Having not so much flirted with relegation as thrusted themselves longingly towards it, Kingstonian have provided a glorious denouement to what has been an otherwise dispiriting campaign.
In January, K’s still harboured hopes of a play-off finish. By mid-March, it was apparent a scrap to avoid demotion to Division One South was the order of the day. After the April Fools’ Day defeat to Leatherhead, relegation seemed the likely outcome.
But that would be to underestimate Craig Edwards. The former Billericay boss had six games to keep K’s up having replaced Tommy Williams at the end of March. That he has only needed five is testament to him and his assistant Kevin Ramsay.
The turnaround in fortunes has been remarkable. Three wins and a draw in the four games following the Leatherhead loss have (all but) guaranteed Kingstonian’s Ryman Premier status for 2017/18. No wonder the sizeable travelling K’s support at Merstham on Easter Monday sang ‘Craig Edwards, we want you to stay’ with such gusto.
The afternoon got off to a good start even before K’s took the field at Moatside. On the south coast, Worthing scored with the last kick of the game to deny fellow relegation battlers Burgess Hill a precious victory. It meant if Kingstonian won we only needed one other team around us to lose to ensure survival.
Both teams passed up a very good opportunity apiece early on. Joe Turner drew a good stop from the home team’s keeper Yannick Makiese, and when Tom Derry devilishly whipped a low cross back in, Turner could only blaze over from a few yards out. His reaction suggested he knew he should have done better.
Down the other end, Michael Abnett made a right hash of a very presentable back-post chance when picked out in space.
On the quarter-hour mark, Edwards’s side seized the initiative. A long ball was won in the air by Ryan Moss – imperious all afternoon – and Derry was alert to the situation, racing between Marc Okoye and Makiese to get a touch on the ball before either of them. Defender Okoye was the man adjudged to have brought our no.10 down but in truth it was probably a combination of the two. Either way: penalty.
After quite a delay so Derry and Okoye could receive treatment, Moss stepped up and slotted his spot-kick straight down the middle.
With 17 minutes played, it was the first Ryman Premier goal of the 3pm kick-offs, a sign of the tension permeating the south-east. At the beginning of the day, only four teams in the division had nothing to play for.
One of them was Merstham but they looked up for this from the get-go, especially with a healthy spread of former K’s in their ranks. Alex Addai looked threatening and with a clever reverse pass he slipped Tommy Kavanagh in, but the midfielder wastefully placed his shot wide.
Before then Turner was denied by a block close to the line following some dodgy handling from Makiese. After it Alan Inns threatened with a downward header, and Lee O’Leary nearly caught Makiese out from the halfway line.
But there would be no more goals before the interval; indeed, there would be none after it, either, but quite how remains a mystery.
Inns teed up his centre-back partner Sam Page after a corner wasn’t cleared and his volley forced Makiese to parry into a danger zone. It looked set to be rolled in by one of Moss or Derry but the former, off balance, rushed his shot and skewed it well wide with the goal gaping.
A head-in-hands moment if ever there was one.
George Wells flashed a shot beyond the far post at the end of a driving run. Aaron Lamont did similar down the right and this time Makeise saved. Moss too drew a fine stop from the home keeper. And then, with 10 minutes remaining, disaster struck.
K’s had looked relatively assured defensively since the break but Wells got his bearings all wrong trying to head a bouncing ball back to Rob Tolfrey, selling his keeper short. Xavier Vidal nipped in and was brought down. Penalty.
Dan Bennett, who left Kingsmeadow last summer, struck low and hard to his left, Tolfrey’s right. That agonising split second between the penalty being taken and reaching the goal felt like an eternity. It was apparent Tolfs was going the right way, that he had a chance.
And so, euphorically, it proved, as a stretched right arm pushed the ball out. A brief hush ensued for fear of the rebound being converted, but a red-and-white hooped shirt got there first and hacked it away.
The season’s two standout performers, Moss and Tolfrey, had each provided a defining contribution in the biggest game for years. Their efforts and those of their team-mates would prove enough, the final whistle met with roars of ecstasy after six-and-a-half agonising minutes of injury time.
Canvey’s defeat to Billericay, coupled with Burgess’s earlier draw, meant the K’s, barring a miracle, could not be caught.
The outcome feels all the more significant not only because of the club’s impending departure from Kingsmeadow, and the effect relegation might have further had on attendances next season, but also because it means we can all relax and, as much as is possible in the circumstances, savour our last-ever match at the ground we have called home for the past 28 years when title-chasing Havant and Waterlooville visit on Saturday.
Merstham: Yannick Makiese, Simon Cooper, Antone Douglas, Kershaney Samuels, Tutu Henriques, Marc Okoye, Alex Addai, Tom Kavanagh, Ibrahim Fofana, Dan Bennett, Michael Abnett.
Subs: Xavier Vidal (for Ibrahim Fofana, HT), Omar Folkes (for Michael Abnett, HT), Reece Hall, Mitchal Gough, Kristian Campbell (for Tom Kavanagh, 70m).
Kingstonian: Rob Tolfrey, Sean Bonnett-Johnson, George Wells, Lee O’Leary, Sam Page, Alan Inns, Aaron Lamont, Shaun McAuley, Ryan Moss, Tom Derry, Joe Turner.
Subs: Charlie Wassmer, Lewis Taylor, Charles Banya, Keir Dickson, Aaron Goode.
Goalscorer: Ryan Moss (17m pen, 0-1)
Photo by Martin King.
Updated 20:12 - 18 Apr 2017 by Kingstonian FC