Never-say-die Sittingbourne battled back to keep their long unbeaten record – as well as keep a place in the Buildbase FA Trophy.
And of all the performances in that unprecedented run of 10 games without defeat this was probably the best one.
Opponents Merstham are comfortably placed in a division higher than Sittingbourne, and have very gifted, technical players, all good on the ball, and playing to a well-structured pattern.
But once they got ahead, even their accomplished skills couldn’t stem the tide of Sittingbourne’s constant attacking, which was eventually rewarded with a lovely goal – another lovely goal – by super-substitute David Smith.
When he rattled the crossbar in injury time, teenager Smith could even have won it – but a draw, and another crack at each other in Tuesday night’s replay, was probably the fairest result.
It was a third home draw in a week for Sittingbourne. And what a week with the dramatic late equaliser against Chipstead, the no-holds-barred goalless draw with fellow promotion candidates Cray Wanderers, and now this, a very different sort of game to Tuesday night.
Sittingbourne made two changes from the team that played Cray, Ollie Brown replacing Tyrone Guthrie in midfield and Lawrence Ball returning in central defence for the suspended Ben Gorham. The captain’s armband passed to Miles Cornwell.
Sittingbourne began as if they wouldn’t be intimidated by Merstham’s obvious skill in possession, and Bola Dawodu had an early chance from Chris Elliott’s long throw but headed too close to the keeper.
Harry Brooks, retaining the No 1 jersey in place of Daren Hawkes, made a smart save to keep out Ryan Hall’s shot in reply, but was left helpless when Pingling found plenty of space to shoot the visitors ahead on 15 minutes. Merstham had raced from defending a free-kick at one end to slicing open a wide-open Sittingbourne defence at the other with three simple passes.
It was impressive the way Sittingbourne tried to force their way back into the game and when Tom Loynes won the ball with a determined interception he hit a great low pass only for Cornwell and Kane Rowland to go for it together in front of goal and put each other off.
Sittingbourne are an excellent second half team and they again took the game by the scruff of the neck, Brown, Rowland and Gil Carvalho all shooting wide and Merstham defenders blocking three close range shots in a row after an Elliott free-kick into the six-yard box.
Merstham tried to slow everything down and take the heat out of Sittingbourne’s game, but the home side kept up the pressure with Elliott close with a great shot from 30 yards and Dawodu’s effort saved by the keeper’s knee.
Sittingbourne went for broke on 78 minutes when manager Nick Davis brought on Smith and switched to a three-man defence.
His substitutions have changed many a game this season and he had to wait just five minutes for a result this time. Sittingbourne whisked the ball through midfield, Carvalho made progress on the right and found Smith on the edge of the area. He shimmied to give himself half a yard of space and curled a beautiful shot beyond the keeper which tantalisingly rolled in after hitting the post.
Smith almost won it, too, in added time, thundering a terrific shot from distance against the bar with the Merstham keeper groping thin air.
Even then Merstham launched a rare attack and Brooks made a fine diving save to his left to keep out a fierce shot from the edge of the area.
So it’s back to Surrey for the replay on Tuesday night, the third game between these well-matched sides in three weeks – and someone will have to win it then.
Ken Medwyn's photographs follow.
A little video by Ken Medwyn
Match Day programme
15 mins Richard Pingling, Merstham
84 mins David Smith, Sittingbourne
Referee: Scott Williams
Assistants: Farai Hallam, Charlie Acton
Salvyn Kisitu (Chris Webber 23 mins (Yellow) - David Smith 79 mins)
Chris Elliott (Yellow)
Miles Cornwell (C) (Tyrone Guthrie 56 mins)
Substitutes not used: Kane Phillip, Lex Allan,
Ben Harrison (Yellow)
Jelan Jones (Yellow)
Stephen Hamilton-Forbes (Alex Addai 72 mins)
Dan Bennett (Sean Bonnet-Johnson 72 mins)
Ryan Hall (C)
Substitutes not used: Sahr Kabba, Sonny Black, Tom Nyama
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