Young blade Gallagher rescues Mersey

Steve Kenward with a player's view of the Wilkinson Sword Play-off which resulted in a 13-11 win for Heaton Mersey

Rochdale - October 1998

Last year Purley, as Southern Senior Flags winners, represented League South in the Iroquois Cup and were annihilated 36-0 by Mellor. Those who played are unsure of whether they ever managed to clear the ball from their own half, it wasn't a performance to remember.

Last season, we at Purley broke free from Kenton's stranglehold and took the Premier Division title, thus earning ourselves another trip up t'North to contest t' Wilkinson Sword Trophy with the winners of League North.

Given last year's drubbing, and the fact that no one on the team can remember League South ever having won it (but 'old' guys on this team are people who remember Captain Pugwash and Chorlton & The Wheelies, so forgive me if I'm wrong), the general consensus was that we had the odds stacked against us so we thought it'd be an idea to start training in August. It paid off.

On 19 September at 3pm, we stood on Rochdale's sun-soaked wasp-infested pitch (which was a surprise in itself, we'd brought a sledge) watching Heaton Mersey warm up, and decided that regardless of the score we were going to enjoy ourselves and use the experience. Neither side was fielding a full strength team.

It all looked like it was going to go pear-shaped within the first few minutes when, having been unable to clear, our goalie took the ball over halfway and, finding a nice lane to run down took it to the cage and fired a shot. Mersey's keeper was equally fired-up however and the ensuing clearance saw them draw first blood from the open net.

From that point on Purley settled down and started playing patient, ball control lacrosse. Shot opportunities started presenting themselves and everyone kept their heads in defence. As the first quarter ended the score was Purley 3, Heaton Mersey 1. I remember thinking 'pinch me'.

The second quarter saw much of the same, as we tried to use up the clock and hold onto the ball. Again the shots were there, but now Mersey were trying to get the momentum back and it was apparent that one lapse in concentration would cost us a goal. We managed to stay one step ahead however and the half finished Purley 6, Heaton Mersey 3.

Once again the third quarter saw us pull even further ahead - by 5 goals at one point - and halfway through we were seemingly ready to pull off the impossible.

There were signs of frustration among our opponents. At this point we started getting a tad over-confident in our attack and what had been a controlled offence turned into a run 'n' gun full of forced passes. Heaton Mersey made us pay for every forced pass and every rushed clear, and suddenly we were losing the 'legs battle' in midfield.

More importantly, Mersey were gaining on us. We just kept our heads above water and at the final break were still leading 9-7. I can't print it, but one of the referees was overheard commenting on his astonishment at the scoreline.

Legs failing and starting to feel our backs against the wall, we saw the Northern side take control of the fourth quarter. The team never gave up though and it was a hard-fought contest right up until the final whistle. Having never even expected to be in the lead we saw ourselves finish just short of the mark.

Final score Purley 11, Heaton Mersey 13.

The trophy was presented by Stan Smith, who'd come up with us to watch it, and he summed it up best in what became (due to either the close score or the 'refreshments' that were on offer) quite an emotional speech: 'What a game... what a game'.

Mersey skipper Richard Smith later admitted 'Purley were robbed' and it was thanks to seven goals from 16 year-old James Gallagher that Mersey held on to their lead to gain their first trophy of the season. Ironically, the person who will be put under the most pressure for the opening game of the season will be his dad Tommy.

For the record, the Wilkinson Sword Trophy, between the winners of the Northern and Southern League competitions, has never been won by a team from the South. The equivalent competition for the respective Flags winners, the Iroquois Cup, has travelled, the last occasion being Hampstead's 20-8 victory over Hulmeians in 1976.