30.07.2005 @ 15:00 The Recreation Ground
3 - 3
Referee: Mr Monk
A last minute Southend equaliser denied Grays a deserved victory on Saturday in a pulsating game marred only by a serious injury to Blues trialist Sam Wright.
As expected, former Grays favourites Freddy Eastwood and Mitchell Cole, made their return to the New Rec but neither enjoyed a particularly effective afternoon as their former side proved more than a match for their present employers.
Blues took the game to their higher-ranked opponents from the outset, with Cole’s replacement Glenn Poole twice going close inside 10 minutes with dipping shots from distance.
The deadlock was broken minutes later when recent recruit, Jamie Slabber, latched onto a huge goal kick from Ashley Bayes and shot firmly past Darryl Flahavan from an acute angle.
With Southend firmly on the back foot, Grays pressed for a second with rumoured Shrimpers’ target Dennis Oli going close with a header from a Pooler cross.
The ex-QPR man was proving a real threat to Southend’s back line and he went close again minutes later when he forced Flahavan into another smart stop, after a weaving run past Duncan Jupp and Spencer Prior.
Ex-Southend winger, Michael Kightly, then had Grays’ best chance to double their advantage when, after being set up by Slabber, he blasted rashly over from 10 yards.
Grays were ruing that missed chance shortly after as in a blink of an eye they were behind, with two goals in a minute hauling Steve Tilson’s men out of their slumber.
The first came in controversial fashion when the referee adjudged that Jamie Stuart had tugged on Mark Bentley’s shirt inside the area and awarded a spot kick – Wayne Gray rolled in the penalty.
A minute later Stuart was again culpable after his headed back pass eluded Ashley Bayes and from the ensuing kick Prior rose unopposed to thump a header into the back of the net.
The game swung from end to end after that, with Bentley shuddering an upright for the Shrimpers and Oli thumping over from 20 yards having drifted past Adam Barrett with ease.
That was to be Oli’s last contribution of the game as he was withdrawn after picking up a minor knock and was replaced by the in-form Gary Hooper, who had netted a hat-trick against Tilbury two days earlier.
And Hooper continued his rich vein of goal scoring form minutes after the re-start when he bundled home a Poole free-kick to restore parity.
Half-time substitute, Nicky Eyre, then proved why there will be a real fight for the number one jersey at Grays this season when he made a fantastic save to foil Gray who had capitalised on a Stuart slip.
Just past the hour mark, Blues took the lead for the second time when – seconds after Slabber was foiled from point blank range by a terrific stop from Flahavan – Stuart headed a Poole corner into the far corner of the net.
Southend should have equalised within seconds at the other end, but Eastwood failed to convert a Lewis Hunt cross under pressure from Eyre, before a spate of substitutions broke up the rhythm of the game.
Grays sub, Sam Wright, last just five minutes on the pitch when he fell awkwardly on his ankle and had to be carried from the field on a stretcher.
Deep into injury time, Southend nicked the equaliser. John Nutter was caught out of position on the left and when Poole missed his tackle, Dan Woodards broke through to rifle a shot past Eyre and level the scores.
Afterwards, Grays boss, Mark Stimson, declared himself happy with his side’s performance.
”It was a good game against very good opposition,” he said. “There was nothing between the two sides fitness wise and it was a good test because they play football the right way and we stayed with them and even tested them at the other end.
”I think we lost concentration a bit after Sam Wright’s injury and that led to their equaliser, but overall I’m happy we played two league sides in a week and there were a lot of positives to take from the games.”
On Wright’s injury, Stimson added: “It’s a major set-back for the boy. It looks as though he has turned his ankle in the ground.
”It’s hard because he’s come to us, picked up a couple of knocks in training and played his first 90 minutes against Tilbury and was outstanding. That’s why we brought him on today and looks as though he’s picked up a serious injury”.
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report
Grays: Ashley Bayes (Nicky Eyre), Jamie Stuart, John Nutter, Glenn Poole, John Martin (Sam Wright, Tom Williamson), Michael Kightly, Dennis Oli (Gary Hooper, Tony Battersby), Jamie Slabber (Aaron McLean)
Southend: Flahavan, Jupp (Hunt 46), Prior (Edwards 70), Barrett (Jozic 70), Wilson, Gower (Pettefer 46), Maher (Smith 76), Bentley (Woodards 64), Guttridge (Cole 46), Eastwood, Gray (Ibe 84)