No Bull, Blues are set on return to the Trophy final
Holders Grays moved into the quarter-finals of the FA Trophy after a fine win at Conference rivals Hereford United.
Midfielder Michael Kightly slammed home the winner just short of the hour mark and it was no less than the Blues deserved after a performance of character, desire and no little skill.
By their own admissions, Mark Stimson’s men have been going through something of a trough in the league lately but their FA Trophy form has been nothing short of exceptional having seen off Aldershot, Kidderminster and now Hereford in their journey to the last eight.
The Blues are now three games from a second successive Trophy final and Stimson says his players will give it their all to get there.
”This is a massive, massive competition for us” he said. “We had a fantastic day out at the final last year and we want to do it again and what with the final being at Upton Park this year that makes it a bit more special.”
The Grays boss was rightly proud of his players who along with Stimson himself, have received some unjust criticism from a minority of their own supporters in the last few weeks.
In many ways Blues’ record-equalling start to their first Conference season raised expectations amongst their supporters to an unrealistic level and some of the new fans have been quick to turn on their side after a handful of poor results.
But, as Stimson points out, the club has come a long way in a short space of time and to expect them to continue their ascent up the football pyramid without obstacles is extremely naive.
”Some people just don’t seem to realise where we have come from. It wasn’t that long ago that we were playing the likes of Chesham and Heybridge Swifts,” he said.
”It’s easy to criticise players when we lose but I believe in the lads and they will their absolute all to the end of the season.”
The players’ spirit was epitomised at the end when the whole squad celebrated with the 44 die hard fans that made the journey to Hereford and then joined together for a motivational huddle.
Stimson explains: “It was a team thing. People will try and break it up and say things that are not nice but all the players can do is believe in me and believe in themselves, which they do 100 per cent.”
Grays’ win was all the more remarkable because their squad was down to the bare bones. A bug going round the squad ruled Cameron Mawer out of the fixture while Andy Edwards and Gary Hooper were both injured and Brett Johnson ineligible.
Indeed, so desperate was the situation Stimson named himself on the bench!
But the absentees were not missed as driven by their magnificent skipper, Stuart Thurgood, Grays outplayed and outfought their opponents for the second time this season.
Aaron McLean came desperately close to opening the scoring for Blues inside the first ten minutes when he capitalised on a mistake by Alex Jeannin and raced towards goal.
In what was a carbon-copy situation of the goal he scored at York two weeks’ previously, the in-form striker tried to replicate his finish of that day but couldn’t get enough elevation on his chip to beat Craig Mawson and the Bulls keeper clawed it away.
McLean turned provider next when he slipped Thurgood in behind Tamika Mkandawire but the Blues skipper couldn’t force the ball past Mawson.
Thurgood threatened again shortly after when he found space on the edge of the box and drove his shot just wide after good work from Jamie Slabber.
The Bulls were strangely subdued and that in a large part must go down to the constant pressure of their visitors, but one player who did look threatening was Stuart Fleetwood who forced a good save out of Bayes after he skipped past a couple of Blues defenders.
Craig Stanley drove a long range screamer over the bar and Andy Williams headed over in the hosts only other efforts of note in a half not exactly brimming with chances.
The second half continued much in the same vain with the Grays midfield proving to be the difference between the sides.
John Martin was his usual busy self, Tom Williamson was bright and Kightly a constant threat. But above all else it was Thurgood who was a class apart.
The 24-year-old just oozes commitment and he ran, tackled and harried his opponents until he had beaten them into submission and if there has been a better midfield performer this year then I haven’t had the privilege of seeing it.
It was fitting then that it was Thurgood who created the winner when he floated a corner over the heads of the entire Bulls defence and found Kightly who steadied himself and thumped the ball into the roof of the net with maximum conviction.
The hosts huffed and puffed in search of an equaliser but they wouldn’t have scored if they had played until midnight such was the paucity of their attacking play and Grays comfortably hung on for a well-deserved win.
Report by Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report