back to feed Draycott whose shot was somewhat fortunately blocked.

The first half finished with Folkestone on top as Atkins headed over Dolan’s free kick from the right.

This was a big and characteristically brave performance from Atkins who battled well against towering defenders Marc Okoye and Henriques.

Committed as ever, Everitt became Invicta’s only booking of the game for a 50th minute foul on Cooper and the volatile Taurean Roberts cut in from the left to fire at namesake goalkeeper Tim Roberts.

The visitors had penalty appeals for handball turned down by far from convincing referee Alex Gray who seemed to take  notice of his assistants as and when he fancied and showed little sign of consistency throughout.

But it was Invicta who broke the deadlock courtesy of a sweet 51st minute strike from DRAYCOTT into the far top corner of the net when Dolan found him just outside the penalty area.

It was a delightful finish from Draycott who managed to find time and space before shooting and is surely a contender for the club’s goal of the season award.

And DRAYCOTT did not have long to wait before scoring again as Atkins combined with Dolan and crossed from the right to see his strike partner guide past the hapless Daly with a deft header.

It was Draycott’s 20th league goal in Invicta colours and his 27th  in 38 appearances for the club whom he joined in the summer having won the previous two play-off finals with first Maidstone United and then Leatherhead.

The second goal had come when Merstham were temporarily reduced to ten men as defender Kalvin Morath-Gibbs had limped off the pitch.

The home side responded as the pacy Roberts cut in and shot just over from the right hand side.

But Dolan collected the ball from Draycott and the former’s shot from outside the penalty area was deflected at Daly. Invicta were now in the ascendancy.

At the other end, however, Saraiva’s free kick on the hour flew invitingly just in front of centre half Okoye after Vincent was penalised for a challenge on Cooper.

Things were not going Merstham’s way and left back Gunner was booked for petulantly kicking the ball away after a decision went against him.

It was hard to escape the feeling that this Merstham side are simply not used to losing these days, and one-time Crawley Down man Cox was lucky to escape a second yellow card for two kicks at Dolan after being denied a free kick.

Cox had been booked earlier for a late challenge on Blanks between Draycott’s double strike as Invicta cleared their lines. Strikers Atkins and Draycott again combined well in the 65th minute when centre half Okoye intercepted Wright’s ball in from the left with Dolan waiting, having burst forward down the right.

Saraiva hit a low shot from the right hand side of the box two minutes later but Roberts got down to deny him with what turned out to be a comfortable save.

And captain Saraiva then failed to make enough contact in the middle when he met a 68th minute cross from the right.

Merstham made a double substitution as Omar Folkes and Aaron Rhule replaced booked duo Gunner and Cox.

But Invicta were close again when a 71st minute pass forward by Dolan ball threatened to let Atkins in down the middle but Henriques got back to avert danger.

Draycott again demonstrated his commitment to the team ethic as he responded to instructions to drop back into midfield when on a hat-trick as Invicta looked to consolidate their lead with a 4-5-1 formation as the hard-working Atkins led the line on his own up-top.

Dolan found the long striker in the 75th minute and his fine pass released the all-action Wright and the latter’s run was only curtailed when Okoye wrestled him to the ground with a cynical challenge.

That brought Merstham’s yellow card that could easily have been red - even if the defender was not the last man.

Merstham had scored in one of the last 25 matches since that defeat at Burgess Hill and in every home game since August’s loss against Faversham.

And their goal here will be long debated.

It was HUTCHINGS who swept the ball into the net after an 80th minute Saraiva cross from the left.

Invicta right back Vincent was lying injured - clearly off the pitch - but referee Alex Gray had to abide by the Laws of the Game that state: “Any defending player leaving the field of play for any reason without the referee’s permission shall be considered to be on his own goal-line or touchline for the purpose of offside until the next stoppage in play.”

Rules, they do say Mr Gray, are for the guidance of wise men and the obedience of fools. Football as we know, is a law unto itself.

The only similar scenario in recent memory saw a Ruud van Nistelrooy goal for Holland allowed to stand against Italy at Euro 2008 when he put the ball past goalkeeper Buffon with defender Panucci on the ground outside the goal-line holding his head after a collision.

In this instance the officials, therefore, got it right even if some may argue that it flies in the face of common sense.

But watching Jan Vertonghen’s disallowed goal for Spurs against Sunderland the same day when he clearly ran from his own half highlights the fact that even match officials sometimes get confused about the offside rules.

So the goal was allowed to stand and Merstham had hopes of saving the day.

An 83rd minute Saraiva free kick sailed past everyone in a crowded penalty area as the momentum appeared to have switched to the home side who sent four men forward for the closing stages of the game.

But it was Invicta who scored again on 89 minutes when DOLAN hit a neat low finish into the net after little Wright waded through the land of the giants held off his giants to slip the ball through in a move that the ex-Hythe midfielder had himself started with a pass up to Newman.

The goal was greeted with delight by manager Cugley who had never hidden from the importance of this game after a somewhat difficult couple of weeks both on and off the field.

And his team had this time had responded superbly.

For such an important fixture, the attendance of 215 was disappointing, though those wearing Folkestone’s change colours of sky-blue and white will have travelled home far happier than their opposite numbers, who may even have been outnumbered on the day!

MERSTHAM: Daly, Cooper, Gunner (Folkes), Morath-Gibbs (Howard 55), Okoye, Henriques, Roberts, Adeniyi, Hutchings, Saraiva, Cox (Rhule 69). Subs not used: Douglas, Obamwonyi 

FOLKESTONE INVICTA: Roberts, Vincent, Blanks, Friend, Chappell, Newman, Wright, Everitt, Draycott, Atkins, Dolan. Subs not used: Pilbeam, Wraight, Miller, Fedor, Fender 

Corners: Merstham 6 Invicta 4

Attendance: 215

Pics from Moatside: 1) Doncha wanna join in lads? Two Merstham players can't get away fast enough as Invicta celebrate the opening goal (Pitchsidephotos)

2) Cheers pal! Ian Draycott thanks goalmaker Richard Atkins after double the visitors' lead. Keeper Brannon Daly looks suitably forlorn (Don Linkin)

3) Ian Draycott - whose double strike took  his season's tally to 27 - and counting (Pitchsidephotos)

4) Typically committed: Micheal Everitt challenges Merstham playmaker and skipper Fabio Saraiva (Pitchsidephotos)

5) Why don't you pick on someone your own size!! Invicta's Jordan Wright clashes with massive home midfielder Peter Adeniyi - arguably Merstham's best player on the day (Pitchsidephotos)

6) Some people think it's all over - and it was as Ronnie Dolan seals victory with Folkestone's third goal late in the game (Pitchsidephotos)