Grays’ fairytale season will almost certainly end with a trip to Villa Park after the super blues trounced Burton Albion in the first leg of their FA Trophy semi final.
In a breathtaking encounter at the New Rec, Mark Stimson’s men outplayed, outfought and outclassed their shell-shocked oppionents, all but confirming their place in the final of the competition on Sunday 22 May.
Two goals from the superb Dennis Oli, plus strikes from Mitchell Cole, Lee Matthews and a penalty from Stuart Thurgood destroyed Nigel Clough’s Burton side who, in truth, were embarrassed by a rampant Blues performance.
Tony Battersby set the tone of the match for the home side minutes into the game when his thunderous shot from Thurgood’s lofted ball flashed past the near post.
The Grays midfield were sharper in the tackle, their defence looked as solid as a rock and Oli's pace up front was causing the Brewers’ back four all sorts of trouble.
And, predictably, it was Oli who created the first goal with just over ten minutes played. With the Burton defence looking like rabbits in the headlights, Oli set out on one of his surging runs towards goal and was hauled down 25 yards from goal by Albion skipper, Darren Stride.
With plenty of options standing over the ball it was Mitchell Cole who stepped up to the plate and sent a curling free-kick that dipped wickedly over the wall and beyond the despairing dive of Dan Crane.
As if the Grays players needed any extra confidence, Cole’s wonderful goal acted like a shot in the arm for the home team and five minutes later they netted a second.
Dean Brennan sent a speculative ball over the top of the Albion defence hoping to exploit Oli's speed, but when the front-man failed to pull it down with one touch the chance looked to have gone. But a break-down in communications between Ryan Austin and Crane allowed Oli to steal in between the dithering goalkeeper and centre-half and lift a header over the stopper’s outstretched arms.
It really was schoolboy stuff from a Burton defence who hadn’t conceded a goal in their trophy run until this game.
Teenage sensation Gary Hooper then almost added a third goal in ten minutes when his error from the edge of the box fizzed wide. It wasn’t all one-way traffic, with Albion creating sporadic chances at the other end, but some magnificent defending from Matthews and his brilliant centre-back partner, Jamie Stuart, snuffed out anything too threatening.
Stride headed a Jon Shaw free-kick over and Andy Ducros forced a safety first approach from Ashley Bayes when the Grays keeper parried behind the midfielder’s stinging effort.
But Albion’s Trophy dreams receded even further ten minutes before the break with Oli once again proving to be the thorn in their side. Receiving a return pass from Battersby — whose hold-up play throughout the game was outstanding - Oli advanced towards the Albion penalty area leaving defenders trailing in his wake.
The hapless Miller desperately tried to catch his man but could only knock Oli’s heels bringing him crashing to the turf and although the referee initially hesitated the linesman made his mind up for him by frantically signalling for a penalty. Skipper Thurgood was coolness personified from the spot, slotting the ball home low to the keeper’s left.
It was almost an amazing four when Brennan’s cross was tipped over by Crane under severe pressure from Oli and Battersby. And Oli again went close seconds before the interval when his shot, from a Cole centre, was well saved by Crane.
Bayes made the first of what was a string of good saves minutes after the re-start as the Brewers came out all guns blazing seeking a foothold in the game. Craig Dudley finding space on the edge of the box pinged a sweet strike at goal which the big stopper did well to parry.
Grays responded immediately when a fantastic strike from Cole from an acute angle rattled the base of the post. But, back came the Brewers and Dudley was again thwarted by Bayes when his header from a Sam Shilton cross was clawed away for a corner.
Then, from the ensuing kick, Battersby cleared a goal-bound Barry Miller header from the line as Albion piled on what turned out to be their only noteworthy spell of pressure.
Grays weathered the storm and scored their fourth mid-way through the half when John Nutter’s deep cross was headed into Oli’s path by Hooper and the star of the show lashed a first-time effort under the goalkeeper.
That goal was Grays’ 150th in all competitions this season -quite an achievement.
The fifth arrived not long after and really put the tie beyond Nigel Clough’s men. Cole was hauled back by Andy Corbett wide on the left and from the resulting free-kick Matthews stole in unmarked to side-foot the ball past Crane from six yards.
Further chances fell to Hooper plus subs, Steve West and Leroy Griffsths and more goals would not have flattered the home side.
At the final whistle the New Rec erupted and saluted their all-conquering heroes who now know that, barring a remarkable collapse, an amazing league and cup double is within touching distance.
Report by Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the report