Needham through to FA Vase semis

FA VaseNeedham 3 Mertsham 2 (after extra time)Needham Market are today just one game away from a dream FA Vase cup final at Wembley after an exhilarating and enthralling extra time win over Merstham.

Stuart Watson

FA Vase

Needham 3 Mertsham 2 (after extra time)

Needham Market are today just one round away from a dream FA Vase cup final at Wembley after an exhilarating and enthralling extra time win over Merstham.

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On paper, this quarter-final tie shaped up to be a cracker - and it certainly didn't disappoint.

This really was the clash of, by far and away, the two most in-form sides at step five of non-league football.

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Needham, whose 25 game unbeaten run only just came to end in recent weeks, may still be fighting on five league and cup fronts, however they remarkably still went into this match as slight underdogs.

Surrey side Merstham are 13 points clear at the top of the Combined Counties Premier Division, went into this match on an 18 game unbeaten home run and themselves were still in five cup competitions.

And for large periods of this match the hosts showed just how they have put together such impressive statistics.

Most teams would have been crushed by the wave after wave of Merstham attack after half time, however Danny Laws' team aren't your average side.

Good fortune played its part, with two strong penalty appeals for handball being waved away, but a heroic defensive performance from front to back meant that, somehow, Needham conceded just one second half goal to ensure that the scores remained locked at 2-2 after 90 minutes.

This is a young Blowers side that simply do not give up. In the previous round they were forced to come from behind on three occasions to force a replay, while in their Ridgeons League campaign there have been a number of last gasp winners.

With this in mind there was always a feeling amongst the travelling support, of which there were two coachloads, that their side could still snatch victory and so it proved.

Just four minutes into the extra 30, substitute Glenn Snell put winger James Evans away down the right and his early shot hit unfortunate keeper Ian Charfield before spinning, almost in slow motion, back over the line.

Despite a subsequent constant aerial blitz by Mertsham they never really created a clear cut chance against a superbly organised Needham.

The exhausted Suffolk side were huddled in celebration at the final whistle and, at that moment, their nightmare start to this match could easily be forgotten.

In the very worst possible opening, Needham conceded in the first minute when Merstham stormed forward to win a corner in their first attack. Michael Morgan delivered the in-swinging ball and Kwabena Agyei powered home an unmarked header.

This just seemed to spark the resilient Needham though and the equaliser finally came in the tenth minute.

Evans' long throw-in, which caused havoc in the Merstham defence all game, was not properly cleared and Jay Denniss, outstanding throughout, squirmed his shot under the keeper.

After surviving a powerful Mark Simmons drive from the edge of the box, his shot cannoning down of the underside of the bar before being cleared, Needham took the lead courtesy of a penalty on the half hour mark.

Merstham keeper Charfield came right out to the corner of his area to collect a ball, but Matt Buckle nipped it past him before being felled. Midfield goal machine Craig Parker coolly slotted home the spot kick.

Then came the second half onslaught, but Merstham had only Lock's looping header in the 55th minute to show for their efforts on the scoreboard.

As Needham Market manager Danny Laws endured his sides extra time battle, news filtered through to his bench of Lowestoft Town's victory.

And within minutes of the final whistle, Laws reiterated his desire to face their Suffolk and Ridgeons League rivals under the arch of Wembley stadium.

Laws said: "I've said it before and I still hope it's the case; an all Suffolk final would be phenomenal.

"The semi-finals are going to be big, big occasions for us now and I hope that the local community will come and support us at home.

"Five of our six games in this competition have been away from home now but, with the semi-final being over two legs, we have guaranteed ourselves another home game.

"I would really love to see our ground packed with the local support that our players really deserve because they are young lads that give everything."

Keeper Liam Jones can't wait for the next round. He said: "This result means the world to us. It gives us a hell of a chance of playing at Wembley and what footballer hasn't dreamt of doing that.

"Over two legs we'll take anyone we get. We have come through five away draws so far so are confident enough to face anyone."

Reflecting on the win, Laws said: "I think we got it right on the day. We played well at the right times.

“We didn't completely weather the storm after half time, but by them equalizing early almost upset them a bit because they sat back a little more after that. Merstham were easily the best side we have played all season but I thought we defended superbly as an eleven. All of them stuck to their task and got their feet and head in the way of everything for a good half an hour."

Jones said: "We probably defended for 80 of the 120 minutes. I thought all 14 of our players were absolutely amazing."

The games will now come thick and fast for Needham, the first of which is a trip to Felixstowe & Walton United tomorrow night in the League Cup semi-final.

Laws said: "Nothing has been won yet. Days like this are great to savour but we've still got to do the business."

LOWESTOFT Town are the second Suffolk side to be just 180 minutes from a Wembley final after beating Essex side Concord Rangers in their FA Vase quarter-final.

On a glorious late winter's day on Canvey Island, Bradley Hough's 12-minute goal proved enough to separate the sides

Needham and Lowestoft go into the semi-final draw today along with Whitley Bay, and Coventry Sphinx and Kirkham and Wesham who must replay their quarter-final after drawing on Saturday.

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