Wednesday 1st May 2019, 1945 Kick Off
Metropolitan Police FC vs Salisbury FC
The Build Up
With the regular season done and dusted, non-league football had moved into the most exciting stage – Play Offs. With the Play Offs comes heartbreak, joy, agony and ecstasy, but most importantly, the chance to watch a match with the longest title in sport – the Evo-Stik League South Premier Division South Play Off Semi Final. Try and say that without pausing for breath.
The four sides competing for a chance to (possibly, depending on whether they can win the Super Play Offs sponsored by DC Comics) join Weymouth in the National League South were Taunton Town, Metropolitan Police, Salisbury and Poole Town. A spectacular end of season run saw Poole book their place on the last day, whilst the other three had been fighting for the title right up until the last few weeks. In Taunton’s case, a final day victory was matched by Weymouth, meaning the Dorset club pipped their Somerset rivals to the title by a solitary point.
The match I was watching, though, featured blog favourites Met Police against Salisbury, two other sides separated by only a point across a long 42 match season. Steve Claridge’s side went into the last round of fixtures ahead on goal difference, but a 6-0 shellacking at home to Harrow Borough, meant that the Met’s 2-2 draw against Gosport Borough was enough to secure 3rd place and a home Semi Final. It also meant that in their centenary year, Gav MacPherson had steered the Old Bill to their joint highest ever league finish (3rd in the Isthmian League in 1982) and the possibility to play Step Two football for the first time ever. An astonishing season for a club who were expected by most to struggle, and who consistently punch above their weight at this level. Small gates and large travel expenses meant that MacPherson had a limited playing budget this season, but his intelligent use of the Academy (where the Met’s name ensures parents feel comfortable bringing their kids in) has reaped benefits.
A final day draw was part of an iffy run to the Play Offs for the Met Police, who won only two of their last six. Visitors Salisbury fared marginally better in the closing stages – winning three and drawing one – but that 6-0 reversal last weekend would surely have damaged morale. To boost the fans, and reward their attendances across the season, club (and football in general) legend Steve Claridge laid on a coach to this match, which would likely ensure the travelling side had more in support than the home team. With Salisbury City having formed in 1905 and been through various guises, it was in 2015 when they finally liquidated that Salisbury FC were formed, and they have been rising inexorably ever since. An opening season title brought them into the Southern League system, where consecutive second place finishes eventually saw them promoted to this league as runners up to Taunton last year. 4th place in Step Three is the highest the phoenix club have finished (at the first attempt), but they’ll hope to recapture the city’s former footballing glories, including spells at Step One around a decade ago.
Imber Court is a short drive my home, and the temptation to leave at the last minute and continue watching the Unabomber series on Netflix (if you haven’t watched it, bin that Game of Thrones nonsense and get stuck in…) was strong. However, with it being a Play Off match, I was unsure what the parking situation would be, and set with roughly enough time to go via Salisbury.
I’ve been to this ground a number of times, and it is a quaint, pleasant ground, with a staff and team that deserves bigger attendances. Averaging only 156 at home games (up three from last season!), the 3,000 capacity isn’t tested on a regular basis, indeed only Beaconsfield Town get lower. On the night, Chris Bushe (check out his twitter @chrisbushe for more photos) and I estimated around 450 were in the ground – turns out it was 448, the majority of whom were supporting – very vocally – Salisbury. One supporter definitely there for the Met though, was former manager Jim Cooper, who is now into the business of preparing for his first full season at new club Grays Athletic.
One area where Imber Court is right at the top of the league table, however, is the cholesterol count, where their Full Hog Burger just pips Gosport’s offering as the best burger at Step Three. At £5 for a burger, two sausages, 327 rashers of bacon, onions and an egg, it’s cheap for what it is, yet has to be balanced against the inevitable cost in tax to the NHS. Still, along with £2 for a programme (with some nice features) and £1 for a Diet Coke – totally worth it.
A slow opening to the game meant that neither ‘keeper got their gloves dirty until a glanced header from Max Blackmore in the 8th minute dropped limply into Jake Hallett’s hands. Two minutes later, Hallett’s hands weren’t quite up to the task, when Jack Mazzone put them to the test.
A long ball forward from defence was flicked on by his strike partner and captain, and Mazzone gave chase. He showed good strength to hold off Elliott Wheeler. He wound up his shot, and as the ball dipped onto his right foot, struck it towards Hallett’s far post. The former Norwich City youth product got a hand to the ball, but could only push it into the corner, leaving the hosts a goal ahead.
The lead lasted barely long enough for the stadium PA to finish announcing it though, as on 13 minutes, Salisbury were level. From my position it was difficult to see exactly what happened, but two things were clear. One, Lewis Benson earnt a free kick on the left after playing his way across the midfield, and two, Bay Downing eventually tucked home from close range. In between those, a free kick was delivered, and I think Berti Schotterl may have made a save or two, but the long and the short of it was Bay Downing had levelled things up.
Ten minutes later, and Salisbury were really starting to exert themselves on the game. Berti Schotterl was forced into action twice from close range on 23 when The Whites opened up good crossing opportunities. Their interplay around the box was really high quality, and they seemed able to carve Met Police open at times, particularly down the right hand side, where Nesta Guinness-Walker was fighting the tide single handedly.
Lewis Benson and Bay Downing, supported at times by either Aaron Dawson or Tom Whelan drifting out wide, were overlapping and underlapping like a fancy handshake, and on 27 minutes Benson got in behind to cross low. It was a dangerous ball which the Met managed to scramble clear, and they were forced to do so again just three minutes later from an almost carbon copy of a move.
As the half hour came and went, the Met were struggling to clear their lines, and every hack upfield seemed to miss Mazzone and Blackmore and instead go straight to a visiting player. Frustration was setting in, and on 36 minutes Luke Robertson picked up the first yellow card when he made one too many late tackles – fieryness again proving the curse of being a ginger midfielder.
Two minutes later, Blackmore almost got onto a rare Met Police cross when Ethan Chislett made a good run wide right, before fizzing in low. Chislett was well involved on the stroke of half time, too, when he won (or rather, was gifted) a crucial penalty. Running down the left channel this time, Chislett slipped and landed on the ball. With Referee Danaher neglecting to blow for obstruction, Matt Partridge took what can only be described as a rash decision, and decided that the best option would be to aim three decent swings of the right foot straight into Chislett’s chest. Essentially, rank stupidity, and the only thing more baffling than Partridge’s decision was the fact that the referee neglected not to show him a card of any variety.
Still, a penalty, and Mr Mazzone has shown a strong ability from the spot, so it was no surprise when the former South Park man picked up his 26th league goal of the campaign, to add to his Player of the Season award, to put the hosts back ahead. Having received a fair amount of verbals from the travelling fans, the striker made his feelings quite clear with the celebration…
That was it for the half, and if truth be told, the Met Police were lucky to be ahead. Salisbury had dominated the first half, nullifying the threat of the Blues’ full backs by pinning them back with overlapping runners. The physical battle in midfield was also being won, despite the best efforts of the tenacious as usual Louis Birch. The main difference, though, had been that Mazzone had taken both chances he was presented with, whereas Salisbury were struggling to beat Schotterl. The fact Salisbury’s top scorer has 15, in a league where ten players have broken the twenty mark, tells its own story.
Gavin MacPherson (or maybe the penalty) had clearly fired up the Met Police, because they were the better side in the second half, though Salisbury certainly still threatened. On 52 minutes, a fine through ball by Oli Knight was chased by the all-action Blackmore, but he was well denied by the alert Hallett. Blackmore has stepped up two divisions this season, yet has slotted in like a natural. After starring with Westfield last season, his tenacious style has seen him rewarded with both the captaincy and Players’ Player award.
On 63 minutes, a rare foray forward from Birch ended with a header wide, and then Dan Fitchett forced Schotterl into action again. Lovely running by Jack Sparkes was topped off by a chip to the back post that would have given Tiger Wood. Salisbury’s joint top scorer, who arrived from Wealdstone last summer, got over Jeremy Arthur (no mean feat) and headed goalwards, but the big German between the posts tipped onto the crossbar and over.
One minute later and the Whites were ruing that save, as Max Blackmore restored the Met’s two goal cushion. Another long ball was flicked on by Mazzone – the two strikers have played foil to each other well all season – and Blackmore bravely got a head to the ball just before receiving an (unintential) Hallett sized elbow to the chin. It was Blackmore’s last action of the game as he was groggily substituted straight away, but it proved to be crucial.
On 67 minutes (busy spell), the deficit was reduced again, in what was turning into an end-to-end classic. Jonathan Hippolyte, on for his skipper, was harshly penalised wide right, and from the resulting free kick, the Met Police must have been mounting covert surveillance, because there were no Old Bill anywhere to be seen around Darren Mullings. Although credited as going straight through, it looked to me that Mullings got a touch, but it nestled in the corner of the net and the last twenty minutes looked hectic.
As the game continued, it descended into scrappiness, and then into the last ten minutes, a siege. Salisbury continued to pour forward, but were met with more defensive solidity than the Met Police had previously shown. Big Berti was springing around in his box like Jack, Arthur and Robinson (a gargantuan effort after his Marathon on Sunday…) repelled everything, whilst Guinness-Walker and Webb eschewed the chance to get forward, focusing first and foremost on defence. With five minutes of stoppage time, Hallett came forward for a corner, but again the hosts cleared, before the referee blew the whistle – the Met Police were victorious, but who would they play?
The Wash Up
With a one all draw being played out at the Viridor, the Met faced a wait through extra time and penalties before eventually discovering that Poole Town had won the day, and so a home tie against the 5th placed Dolphins would be their reward.
For Salisbury, a crushing defeat, and one which at times felt undeserved. On top for the whole first half, it had felt – like much of their season – as though they had left goals on the field, and they were undone by a moment of complete stupidity from a senior player. However, just because the season ended in disappointment, it shouldn’t be considered one. Steve Claridge’s side have played good football, and the club’s record since inception reads Promoted, Play Offs, Promoted, Play Offs – who’d bet against them continuing that sequence next season? Fine performances by the likes of Lewis Benson, Bay Downing and Tom Whelan means they can hold their heads high.
As for the Met, the achievements continue. Already their most successful season in the FA Cup and the league, they now find themselves just two matches (both of which would be at home owing to PPG) away from a place at Step Two. A phenomenal achievement, and the Semi Final was why they’re there in a microcosm. The second best team for large parts of the match, the Met’s resilience – instilled by a close coaching staff – was writ large across their players. Max Blackmore and Jack Mazzone were tremendous, and their work rate and goals essential to victory, but my man of the match today was Ethan Chislett. The young man, who came through the Academy before two seasons in Spain, has earned plaudits all season, and scored seven goals, despite suffering from injury. His close control and attacking instincts were vital in pulling his team up the field here, and they’ll need more of the same against Poole Town.
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