Grays’ midfield dynamo, John Martin grabbed a hat-trick as Blues romped to victory over a shell-shocked Gravesend and Northfleet on Tuesday night.
Dennis Oli, Glenn Poole and Jamie Slabber also chipped in with a goal apiece as Mark Stimson’s men hit heady height on the Conference home debut.
Martin – who was one of a number of Grays players being watched by England National Game XI boss, Paul Fairclough – is fast becoming an integral part of the Blues machine and has arguably superseded skipper, Stuart Thurgood, as the star man in the middle of the park.
A delighted Stimson beamed afterwards “The lad gives everything . He has got tremendous fitness; everyday in training he’s in the top two or three and for a little man he has got a great big heart. I could work with players like that all week.”
It took just over half an hour for Martin to net his and Grays’ first after good chances came and went at either end during a see-saw opening period.
Oli’s thunderous drive stung the palms of stopped, Aaron Kerr and Gary Hooper glanced a header wide for the home side, before Danny Slatter’s magnificent volley was well saved by Grays’ custodian, Ashley Bayes.
The home side built up a head of steam on the half hour mark and their pressure paid dividends when Hooper’s right wing cross was dabbed home by Martin at the back tick.
Gravesend came a lick of paint away from equalising three minutes later when skipper, Paul McCarthy’s header shuddered Bayes’ near post after a flighted free-kick from Jimmy Jackson.
And Bobby Bowry dangerously fizzed a cross-cum-shot across goal after a quick throw-in from Scott Gooding.
But the FA Trophy holders defended stoutly and double their advantage shortly before the interval when the instrumental Tony Battersby, released Oli who left defenders trailing in his wake to confidently slot the ball home.
Gravesend brought on Manny Omoyinmi on for Bowry at the start of the second half and the ex-West Ham man’s pace initially caused the Grays defence some trouble.
And after a spell of pressure, interrupted by a disallowed goal from Poole, the away side halved the deficit when Charlie MacDonald coolly converted after Bayes had spilled a long free kick from McCarthy.
Stung by the goal Grays responded swiftly and restored their two goal advantage through Martin who guided home a Poole cut-back after good work from Thurgood and Hooper.
Liam Daish’s side should have pegged the scores back again three minutes later but MacDonald unselfishly crossed for Omoyinmi when he would have been better advised to shoot.
MacDonald paid for the mistake as Grays’ man-of-the-match, Martin completed hit hat-trick from the spot – at the second attempt – after Oli had been upended by Kerr, who was rightfully dismissed to add to Gravesend’s ever-increasing troubles.
With Grays in cruise control and Fleet well and truly against the ropes it was no surprise that Blues extended their leas in the closing stages.
Poole added the fifth from a Hooper cross that caught the Gravesend back line sound asleep and substitute Slabber made it six of the best when he crashed home a Hooper through ball.
Afterwards Stimson laughed off suggestions that Conference football is a stroll in the park for his side.
He said: “It was not easy tonight. It was down to hard work and good movement, there was some fantastic finishing out there but we expect to get in those positions.
”It was hard to fault anyone out there, I was disappointed with the goal we conceded, but everyone played well.”
Stimson also admitted that it looks like striker/defender, Steve West is on his way of the club.
He said: “West wants to play football. I can only pick 11 players. If you are not in the 11 or the 16 you must still be willing to work hard.
”Take Ade Olayinka, he has been at the club for 18 months and unfortunately not played that much but his attitude is phenomenal.”
With West’s imminent departure, the Grays supreme is trying to bring in some fresh faces before the transfer window closes in two weeks, but admits it’s been difficult.
”I’ve been on the phone for the last 48 hours trying to find players, but it’s hard to to get players who can improve the team as you can see by tonight’s performance.
Report by Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report