Tuesday night’s Nationwide Conference dress rehearsal for tomorrow’s FA Trophy quarter-final saw Dagenham totally outclass Grays in all departments, with Sam Saunders and Craig Mackail-Smith performing outstandingly.
Grays made two changes to their starting line-up from the defeat at Halifax with Andy Edwards and Stuart Thurgood replacing Christian Hanson and Tom Williamson respectively.
On a very cold, wet and windy night at The Rec the visitors started the brighter of the two sides with Ashley Bayes saving Saunders’ free kick. Grays then began to get into the game and after some near approach work, had a chance through Michael Kightly but his effort was saved with ease by Welsh international Tony Roberts.
A combination of bad luck and sloppy defending saw Blues go behind after 11 minutes. Mackail-Smith delivered in a cross that was not cleared and fell to Paul Bruce whose shot took a deflection and looped over Bayes’ head.
Grays produced an immediate response when Gary Hooper chased a long ball which forced Roberts to come out of his box and kick out for a throw.
Ex-Thurrock forward Cliff Akurang then saw his effort go wide of the target. But he did not have to wait much longer to score Daggers’ second when Danny Foster’s cross came into the box. Akurang produced a finish that went in off the inside of the post with the Grays defence static and claiming offside in vain.
In difficult conditions with the swirling wind and rain soaking most of the 1,065 spectators, Grays continued to struggle to put two decent passes together though Glenn Poole managed a left foot shot that Roberts pushed wide.
Grays were playing a direct form of football which almost paid off when Andy Sambrook knocked the ball behind the visiting defence and Tony Battersby controlled the ball well and ran on goal and produced a shot that Roberts could only parry. It almost fell to Poole but he was beaten to the ball by a Daggers defender.
Dagenham went on the counter attack and Mackail-Smith produced a teasing cross that forced John Nutter to jab the ball out for a corner with Akurang ready to pounce.
But the predictable third goal came a minute before half-time when Southam put away a cross from Saunders who had produced a great run capped by a fine delivery.
At half time Grays were forced into a change with the injured Sambrook replaced by Christian Hanson. Grays seemed to come out for the second half a rejuvenated side and the fans urged the team forward with Grays having a flurry of chances which culminated when Martin found Kightly in acres of space at the back post but his volley struck the post.
Dagenham were hardly getting a sniff and Battersby shot from inside the box but his shot was cleared by the Dagenham defence. After 53 minutes Dagenham had their first real effort of the half when Akurang produced a hopeful shot which was wide of the target.
Blues boss Mark Stimson then decided to change things, bringing on Dennis Oli for the tiring Battersby.
Grays were still in a with a faint shout but 30 fluctuating seconds put the match beyond them. Martin looked all set to score after working himself space in the box following good work by Kightly and Poole, but his strike held up in the cloying mud allowing Roberts to save. He quickly cleared the ball to catch Grays’ defence flat-footed and Akurang went past the onrushing Bayes and got his shot away from an acute angle to put the game out of reach with just 24 minutes to play. Grays continued to try and salvage some pride and Nutter blazed a left foot shot high over the bar.
Stimson then brought on Tom Williamson to give the midfield a fresh pair of legs in place of martin but, with players getting tired in the dreadful conditions the last quarter of an hour was almost chanceless until the hard-working Kightly forced Roberts into a full-stretched 89th minutes save.
Afterwards both managers were able to raise a smile at the unexpected margin of victory.
Still said: “That’s football for you, funny things happen. Everyone says it but it happens. We came here and took on a really good side and we’ve worked hard, had a little fortune and things have gone for us.
”I think we’ve got a squad of good players who have been playing well now for quite some time and it’s all fallen into place for us tonight. I’m please, not just with the result but with the performance because we’ve worked hard and shown commitment.
”Having said that this game’s gone now and we’ve got to look forward to Saturday.
”It’s going to be a difficult game because it’s a competition they’ve done well in and they won’t want to give up the cup. They’ve had a bit of an off day tonight; it might be our turn on Saturday. Football’s got a habit of doing things like that and kicking you down when you’re up.
Stimson, who kept his players in the dressing room for a long time after the final whistle, emerged with a rueful look and conceded his side had got exactly what they deserved.
He said: “I thought we got off to a decent start but they got the first goal through a deflection, the second one we went to sleep and from then on we were chasing.
”Then they pick a ball up on the halfway line, there’s no danger but they inject a bit of pace and they score a third. Defensively we were very poor and attacking-wise, we know we need to do better.
”I can only say that tonight only three or four really wanted it and showed passion. The rest didn’t, for whatever reason. Perhaps there was something leftover from the sickness that we suffered in the squad at the weekend but I’m not sure. Something wasn’t right.
Report by Colin Munford
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report