Rovers advance in the FA Trophy for the first time in their history

Rovers and Merstham were fellow play-off contesters in our league last season, and both survived the drop, Merstham then moving East to the Isthmian League South East Division. Rovers lost to Merstham at this ground 3-0 last season, but won at home 2-0. However, both teams have changed somewhat since then. Rovers have never progressed further than the opening round of an FA Trophy game, so will be looking for the chance to change that.

Our line-up today comprises of goalkeeper James Dillon, then Isy Nzelo, Matt Tanton, Antonio Simeone and Bertie Lloyd in defence, Ben Holden, Jordan Wilson, Courtney Swaby and Nabeel Ghannam in mid-field, with Aaron Jenkins and Gabriel Odunaike up front. On the bench today Danny Divine, Siao Blackwood, Charlie Martin, Ashley Sheppard and substitute goalkeeper Louie Erotokritos-Staussi. Due to the extreme heat (for September) there will be scheduled water breaks 25mins into each half.

An early chance fell to Rovers, Bertie Lloyd’s cross-field pass finding Matt Tanton out on the left. Tanton’s early ball to the edge of the box gives Aaron Jenkins the chance to test the keeper Zack Basey, but his effort was well blocked by former SCR man Charlie Alexiou.

In the 7th minute a free-kick was awarded to Rovers, which Jordan Wilson quickly takes, passing out to his right to Ben Holden. Holden’s cross was delivered deep into the Merstham penalty area, finding Antonio Simeone who heads the ball out to Jenkins. Jenkins’ then lays the ball out to the edge of the box to the incoming Nabeel Ghannam. Ghannam’s shot was high and didn’t trouble the keeper Basey. A positive start nonetheless. On 9mins Kai Neil-Gray received a yellow card for needlessly kicking the ball away, when the ref had blown for our goal-kick.

Half way through the first half, from a Merstham throw, Wilson steals the ball from Karle Carder, with just a hint of a tug in the process, then plays a great through-ball for Jenkins to run on to. Evading a sliding tackle from Alexiou, Jenkins’ run is eventually blocked by Dean Gunner in the box. From the loose ball Alexiou gathers and clears past the halfway line. Tanton heads clear but only as far as Greg Akpele, and with a neat turn finds Ayman Gharbaoui, who sets Michael Abnett off on a driving run towards the Rovers box. His shot should have been better, but was scuffed wide of the post. Minutes later, a long ball from Courtney Swaby drops nicely in front of Jenkins in an onside position, with Alexiou to beat, but was unable to make it count. Half-hearted shout for a penalty on Jenkin, but the referee was unconvinced.

On 40mins, Swaby again finds space in Merstham’s left hand corner, playing out to Ghannam, who turns and heads goalward. His shot is mis-hit, but Gabriel Odunaike flicks back out to Swaby. Advancing into the box, Swaby’s shot draws a fine save from Basey, down to his left, pushing the ball round the post for a corner. Swaby’s corner is headed away by Michael Abnett, but Ghannam collects and from the edge of the box gets a decent strike in, but again Basey denies, tipping the effort just over the bar.

As the half draws to a close, Merstham come close with two free-kicks in succession, both from around 30yds out. The first a clever lob from Anthony Oaks finds Greg Akpele in acres of space, but his header lacked power and was directed straight at James Dillon. The second, out on the right taken by Karle Carder, was fired across the penalty area, but Gunner’s fierce volley was very wide of the post. Going into the break it certainly seemed like Rovers’ were asking all the serious questions.

A half time change for Rovers sees Charlie Martin replace Holden, and three minutes into the half Rovers’ get the break they were looking for. Isy Nzelo heads the ball out defence, finding Odunaike. Holding the ball up well, Odunaike passes inside to the lively Swaby who sets off on an unchallenged run towards the Merstham penalty area, culminating in a strike from 20yds out. A terrific finish to an outstanding team goal.

50mins sees Neil-Gray lose out to Simeone in our half, Simeone sending a pass over the midfield to the left. Odunaike does well to claim possession and gets a great cross in. With the ball at his feet, Ghannam slips past his defender and cues up a great strike with his left. Basey again pulls off a great save, Wilson failing to convert the rebound. From the goal kick, Josh Blaize-Carr finds room on his left to carve out a shot, which Dillon was able to palm away. Neil-Gray hits the loose ball wide.

On 58mins, from a quick Tanton throw to Jenkins out wide on the left, deep in the Merstham half, draws a foul on Jenkins. Swaby steps up for the free-kick, and with a change to his normal delivery, drills the ball into the Merstham area, where Simeone, with the deftest of touches (some might say scuffed!!), guides the ball inside the far right post for 2-0.

By 61mins, ex-Rovers (but still club legend) Liam Holden enters the fray, replacing Anthony Oaks.

Just shy of 70mins, Ghannam puts Jenkins through to run at the Merstham defence. Alexiou blocks, but Swaby picks up the loose ball, passing out to Charlie Martin on the right. Martin drills his cross into the penalty area, Odunaike tapping in for 3-0. Another team effort, which is always good to see. 5mins later a Swaby free-kick is floated over the Merstham back line, but just too high for Simeone to reach. Lloyd somehow gets the ball out to Jenkins, via a clash with Gunner, but Jenkins shoots over.

Further late substitutions see Merstham’s Michael Dixon replace Neil-Gray, Adrian Okoro replace Carder, and for Rovers’ Siao Blackwood replace the injured Odunaike, and Ashley Sheppard replace Ghannam. With the heat still taking its toll on tired legs and burning lungs, there were few further chances to be had. The introduction of Sheppard re-introduced some pace for Rovers and gave Merstham more to contend with, and Martin came close with only minutes to go. The Merstham no9 Craig Kingswell looked threatening, but all too little, too late. At the final whistle, a respectable victory for Rovers, winning a place in the next round.