St John's 5 – 0 Merton/Mansfield

St John’s hopes of a Hilary Term surge on the promotion places was given a real boost on Thursday, with a 5-0 win over joint leaders Merton/Mansfield.  A hat-trick from top scorer Matt Evans-Young, plus one each for strike partnership Joel Gregory and James Earle, gave a victory which throws open the competition to be playing First Division football in 2008/09.

The visitors went into the match joint with University College on nineteen points, well clear of mid table St John’s.  Merton/Mansfield fielded an archetypal little and large partnership up front.  The towering David Wilkinson was perfectly complemented by the waspish Robbie Coleman.  In combination, they were a genuine threat to the John’s goal.  Only three minutes in, a free kick aimed at Wilkinson’s head sailed over everyone – including goalkeeper Alex Berend – to hit the bar. 

It was the home side, however, which took the lead after only ten minutes.  A through-ball was headed on by Gregory, finding Evans-Young’s perfectly timed run from midfield.  The prolific left winger placed the ball over the onrushing Reuben Holt to put St. John’s into an early lead. 

As the hosts grew in confidence they made more chances: the two James, Earle and Bell both found Holt from close in.  At the other end, Wilkinson came off worse in a nasty clash of heads.  He was able to continue, having received treatment, but the point of Merton/Mansfield’s attacking football had been blunted.

With only seven minutes of the first half remaining, St John’s doubled their lead.  Gregory, with his back to goal, was kicked by a defender.  It was an unnecessary foul, and was punished as Gregory left Holt rooted to the spot. 

A confident John’s team scored their third nine minutes into the second half.  Jamie Bell played the ball through to Evans-Young, characteristically breaking from out wide into the penalty area.  Having taken the ball on his chest, he placed the ball into the bottom corner with his right foot.  Merton’s unlucky afternoon continued as two players had to leave with injuries early in the second half.  As Wilkinson moved back into midfield, Coleman was isolated with no target man to play off. 

What Merton/Mansfield did not need was an unforced error.  But on the hour mark, Joe Pickles’ stumble gifted possession to James Earle.  Playing in the trequartista role, he dominated John’s attacks – outmuscling defenders and distributing the ball intelligently.  It was fitting that he capitalised on Pickles’ error to reward his performance with a goal.

Through no fault of their own, the visitors were down to ten men.  But they continued to compete, and nearly pulled one back when Matt Morris drove the ball narrowly wide of Berend’s right-hand post.  Another substitute – albeit one for the home side – Dave Ellis, almost scored with his first touch: a diving header from a pinpoint Gregory cross flew just over.

Thirteen minutes from time, Evans-Young grabbed his hat-trick.  Yet another run into the box, as well timed as a Michael Vaughan cover drive, led to him heading a loose ball over Holt.  Breaking into the box like Frank Lampard, Merton/Mansfield never managed to pick him up and were punished three times.  With two minutes to go, another of St John’s outstanding performers, James Earle, hit the bar with a long range freekick.  Six nil would not have been too unfair a reflection on an impressive performance by St John’s.