Isthmian Premier League side Merstham F.C. are living the dream right now, with the Surrey outfit reaching the First Round Proper of the Emirates FA Cup for the first time in their 124-year history.
They host former League Cup winners Oxford United, in front of a sell-out crowd – but the Moatsiders aren’t fazed by their illustrious opponents.
Ladbrokes News caught up with three of Merstham’s key men ahead of the club’s biggest ever clash – former Oxford keeper Phil Wilson, left-back Kristian Campbell and wing wizard Alex Addai – to talk memories, Moatside and the magic of the cup.
Ladbrokes News: Obviously this is an incredible game for every one of the Merstham players. Have you got family and friends coming? And are they travelling over from far afield?
Kristian Campbell: Basically my whole family are coming down! My Mum, my cousins, my uncle and my girlfriend are all going to the game. It’s a huge day for the club, and a special one for myself and the family. I’m not making anyone go too far, everyone’s in South London.
Phil Wilson: My brother and my friends are actually travelling over from Oxford, but they’ll be cheering on Merstham! Some of my family are making the trek over from Somerset, so it’s really nice to have everyone there.
LN: Phil and Alex, away from football you both work in schools. So is there a bit of extra pressure with your students tuning into BT Sport for the game?
PW: No, because they give me enough stick week-in, week-out anyway! [*Laughs*] As it’s live on TV, I can’t really hide if I make a mistake as they’ll get to see it – but hopefully I can ensure nothing goes wrong.
Alex Addai: I’ve got the whole of the school watching and supporting me, so that’s really nice. My mates will be tuning in to watch it on TV as well, so it’s a bit of a different experience to usual!
LN: Your ground Moatside is obviously a place the players love. How excited are you to play there in front of a sell-out crowd there this weekend?
KC: I’ve seen that we were offered the chance to train at Selhurst Park, but for me, the right place to prepare for this game is here at Merstham. Moatside is home to us, and it’s a huge part of this club’s identity.
It’s a massive thing for the club to have a sell-out. It’s the biggest game in our history and we can’t wait to get out there and play.
PW: It’s a big day for everyone involved here, not just the players. A lot of the people who help keep Merstham going, like the directors and club secretary have been involved for years – some of them even played here.
The crowd will make a huge difference. We’re going from playing in front of about 200 people on a good day, to having a 2,000 sell-out. It’s a nice tight ground, so there should be a fantastic atmosphere. Our squad will thrive on that.
The hope is that some of those who are watching us for the first time will really enjoy it, and want to come back again.
LN: In the Fourth Qualifying Round, you overcame Ebbsfleet United who are riding high in the National League South. How much confidence did that give you as a side, heading into this meeting with Oxford United?
AA: To be honest, we were massive underdogs – certainly on paper. I actually think Ebbsfleet underestimated us a bit, but we proved how much ability we have by winning that game. We can match anyone for heart and desire, and combined with our technical skill, I’m confident we can cause a ‘Cupset’!
PW: It was a huge game to win. They’ve got a very strong financial backing and some classy players, but we’re always aiming high, no matter who the opposition are.
That’s just as true for this game. We have fantastic home form – with only one loss at Moatside since this season started.
I think a big side like Oxford won’t be used to an environment like this, so that’s another boost.
KC: Beating Ebbsfleet was a massive boost. I don’t think anyone outside the club gave us a chance against them – and just assumed this was where our cup dream would fall apart.
But [manager] Hayden Bird sent us out there with plenty of belief, and we really went at them. We went out there and dominated for the first hour, with Tommy Kavanagh and Charlie Penny scoring for us, and kept it tight after that.
LN: Phil, Oxford United are the club where you started your professional career. Does that give this game an extra edge for you?
PW: Yeah, it does. It’s 15 years since I left there and I’m in a different career now, so there’s no bitterness about not quite getting the game time I’d hoped for at Oxford.
I’m mostly just focused on getting to play in the First Round, but playing the club where I started my career and grew up supporting – that obviously makes it even more special.
LN: Alex, you’ll obviously be focused on causing them problems at the other end. What do you think your biggest strengths – and those of Merstham’s other attacking players are?
AA: I think pace is one of my key attributes, as well as the ability to create something out of nothing, and hopefully I’ll show those strengths throughout the game.
Whoever makes the starting line-up, we have a lot of different qualities in attack which can hurt Oxford.
LN: This is the first time Merstham have made the first round of the Emirates FA Cup. That’s an incredible achievement in itself – but are you confident you can upset the odds once again?
KC: We’re more than confident. We’ve trained hard throughout the week, and know exactly what Hayden wants us to do when the whistle goes. We need to keep that belief and play to the best of our ability, and hopefully that’ll take us into the second round.
PW: Absolutely. As I said, none of our players will be overawed. It’s been nice having the media attention this week, but we’ll just play naturally once we’re out on the pitch. We’re technically a very good side and work well together, so there’s no reason we can’t beat Oxford.
LN: What have the preparations for this game been like. Same as usual, or have you guys done anything different this time out?
KC: Well, I can’t give too much away in case the Oxford players are reading [*laughs*]. The focus has been much the same as it is ahead of any other Saturday, and there’s a real positivity around the squad – which is vital.
We’ve got great ability throughout the team, but you’ll have to wait until kick-off to see which of us can cause Oxford real problems!
Meanwhile, a repeat of the Moatsiders’ 2-1 Emirates FA Cup triumph over Ebbsfleet is priced at 20/1.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing