A Grays side savaged by injury and illness were denied a brave point at play-off rivals Halifax when John Grant spectacularly volleyed home a winner two minutes from time.
The goal was cruel on a Blues side riddled with a mystery illness and without two of their most influential players, but it’s hard to argue that the Shaymen didn’t deserve it.
Even a full strength Grays team would have had their work cut out against a side who have yet to be beaten at home this season and the make-shift eleven that did take to the field had their backs to the wall for much of the game.
In fact, it’s a credit to the Blues that they came within two minutes of coming away with a share of the spoils but it wasn’t to be and the hosts ground out a win that saw them leapfrog Grays in the table.
”It’s very disappoint but the goal was coming,” admitted boss Mark Stimson afterwards. “We were defending so well but they really put us under pressure and we just couldn’t hang on. This is a really tough place to come, I said at the start of the season that Halifax will be up there and I think they’ve showed why today.”
The Blues boss refused to pin the blame on injuries but given that he was forced into picking just about anyone who was able to stand-up, including two players who couldn’t last the 90 minutes, shows the resources were stretched to the very limit.
The sick and injured list read like a hospital roll call: skipper Stuart Thurgood failed a late fitness test after picking up a knock to his back during training. Aaron McLean was suspended and his replacement, Dennis Oli, was ruled out hours before kick off with a bout of sickness.
Brett Johnson didn’t even travel with the squad as he was suffering with the same bug and by kick-off time, both Christian Hanson and Tom Williamson were in a bad way. Both started but were then sick at half time and were replaced soon after half time.
Stimson added, “Oli was going to replace McLean and he had been absolutely flying in training but we had to leave him on the coach during the game because he felt to so bad. We started with Williamson and Hanson but we just couldn’t keep them on. You could see in their faces that they didn’t have any energy to carry on so we had to change the whole shape of the team again.
”Having said that we didn’t create enough goal-scoring chances today. We lacked a bit of pace upfront when we did get in behind, some of our strikers were on the edge of the box watching for some reason. But what I can’t fault my for is effort and enthusiasm.”
It all started so encouragingly for Grays as well when they took the lead with their first real attack of the game in the 11th minute.
The hosts has started the brighter and John Nutter was forced into making a good block to deny Dean Howell from drilling home a corner before Michael Kightly won a fee kick just inside the Shaymen’s half.
Andy Sambrook’s kick picked out Gary Hooper in the box who wriggled clear of Greg Young and appeared to be hauled down by his marked before feeding the ball across goal to stand-in captain Jamie Stuart.
Stuart, who had made his way up from centre back, was all alone in the box and after steadying himself, pinged the ball into the far corner with his sweet left foot.
Glenn Poole then tested Jon Kennedy with a drive which bounced uncomfortably on the Halifax stopper after striking one of the many divots on a horrible pitch.
The Shaymen continued to look dangerous whenever they ventured forward and it was no surprise when they grabbed the equaliser shortly after though, it has to be said Grays’ defenders game them a huge helping hand.
Tyrone Thompson waltzed his way into the box and shot expertly past Ashley Bayes to level the scores.
Hooper then stretched to head a Grant shot off the line from a Matt Doughty corner and Adam Quinn did exactly the same at the other end to deny Stuart a second goal.
Blues’ enforced re-shuffle, which saw Cam Mawer and Andy Edwards replaced Hanson and Williamson, meant they reverted to the tried and tested 4-4-2 formation with Sambrook pushed into the unfamiliar central midfield role.
And the re-shuffle certainly didn’t harm the visitors who looked far more at ease in the formation they have been playing regularly for the last couple of years.
But though they retained possession better in the opening stages of the second half they just couldn’t do enough to trouble the Shaymen’s backline.
Kightly came the closest when his snapshot was snaffled up by Kennedy but, other than that, chances were few and far between.
The hosts upped the ante in the closing stages and the final 15 minutes saw an almost constant assault on the Grays goal. Grant should have scored eight minutes before he did when more good work from Thompson released him in the box but the 24-year-old shot straight at Bayes.
Bayes then caused hearts to flutter when he flapped at a cross and Stuart was forced to hack clear before the Shaymen got their winner.
Substitute Lewis Killeen out-foxed Stuart on the right and stood up a wonderful cross for Grant who had peeled away from his marker. The ex-Crewe trainee still had a lot to do but he controlled the ball on his chest and hit a wonderful volley that went in off the underside of the bar.
Report by Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report