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28.08.2006 @ 15:00 Wincham Park Crowd: 874
Northwich Victoria 0 - 3 Grays Athletic
Referee: C Harwood (Manchester) Conference National-Match

None Aaron McLean (35)
Jamie Stuart (51)
Jamie Slabber (79)
Starting Line-ups
Ben Connett
Gareth Griffiths
Kieran Charnock
Ryan Brown
Michael Carr
Steve Payne
Richard Battersby
Stuart Elliott
Carlos Rocha
John Allan
Paul Brayson
Ashley Bayes
Jay Smith
Andy Sambrook
Adam Green
Jamie Stuart
John Martin
Michael Kightly
Ashley Nicholls
Glenn Poole
Dennis Oli
Aaron McLean
Phil Senior
Kevin Townson
Terry Barwick
Mark Sale
Michael Byrne
Danny Knowles
Nathan Moulds
Tom Williamson
Jamie Slabber
John Turner
Terry Barwick -> Richard Battersby (45)
Mark Sale -> Carlos Rocha (64)
Michael Byrne -> Michael Carr (77)
Jamie Slabber -> Dennis Oli (76)
John Turner -> Aaron McLean (82)
Yellow cards
Gareth Griffiths (78) Aaron McLean (26)
Ashley Nicholls (46)
Michael Kightly (56)
Red cards
None None
Match report |
Stylish Grays reached the Conference summit on Bank Holiday Monday with an emphatic 3-0 win over Northwich Victoria.

Despite a ragged first half, Aaron McLean scored his fifth goal of the season to put the Blues ahead while a much improved second half performance was capped by strikes from the two Jamies, Stuart and Slabber, as Grays got the two clear goals needed to top the table.

Boss Frank Gray said: "It's obviously pleasing to be top but it's far too early to be looking at league tables. But it's always nice to have the points on the board.

"We were disappointing here in the first half and really didn't play well. We had a little bit of a go at them at half time and in the second half they responded well and put in a very professional performance."

Usual suspects Aaron McLean and Michael Kightly led the second half improvement but the real praise should go the Blues defence - a unit that has been over-looked by the side's attacking flair in recent games.

The defence weathered a minor Northwich storm in the first half to record their third clean sheet in a row and skipper Jamie Stuart says that statistic is largely down to Gray and assistant manager Gerry Murphy.

Stuart said: "The manager and Gerry have disciplined the team since they have arrived, especially the wide men. We were a young team last season, we still are, but we kept going forward last year trying to attack, attack, attack when maybe we needed to sit back. But now the wide men are working much harder going the other way and doing their job for the team.

"It's something we are working on a lot in training, we are talking about it a lot and we are getting the rewards. I think we have conceded one goal in open play all season and that's something we want to continue."

Gray added: "We knew there was not a lot needed doing when we came to the club and you only need to look at the goals for column last season to see that. But you also only have to look at the goals against column to see where things might need to be tweaked.

"Fortunately what we have done has worked so far but we've only played five games and there is a long, long way to go."

Despite Grays' acknowledged struggles in the first half whenever they got the ball down and played they still looked like they could carve through the Vics at will.

But they almost found themselves behind in freak circumstances after just 10 seconds when Jay Smith found out just how awkward the blustery conditions were and came dangerously close to scoring a spectacular own goal.

There seemed to be little concern when Vics lumped the ball forward but Smith's attempted clearance sliced wickedly off his boot and had Ashley Bayes back-tracking anxiously before it landed safely on the roof of Blues' net.

At the other end, Dennis Oli nodded Glenn Poole's precision cross just past the far post after an eye-catching build up that spanned the width of the field.

Northwich should have taken the lead themselves when Carlos Rocca's corner found Steve Payne all alone in the box but the winger headed horribly wide from no more than six yards.

McLean then broke clear of the home defence after an incisive through ball from John Martin and cutting inside on his right foot forced Ben Connett into a block at his near post.

Then came the spell of Vics pressure that so upset Gray.

Paul Brayson curled a free kick dangerously wide from 20 yards and then Stuart had to make a courageous block to prevent Jonny Allen's volley from finding the back of the net after Bayes flapped at a flighted free kick from Rocca .

But just as it looked like Grays were beginning to creak they broke with trademark panache and edged in front.

Oli twisted past Kieron Charnock and released McLean, who timed his run perfectly and with just the goalkeeper to beat the conclusion was never in doubt.

McLean, however, proved he is not quite walking on water yet when he missed a great chance to double the lead two minutes before the interval.

Kightly strode purposefully from his own half and slipped in McLean who was again hanging impishly on the shoulder of the last defender.

His first touch took him past Gareth Griffiths, his second round Connett but he was forced too wide and could not apply the finishing touch.

Grays didn't have to wait long for their second, however, which came seven minute after the interval and spelled the start of a wonderful second half showing.

At least three Vics defenders tried but failed to clear an in-swinging free-kick from Poole and lurking on the edge of the box was Stuart who clattered in a volley, with his weaker right foot, into the back of the net via the foot of a post.

Looking to keep up his record of scoring in every game so far, Kightly led the search for the third and he felt he should have had a penalty when he was brought down by Connett.

Exchanging passes with Sambrook he powered into the area and appeared to nick the ball past the Vics stopper before going to ground.

The Blues fans closest to the action seemed convinced it was a penalty but referee Mr Harwood thought otherwise and instead booked the ex-Southend man for diving.

At the other end, Vics created a couple of chances, but nothing to severely test Bayes as Grays poured forward looking to add to their tally.

Oli sliced wide when well placed from Sambrook's cut back before making way for Jamie Slabber who took just three minutes to bag his first of the season.

Kightly, who himself had just been denied by a flying Connett save, escaped down the right and stood up an inviting cross for Slabber to stretch and head home.

"It's nice for Jamie. There has been a lot of speculation around him in recent weeks but his attitude has been first class and I was delighted he got on the scoresheet today," Gray added.

By Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the report.