With Fortress Grists still underwater from the tears of joy caused by Jordan’s Luther Vandross rendition at the Christmas social, Old Tiffs were forced to wait a week before gracing the turfs of AFC Intermediate South again in 2024.

This meant a trip down the road for the first outing of the year, as Old Strand Academicals welcomed the Purple Princes to New Malden. Perhaps the harsh realities of Dry January were hitting home and squad members were realising that no alcohol meant nothing better to do on a Saturday? Whatever the explanation, skipper Will was treated to the rare delight of nearly a full complement to choose from.

A surprising (Birse) team-wide display of punctuality boded well. The chilly conditions were, however, sure to pose a challenge to all except the Carlisle native, making a proper warm-up essential. Unfortunately, up stepped Keiran. After a confusing routine inspired by what could only have been a man nursing a 12-day New Year’s hangover, kick-off arrived and Tiffs were back in action.

The oppo provided a stern test in the reverse fixture and early signs pointed to another tricky encounter. They started fast and the visitors had a combination of wasteful finishing, last-ditch defending and the ref questionably deeming a trademark Keiran shove to be outside the area to thank for initially keeping their hosts at bay. But luck soon ran out.

A quick break down the flank led to a teasing cross that Old Strand’s striker slotted home. One down, on the back foot and without their top goalscorer who was away at self-imposed boot camp training for the rerun of Gladiators, Tiffs had it all to do. And do it they did.

In one of their first meaningful attacks, Josh picked it up 25 yards out, drove across the top of the box and launched a left-footed missile into the top corner. The frosty suburban air rang with purple cheers of relief. Was this the moment the momentum shifted and the visitors would finally assert themselves on the game? Keiran didn’t seem to think so.

Not to be denied again, the Purps’ defensive stalwart lunged at their striker’s feet in the box and this time a penalty was duly awarded. The fluorescent figure of Seb, buoyed by the presence of his better half watching on, was the only thing standing between the hosts and their grasp on the lead once more. Up stepped the taker, placing the ball low to Seb’s right, only to meet his outstretched glove and the rebound was cleared. The hero of the hour blew a celebratory kiss to the sidelines and Tiffs were off the hook.

Sensing that it might be their day, the visitors now began to take the initiative. This was partly achieved through a generous dose of psychological warfare, as natural left back Colin’s dubiously taken throw-ins started to cause head loss in the Old Strand ranks. From one of these, a cross sailed agonisingly towards the unmarked Gledhill at the back post, but the Shark couldn’t quite divert his header down into the tank. A cynic might chalk this up to his sofa hosting one too many 4am therapy sessions for a certain long-lost Old Tiff over the festive period.

Half an hour gone, with the game in the balance, Will looked to his bench in search of reinforcements (and to give himself a rest). He thrust all three subs into the action:Aidan, arriving from a two-goal match-winning performance in his morning school game; Sammarco, fitted with new state-of-the-art bionic wrists; and Hucks, back from months of travelling the world in an attempt to hone his game and personality. The bravery he’d gained on his travels was summed up in the two delicate words he muttered when crossing the white line: “oh sh*t”.

The departing skipper also imparted some shrewd tactical advice as he left the field: Kick. It. Long. The next time he had the ball in his hands, Tiffs’ obedient keeper punted it forward and the bouncing ball caused havoc in the hosts’ backline. MBP pounced, rounding Old Strand’s onrushing #1 and tucking it away to complete the turnaround.

Still aggrieved at what he perceived to be a dive for their penalty, Seb celebrated his assist with a terrifyingly primal scream of delight directed at their striker. On a presumably unrelated note, his girlfriend was spotted leaving the premises shortly after.

Their tails up, the visitors went searching for more. An intricate move down the right resulted in Aidan finding space on the edge of their box. Fresh from his 90-minute competitive warm-up, he drifted away from a couple of defenders and arrowed a precise shot that wrong-footed their keeper and nestled in the bottom corner. The half-time whistle sounded and the Purps were purring.

Having stumbled across Big Sam’s winning formula, the captain’s message at the interval was for more of the same. And his subjects soon obliged. An attacking throw was launched into the mixer, Gledhill headed on and MBP controlled on his chest before rifling an exquisite volley into the net. The Surrey Stoke were 4-1 up and surely that would be that.

However, the hosts had other ideas. Probably motivated by Seb’s earlier outburst, as well as being told by Kimber he looked uncannily like Forest forward Chris Wood, their striker smashed a half-volley past his abuser in the Tiffs goal to reduce the deficit. (It was also pointed out that, in an uncharacteristically narcissistic move, Vice-Captain Kimber held onto the armband for the rest of the game, despite his superior returning to the field.) Keiran then went after his hat-trick of xPens when a loose ball hit his arm in the area, but the hosts’ claims were thankfully waved away by the man in the middle. But when Wood curled in an inch-perfect free-kick, there was more than just a strand of hope for the team in red.

But cometh the hour, cometh the (nearly a) man. Once again picking the ball up in the space between their defence and midfield, Aidan set himself and curled it past their keeper’s despairing dive and the brace machine had restored the visitors’ valuable two-goal cushion.

With the finish line now in sight, Tiffs could start to enjoy themselves, abandoning the hoof-ball principles that had served them so well and turning on the flair. An audacious Aidan nutmeg was followed minutes later by a sumptuous flick from Hucks that set MBP away. Bearing down on goal, his hat-trick on the line, the Balham Berbatov rounded the keeper again and made no mistake. The cherry was on the cake and a sweet victory for the away side was soon confirmed by the full-time whistle.

While one purple hero sped off to his driving lesson, the others retired to the showers for their post-match pizza, much to Sammarco’s disgust. Some continued to the Berry, toasting their victory with Heineken 0s and a bit of prime-time Saturday night gameshow entertainment. As they wondered whether their absent striker would be the next contestant out, they were able to bask in the thought that their battling display had been nothing short of gladiatorial.

MOTM – MBP, all those lone trips to training finally paying off