WHEN Merton clawed their way back into the senior division of the North Devon League after an absence of 24 years, manager Kenny Heaman delighted in the achievement of his "little village side".
This is a village with one pub, one shop, one garage and one school. It has no hotels, no fire station and no fixed library. "You only have to blink and you're through it," said Heaman.
Compare with Combe Martin, the second longest village in England with its mile-and-three-quarters main street, six pubs, 12 shops, three garages and a primary school with four times as many pupils as Merton's. It has 22 hotels and guest houses, a fire station, a library and a population nine times the size of Merton's.
Unsurprisingly, then, Combe Martin's football profile towers over Merton's. League champions twice, runners-up twice and winners of numerous cups, Combe Martin have been members of the Premier Division for all but five of the last 35 seasons.
Merton have never played in the top division and have won only two cups – one by default when they lost the final but were awarded the trophy after opponents Black Torrington were found to have fielded an ineligible player.
Until last season the Combe Martin and Merton first teams had never met in a league match because the latter had always played in a lower division. In their inaugural encounter in mid-April, big village beat small village 7-3 at Merton.
Two weeks later, though, Merton went to Combe Martin and won 4-1. Then, on Saturday, they went back to Hollands Park and did it all over again. Another 4-1 triumph.
For Combe Martin, it was a fifth defeat in five league games and a place near the foot of the Senior Division, while Merton, after a shaky start, moved into mid-table.
Heaman's target is to finish higher than ninth, which would represent a ninth successive season of progress. Since finishing bottom of the Kingsley League in 2004-05 Merton have equalled their position of the previous season or improved upon it. They were promoted from Intermediate One two seasons ago and finished ninth in the Senior Division last season.
"I have been with the club for 23 years and been manager for nine years," said Heaman.
"We had pulled out of the North Devon League and this is our sixth season back.
"We came straight back into Intermediate One because we had finished in the top six of the Kingsley League and we started a second team who took our place in the Kingsley League."
The second team now play in North Devon League Intermediate Two.
Combe Martin, on the other hand, are down to one team after a summer crisis. They have played every league season since 1931-32 but considered pulling out after losing their manager and several players.
Unable to find a replacement manager, it took the efforts of two players in particular to keep them going.
They had finished third in the division and won the Holman Cup, after which player-manager Joe Seldon joined Braunton.
The club appealed for a manager but to no avail, so Will Lovett, 14 years a Combe Martin player, and Mark Worth stepped into the breach.
"Desperate times, desperate measures," said Lovett. "The club is 110 years old and, although we could have closed it down and opened it up again in two years' time, that's the history gone."
One manager did show an interest but it seemed to stop there. "He came into the changing room two weeks ago and said he would come and manage but I haven't seen him since," said Lovett.
Consequently, there was no leadership from the Combe Martin dugout on Saturday, while Merton had it in abundance. Heaman and his assistant, Robbie Nancekivell, shouted instructions and encouragement from start to finish.
The Combe Martin squad contained only seven players who were with the club last season. "It is basically a lot of young players, lads who have moved into the village, and some who answered an SOS call," said Lovett. "They are not necessarily the best players but they want to help the club out.
"If we don't put the time and effort in to make sure there are enough players the club would fold because no one else wants to step forward and take the job, so for now we have got to do what we can."
That time and effort has resulted in 29 players signing on – an encouraging sign for chairman Dave O'Farrell.
"If we create enough interest this season, with a good following from local supporters, we could even look at having a reserve side next season," said O'Farrell. "If that happens, other players might come back and we might have a stronger first team."
It is 41 years since Combe Martin last played outside the top two tiers of the North Devon League but, with their season already shaping up as a fight against relegation, O'Farrell urged patience.
"It is a very young side and I am sure we can turn it around the more the lads play together," he said.
"They are taking it on the chin at the moment but there was serious concern we might fold and they are just happy to play together as a team, which is refreshing to see."
They are still working on a settled side. "Each week it has been a different team," said Lovett. "We just need consistency."
With a defence missing centre back Worth and right back Ben Lawson, Combe Martin were 2-0 down after 12 minutes.
A Dan Lane cross found James Ashton whose shot was blocked by goalkeeper Tom Hook, only for Craig McConnachie to follow up and score the first. The second arrived when a Tom Scantlebury shot took a deflection past Hook.
Merton, too, had to make changes in defence. Goalkeeper Lewis Harris dropped into the reserves because of a sore ankle while two of the regular back three, Spencer Phillips and Sam Munday, were out, as was holding player Luke Ashton.
Strictly speaking, Merton are more than a one-village team. "We combine Merton and Petrockstowe, which is about a mile and a half down the road," said Heaman. "Merton has the football and Petrockstowe the cricket, so half this team play cricket for Petrockstowe – and I run both."
The home team pulled a goal back through a 25-yarder from Liam Robinson on the half-hour and, in a frenetic five minutes that followed, Josh Robinson's shot on the turn was blocked by Merton keeper Gary Toop and Combe Martin No 1 Tom Hook saved a Nick Ward penalty after Adam Powell had brought down McConnachie.
Having lost Nathan Delaune, their 31-goal top scorer and best player from last season, to Torrington, Merton have had to find alternatives.
It was 16-year-old Scantlebury who restored their two-goal advantage on 43 minutes, albeit in controversial circumstances.
With one player from each side down in the Combe Martin penalty area, including the home goalkeeper, Lovett attempted to play the ball out. But, with no whistle blown, Scantlebury put his foot in, turning the ball into goal, and the score stood. Two minutes later McConnachie broke clear to add a fourth.
A comparatively uneventful second half saw Merton create and miss the best of the chances, leaving Lovett with some sense of satisfaction. "Being 4-1 down at half time and not rolling over, I was proud of the boys for not giving up," he said.
While Combe Martin have been busy preserving their link with history, Merton are still some way off creating history. Their best finish was their third place 30 seasons ago and, although Heaman believes his squad is potentially the best Merton have had, he dismissed any suggestion of a first appearance in the top tier in the near future.
"I would like to think it will happen but I will probably be retired by then," he said. For his "little village side", that may be one challenge too big.