Jamie Slabber celebrated his return to the side with a ht-trick as Grays defeated Cambridge United in an eight goal thriller at the New Rec on Tuesday night.
The ex-Tottenham hit-man who has been out of the side since picking up a hip injury against Aldershot on Bank Holiday Monday, led a scintillating Grays performance that will have struck fear into every side in the division.
Slabber was joined n the scoresheet by Gary Hooper while an embarrassing own goal from U’s keeper, Scott Howie, completed the score=-sheet as the Grays front line ran riot.
Hooper and Glenn Poole were constant menaces on the flanks. Dennis Oli delighted in tormenting the club that dumped him after just a handful of games and Slabber showed just why Mark Stimson has placed so much faith in him.
”He’s come in and shown just what he can do,” said Stimson of Slabber. “There was some great finishes there. He’s looking fit and if he can get three of four games under his belt then he’s going to be a real handful.”
But it wasn’t just Slabber’s goals that had the Grays boss purring, the whole side’s first half performance put a smile on his face.
”That first half display was as good a performance as we’ve had all season,” he said. “We zipped the ball around and showed some great movement.
”I thought that when we scored the fifth a few of the boys eased off just a little bit which is natural and let them back into it a bit but as long as you get those three points you should be happy.”
After Saturday’s disappointing draw at Tamworth, Stimson kept his word and shook up his staring XI.
Keeper Ashley Bayes was the highest profile casualty of Stimson’s cull as he paid the price for a couple of mistakes in his past two games and Nicky Eyre was drafted in for his debut.
Former U, Stevland Angus also returned to face his former team at the expense of Joe Bruce and Slabber replaced Aaron McLean.
After a bright start from Cambridge, Slabber opened his account in Blues’ first attack of the game.
A quick throw from Cam Mawer was turned into Slabber’s path by Hooper and the 20-year-old worked a slick give and go with his strike partner Oli before dabbing the ball over Howie with great aplomb.
He almost doubled his tally minutes after when he latched onto a defence-splitting pass from Stuart Thurgood but couldn’t beat Howie on his weaker right foot.
Moments after Angus was fortunate to escape with a yellow card when he hauled down the goal bound Matt Nolan but, to the dismay of the U’s support, the referee decided that Jamie Stuart’s positioning meant that angus couldn’t be deemed as the last man.
The travelling fan’s anger briefly abated when their side restored parity through a thumping free kick from Ritchie Hanlon – Cambridge’s first goal in five games – but their pleasure didn’t last long as Grays swiftly hit back.
Stopper Howie produced a fine save to turn a fierce Thurgood drive around the post but that stop proved inconsequential as seconds later he flapped a Dean Brennan corner into his own net and hoped the ground would swallow him up.
Stuart then poked another Brennan corner inches wide as Grays poured on the pressure and a hapless U’s defence caved in.
Hooper grabbed the third when he played a headed one-two with Oli and nodded past Howie and Slabber put the game beyond Cambridge’s reach when he latched onto an Oli flick on and lashed a stinging shot into the corner of the net.
Hooper and Oli also had chances to score before the interval but the home side had to wait until three minutes after the interval to add to their score.
Oli collected a thrown from Hooper in the Cambridge box and was bundles over by Adam Davies. Thurgood passed over the spot-kick duties to Slabber who gleefully converted his first hat-trick in senior football.
The game looked to be well beyond Cambridge’s reach but, credit to them, they dug deep into their reserves of spirit and staged a second half performance that may have saved their manager, Rob Newman, his job.
Skipper, Mark Peters, towered above the Grays defence to head home a Stephen Smith corner and Hanlon grabbed his second of the game when he crashed home another rasping drive from 25 yards.
Craig Westcarr had a late chance to really put some pressure on the home side but was foiled by a smart save from Eyre as Grays held firm.
”Some of our defending in the second half was a bit disappointing,” Stimson said afterwards. “Fortunately we did most of the hard work in the first half but sometime you have to know when to just stick your foot through the ball. I though we gave the ball away a bit too much in defensive areas.
”But we’ve had a fantastic start to the season. Some people’s expectations will rise but I still say that we are in the top 10 at the end of the season I will be happy,” he added.
Report by Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report