Yesterday was always going to be Grays’ day, and the ‘boys in blue’ ensured that this immense season ended on a high note. In front of a 1,000+ crowd on a glorious spring afternoon the League Champions gave a classy and self-assured display to defeat Havant and Waterlooville, who no doubt felt like bit part players.
It didn’t take long for the party to start either. With just six minutes gone John Nutter’s inch perfect cross was smashed in at the far post by the in form Tony Battersby. Grays again pushed forward, and both Mitchell Cole and Dennis Oli were denied by Hawks keeper Gareth Howells.
Around the quarter of an hour mark Havant’s Jamie Collins was yellow carded for a foul on Captain Stuart Thurgood, which incensed the Blues players and resulted in a minor fracas. Referee Mr. Langford calmed things down and play continued.
On twenty-three minutes Gary Hooper was brought down in the box by Peter Fear and Mr. Langford did not hesitate in pointing to the spot. Crowd favourite Ashley Bayes raced down field to take the penalty, and although his initial kick was blocked by Howells, the Grays keeper followed it up and poked the ball just to the right of his opposite number. The bubbly keeper was clearly delighted to have scored his first goal since arriving at the Rec last November, and the young Blues fans immediately burst into song heaping praise on the popular player.
Hawks then attempted to get back into the game, but top scorer Dean Holdsworth blasted over the bar when well placed. Ten minutes later the ex-professional looked to have pulled one back for the visitors, but amid the celebrations came the realization that the linesman’s flag had been raised for offside.
As the interval approached Hooper sent a shot straight into the arms of Howells, and John Martin, giving another outstanding performance in midfield curled his effort just over the crossbar.
Grays eased their foot off the pedal during the second period, but this made little difference to the opposition for whom chances were scarce, and Blues remained in control playing some ‘sexy’ football.
However, within minutes of the restart a chance fell to Hawks’ Brett Poate but the ex-Southampton defender’s low eighteen yard drive was saved by Bayes, who uncharacteristically had trouble holding onto the ball.
Both Cole who was causing the visitors problems, and Hooper squandered chances, and for Havant the experienced Holdsworth blasted an eighteen yard free kick over the bar when maybe he could have done better.
Perhaps as a result of frustration or their inability to compete a few Grays players found themselves on the receiving end of some heavy tackles, and when a foul by Jason Chewins on Cole went unpunished the man in black found himself on the receiving end of the Blues fans wroth!! Although minutes later the ex-Aldershot player could not escape a caution for a reckless challenge on Oli, and followed his team mate Neil Champion into the Referee’s notebook. Soon to join them was defender Tom Jordan.
On seventy-five minutes Grays made their final substitution bringing on Martin Carthy for Cole, having already replaced Hooper and Battersby with Steve West and Vill Powell.
Shortly after coming off the bench Carthy had a golden opportunity, but the midfielder’s point blank range header was directed straight at the Hawks keeper. Substitute West then came close for Grays having been set-up by fellow substitute Powell, recently returned from his stint at Weymouth.
With Blues superiority evident it was always on the cards and in the eighty-eighth minute they increased their lead further. Dean Brennan’s close range shot, having made a great run down the right, was blocked by Howells but the versatile player collected the lose ball and turned it back into the path of Powell who fired home.
Once the final whistle had been blown club officials assembled the League Podium on the pitch, and no-one would have needed a crystal ball to predict what was to follow……………………………………………………………
A celebratory group hug by the players and management, and then in pairs (a bit reminiscent of Noah’s Ark) they took centre stage to receive their medals. The cup adorned with ribbons in the club’s colours was then held up high for all to see and Director of Football Mr. Woodward took great pleasure in soaking the triumphant players in champagne, and the photographers were very busy indeed.
Shirts, programs and body parts were signed by the players and their sweat/champagne soaked shirts were thrown into the crowd.
After a lap of honour the players somehow managed to make their way to the changing room, and the crowd began to disperse.
However, for those that chose to wait outside the dressing room there was more…………………………..through the window and door flew an assortment of player’s apparel…………………….shirts, shorts, socks, boots, and tracksuits.
Scenes of total ecstasy, and there was still more to come later in the Clubhouse.................party time!!
Report by Carol Dover
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the report.