After being thrashed by Daggers 4-0 in the league five days earlier Grays responded with great character to hold their near-neighbours to a draw after a scrappy but entertaining FA Trophy quarter-final at the Recreation Ground on Saturday.
Craig Mackail-Smith, who had earlier equalised Glenn Poole’s opener, had a golden chance to win it for the visitors in the closing minutes of the game, when he latched on to a defence-splitting pass from Chris Moore, but he couldn’t beat Ashley Bayes with his finish.
The save was partial redemption for Bayes who was at fault for the visitors’’ leveller when he dropped a long throw at the feet of Mackail-Smith who said thank you very much and slotted the ball home.
”He was a bit too honest there,” said manager Mark Stimson afterwards. “He wanted to get involved when maybe he should have stayed at home like he did in the second half and wait for someone else to clear it.
”But overall I’m very proud of my players> I asked them for honesty and that’s what I got. They were all absolutely excellent and I can’t ask for anymore than that.”
Stimson made four changes from the side that capitulated against the same opponents days earlier with Andy Sambrook, Andy Edwards, John Martin and Tony Battersby making way for Cameron Mawer, Christian Hanson, Aaron McLean and surprisingly Ade Olayinka.
Olayinka was called back early from a loan spell at Ryman Premier Division side Hampton & Richmond and was pitched straight into the centre of midfield for what was a typically bruising derby encounter.
”I ask for honesty for my players and that’s what Ade gives,” said Stimson. “He’s not frightened to get involved in a tackle and that’s what he did today. He went in the middle and gave as good as he got and I thought he was outstanding.”
Olayinka was indeed outstanding and epitomised a Grays performance that certainly wasn’t pretty but which was packed full of grit and determination.
From the outset they began like a team with a point to prove with Stuart Thurgood and Olayinka rattling into tackles across the park and strikers Gary Hooper and McLean competing for every ball against a triumvirate of towering centre backs.
It was no more than they deserved then when they took the lead after just eight minutes.
Hooper had already blasted over the bar after a good pass from Thurgood when he came close to capitalising on a woeful kick from Tony Roberts only for Anwar Uddin to recover and poke the ball for a corner.
Poole took the kick which was half-cleared by the Daggers defence but Thurgood was on hand to turn the ball back to the corner taker who then struck a fantastic, if somewhat speculative shot over his shoulder and in off the post from the edge of the box.
Olayinka should have celebrated his return to the club and added a second minutes later when he arrived late on a Hooper flick-on but couldn’t keep his header down.
The ex-Barnet man was soon called into action at the other end when he made a fantastic block to deny Scott Griffiths after Bayes had spilled a cross from Danny Foster.
Bayes wasn’t so lucky minutes after though when, for the second time, he tried to come for a cross that he was never getting and dropped the ball at the feet of Mackail-Smith who gleefully stroked the ball home from close range to level the scores.
The two sides were trying to do their best despite a blustering wind, a lively pitch and a truly awful referee, Robert Shoebridge, who made one appalling decision after another all day.
But there was no verdict more incomprehensible than his decision to award Dagenham a free kick after Uddin had collided with his own keeper to allow Michael Kightly a pot-shot at an open goal despite the midfielder standing literally yards from the incident.
It was actually to Kightly’s benefit that the referee deemed he had been the offender, because from no more than 10 yards out he blasted wide, but the decision was indicative of Mr Shoebridge’s truly awful performance.
Dagenham’s leveller took the wind out of the home side’s sails and Moore who returned for the cup-tied Cliff Akurang had a great chance to send the visitors in with a half time lead when he reacted first to a deflected Paul Bruce free kick but was denied by a smart stop from Bayes.
The experienced stopper was called into action again from the ensuing corner when Uddin climbed highest but was denied by a diving save from Bayes.
The second half was a much scrappier affair with neither side doing enough to win it though Dagenham certainly had the better chances.
Moore showed glimpses of his enormous potential and forced Bayes into yet another good save after he had waltzed past Cameron Mawer and Thurgood on the left touchline.
The ex-Northwood man then saw a shot deflected wide before he created Mackail-Smith’s wonderful chance in the final minutes.
With Grays pressing for a winner, Moore robbed Thurgood on the half-way line and skipped past a couple of challenges before picking out his strike partner with an exquisite pass fir enough to win any game.
Mackail-Smith didn’t even need to take a touch and drilled his shot towards goal but Bayes made up for his error with an excellent save to ensure his side’s grip on the FA Trophy remained.
Report by Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report