Strength from adversity

TOP SCORER: Martyn Westcott, who, along with Dan Cann, hit the back of the net 11 times for the Villagers during the season
TOP SCORER: Martyn Westcott, who, along with Dan Cann, hit the back of the net 11 times for the Villagers during the season

WHILE the club’s future hung in the balance off the field, on it things couldn’t realistically have gone much better for Long Melford.

A first Suffolk Senior Cup final appearance in seven years and a top 10 finish (ninth) in the Ridgeons League First Division for only the second time in their history was just what the doctor ordered.

It was a season that manager Jason Maher will never forget for the right reasons, even though it came perilously close to being the club’s last due to being struck off by Companies House due to unreceived accounts and tax returns.

The club eventually resolved matters with the authority but only after teetering on the edge of extinction. And in adversity the Villagers somehow found strength with an upturn in league form that should see their top 10 finish result in a place in next season’s FA Cup.

“Off the field matters were a distraction,” admitted manager Jason Maher of his first full campaign at the helm at Stoneylands. “It was difficult but it helped to galvanise us.

“The lads we had had such a good spirit, there were no prima donnas and they worked so hard.

“I look back on the season with a lot of pride. We said at the beginning of the season that we wanted a top 10 finish and to get to the final of the Suffolk Senior Cup.

“Those were the targets we set ourselves as we were never going to win the league, that would have been crazy.

“As the season panned out we did well in the Suffolk Senior Cup, taking it round by round, and I was immensely proud of the players when we reached the final. It was a great day for them to play at Portman Road and a fitting reward for all the work they had put in at the club.”

Jamie Williams’ superb control and angled strike three minutes after the interval at Ipswich Town’s ground gave the Villagers a dream lead against overwhelming favourites Whitton United on May 2.

But the brave Melford side’s defence was finally breached after 66 minutes when Chris Williams struck, despite strong appeals for handball.

A cruel ending then unfolded when, with extra-time looming, a skiddy surface facilitated Whitton’s Alan Mills’ speculative effort to beat the dive of Paul Wood at his near post, spelling heartache for Melford.

Maher said: “They got a little lucky as we played really well and there was not a lot in the game.

“I watched the DVD of it last week and it was such a great occasion and I will never forget Jamie Williams’ goal or that feeling of reaching the final after beating Felixstowe United (at Hadleigh United) – no-one can ever take that away.”

After a promising start in the league, winning two of their first three opening games, injuries hit home with a run of six consecutive defeats, including early exits in the FA Cup (at Wroxham) and FA Vase (at Thetford Town).

Their season looked to be on the brink of collapse, but one man knew it was only a temporary blip.

Maher said: “Early on we picked up a few injuries and had to keep reshuffling around the back four and didn’t have Dann Cann, our talismanic striker available, and I knew once we got a settled side we would do alright.”

There was another barren run through November with five straight defeats, but the Suffolk Senior Cup run coincided with an upturn in league form with the Villagers’ using home comforts as the catalyst for a rise up the table after Christmas.

With problems off the field coming to light, the side turned in four straight wins from the 3-2 home success over Stowmarket Town on March 28 to the 4-0 away win at neighbours Cornard United on April 9.

Maher added: “Playing 4-3-3 after Dan Grindrod got injured – as we had no right winger – worked really well for us and our home record became one of the best in the league, and hopefully that is something we can build on next season and we can add one or two.”