Bognor slipped to their second straight defeat after conceding two goals in the final 13 minutes at Merstham.
The Rocks led through first-half goals by Jason Prior and Chike Kandi but ended on the wrong side of a 3-2 scoreline for the second time in four days to slip to third place in the Ryman premier.
Ongoing injuries to key players left Bognor short of options. With Dan Beck and Alex Parsons still missing and James Crane carrying a knock from the weekend, Mark Knee was drafted in from Horsham to play his second game of the season – and acquitted himself well.
The home side started strongly on a wet and slick surface, with Fabio Saravai coming close with a strong effort in the opening minutes. However Bognor soon got into their stride and with Ollie Pearce’s speed and trickery on the right wing, they began to take the game to their hosts.
One run saw Pearce easily outpace the left-back before firing an enticing cross into the six-yard box. Home goalkeeper Josh Smith hesitated but Kandi missed his connection by a whisker.
The visitors had Merstham pinned in their own half although right-back Michael Abnett broke for the Surrey hosts, carrying the ball from deep in his own half before firing in a powerful shot from 20 yards. Grant Smith saved well, and promptly set up a counter attack.
Bognor forced a corner from this attack and Perace’s corner was met well by Prior. His firm header was on target but it appeared as if there was confusion in the home defence. Two players on the line and the keeper seemed unsure as to who should go for the ball as Prior claimed his 19th goal of the season.
It looked likely Bognor would add to their tally as they continued to threaten the home defence. However Merstham scored a surprise equaliser after 21 minutes.
Snorre Nilsen had conceded a foul just outside the box, and Saravai drove a powerful shot in off the far post. It seemed the Rocks’ defence left far too much space for Saravai and they were punished for their lack of concentration.
Bognor quickly regained control, with Prior unlucky not to score again. His header was on target from another Pearce cross, but Douglas was able to head off the line with the keeper beaten. A few moments later Prior turned provider for Pearce but his shot lacked power and a defender was able to clear.
Two minutes before the break Bognor deservedly retook the lead. A free-kick was taken by Pearce into the box. Prior headed it on and Kandi slotted home coolly despite desperate attempts by the home keeper.
There was still time for a rare Merstham attack before the break, but Tom Kavanagh blazed over the bar.
The Rocks finished the half a goal in front, but it really should have been more. They began the second half in similar vein with a lot of possession and some good goalscoring opportunities.
Nilsen tried two powerful long-range shots, but Josh Smith was comfortable with them. Prior had yet another header cleared off the line as Merstham hung on and Kandi thought he had scored, only for an offside flag to be raised.
Phil Page was looking dangerous for Merstham when they were able to get the ball to him, and midway through the half he was released by an excellent through-ball from Simon Cooper. He outpaced the Bognor central defenders before his powerful shot was well saved by Grant Smith.
This was a taste of things to come – suddenly Merstham started to look dangerous. Bognor’s cause was not helped when first Prior and minutes later Kandi limped off to be replaced by Alfie Rutherford and Stuart Green.
With 13 minutes to go Merstham drew level. Michael Abnett was allowed to send a deep cross into the box and substitute Callum Wilcock, signed from Dulwich Hamlet only days ago, was given time to slide in and guide the ball into the net.
Four minutes later the home side were in front. A long ball through the middle was initially missed by Craig Robson. Page latched on to it and muscled his way past a couple of defenders before striking a fierce shot past Grant Smith from some 18 yards.
Bognor seemed shellshocked by this turnaround and for a few minutes they struggled to get back into the game. But in the dying moments they appeared to find fresh wind.
An excellent lobbed pass from Rutherford set up a glorious opportunity for Green. He ghosted past Merrick James-Lewis on the edge of the box and as the keeper advanced he placed his shot past him, but agonisingly just past the post.
Moments later Rutherford won the ball and set off on a run towards the box. He let fly with a blistering shot only to see Josh Smith produce a stunning diving save to tip the ball around for a corner.
From the corner Robson found himself in a good position just eight yards out but his tame header came to nothing.
In the fourth minute of added time Rutherford again carved out a good opportunity. His shot was saved by the keeper but it broke to the onrushing Crane who seemed sure to equalise – only for a home defender to somehow get back to block the shot on the line.
Bognor will be disappointed that despite all the opportunities created, they could only score twice, and that at the other end their opponents were able to score three from very few real opportunities.
The worry now is how many on the injury list will be fit to face Bath City in the FA Trophy on Saturday.
ROCKS: Smith, Whyte, Knee, Tuck (Crane 80), El-Abd, Robson, Perace, Nilsen, Prior (Rutherford 70), Kandi (Green 74), Field. Sub not used: Wollers.
Report by SIMON COOK
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