Forty-eight hours on from scoring the Welling United goal that handed Grays the title, Martin Carthy was back in a Blues shirt on Monday as Mark Stimson made a raft of changes ahead of Saturday’s FA Trophy semi-final.
Carthy was recalled from his loan spell at Welling and, with Stuart Thurgood one of nine first-teamers rested, the midfield man was handed the honour of leading out the newly crowned champions in front of a packed New Rec crowd.
With a party atmosphere pervading the stadium and a re-jigged side, Grays were never at their fluent best but two goals from Steve West and a strike from substitute Vill Powell proved that even in a lower gear the champions are a class apart.
In what could well prove a dress rehearsal for the FA Trophy final, the first-half had the feel of two sides sparring with one another, with clear-cut chances very much at a premium.
Grays had the lion’s share of possession and with Dennis Oli’s searing pace on the right and John Nutter and Leroy Griffiths probing on the opposite flank, it was Stimson’s men who always looked the more likely to score, but the final ball was often lacking.
Dean Brennan had a couple of speculative free-kicks which were easily fielded by Andrew Young in the Stortford goal and West headed a Nutter cross wide under pressure from Ben Lewis.
When Blues did fashion a goal scoring chances, Aaron McLean could only scuff his close-range shot into the arms on Young, after a wicked cross from Nutter.
With the prolific Steve Morrison rested ahead of their own semi-final on Saturday, Stortford offered very little in attack but they almost sprung a surprise when an Alex Martin corner was headed onto the roof of the net by skipper Dave Rainford minutes before the interval.
They were lucky, however, to still be playing with 11 men at that stage after a clumsy challenge from Lewis on McLean, almost tempted the referee to issue a second yellow card to the big stopper.
But Martin Hayes’ men came out with a bit more enterprise in the second period and should have taken the lead ten minutes after the restart when Paul Hakim missed a gilt-edged chance.
All alone in the six-yard box Hakim glanced a header wide when it was easier to score after a peach of a ball from Rainford.
Spurred by their let-off Grays reasserted their dominance and finally made their possession pay mid-way through the half – albeit with a little help from Stortford fullback Jay Smith.
Receiving the ball in the corner of his own penalty box, Smith had two chances to clear the ball down-field but, despite being hounded by two Grays players, he foolishly attempted to play his way out of trouble and was robbed by Nutter who crossed for Griffiths.
Stortford though they had cleared the danger when Griffiths’ effort was blocked, but in a magnificent bit of improvisation, West back heeled the loose ball past the despairing Young and into the corner of the net.
Five minutes later the home side grabbed a second when McLean raced down the right and crossed to the near post where Powell got across his man and beat Young with a crashing shot through his legs.
With the crowd in jubilant mood Grays started to play with the swagger associated with champions and it was no surprise when West grabbed the third after powering in a header from Brennan’s corner.
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the report.