Blues bounce back
Holders Grays booked an FA Trophy semi-final date with Exeter City after an epic replay that will live long in the memory.
Despite their loftier league position, Blues went into the game very much the underdog after Dagenham had thrashed them 4-0 in the league a week earlier and held them to a 1-1 draw at the Rec on Saturday.
But Mark Stimson’s men put in a performance full of character, desire and no little skill to turn the tables on their near-neighbours and run out deserved winners.
The win leaves Grays just two games away from a second successive Trophy final and acts as a firm riposte to critics who have unbelievably criticised the club in recent weeks.
There is no doubt that Blues’ league performance against Dagenham seven days previously had been nothing short of woeful but section oft he home support who criticised the 1-1 draw between the two sides on Saturday need their heads checked.
Ok, Blues’ play wasn’t always pretty but what side comes off the back of a 4-0 drubbing and plays an expansive, passing game against the same opponents? No one. Stimson set his side up not the beaten and that’s exactly what they did on Saturday.
Having got that draw, the Blues boss could switch his attention to the away fixture which was always going to more suited to Grays’ lightening-quick counter-attacking game and so it proved.
”This was all about proving a point to some people,” said Stimson afterwards. “This time last week I had a lot of people doubting my players but we have not become a bad side overnight.
”When people do start to doubt you after one bad result in two years it throws you a bit of concern. But we came out and got a draw on Saturday and we desperately, desperately wanted to win tonight.
”I asked my players some massive questions to get the ball down and play and that’s what they did for 90 minutes and this is a massive, massive win for us.”
Stimson added: “This Trophy means so much to us because of what we experienced last year. It’s also important financially because we need the money. We’ve now got two big games with Exeter coming up which mean, more money and Mick Woodward and the whole club will be pleased with that.”
On a night of sub-zero temperatures, Stimson made one change to the side that held Dagenham four days previously with Dennis Oli coming in for Gary Hooper.
Ade Olayinka picked up where he left off on Saturday in shadowing Dagenham’s influential midfielder Sam Saunders and Glenn Poole kept his place in the side.
Daggers started the game strongly and set about testing Blues keeper, Ashley Bayes, who made a couple of howlers four day’s earlier, with as many crosses as possible.
But Blues looked dangerous on the counter-attack from the outset and they had the best chance to open the scoring in the opening exchanges when Poole’s cross from the left was met by Aaron McLean whose deft volley flew wide of the far post.
The game followed much the same pattern until Grays skipper, Stuart Thurgood, opened the scoring mid-way through the half.
John Nutter was fouled on the left touch line and Thurgood dangerously whipped in the subsequent free kick. The ball flew across a posse of Grays attackers and with Tony Roberts transfixed on his line, the ball dropped into the bottom corner of the net.
Dagenham should have equalised within a minute when, not for the first time in the evening, Chris Moore gave Cameron Mawer the slip and volleyed across goal only for Bayes to make a fine one-handed save.
Watching Grays this season is a bit like watching Newcastle under Kevin Keegan: You know they are to score but you also know they are going to concede so the only answer is to out-score their opponents.
That was again the case on Tuesday night and even when Oli smacked in Blues’ second after 11 minutes before the interval, after a swift counter-attack involving Nutter and the ever-impressive Michael Kightly, you just had a feeling the match was not dead.
And so it proved because two minutes later a break-down in communications between Bayes and Mawer enabled Craig Mackail-Smith to half the deficit and rouse the Daggers’ faithful.
Tim Cole’s long free kick should have been dealt with by Bayes and it looked as the though the stopper had called for the ball and then stopped which allowed Mackail-Smith to escape Mawer’s attentions and force the ball over the line.
Another howler from Bayes almost proved costly just before the interval when Saunders’ wicked free kick was spilled by the Blues custodian and after Cole’s attempt had been partially blocked, Moore hooked the ball home only for the linesman to flag, quite rightly, for offside.
As good as this win was for Grays, Stimson must be concerned about the form of his goalkeeper who seems to be suffering from a crisis of confidence at the moment.
Coming to claim crossed has never been Bayes’ forte, but the ex-Woking man really doesn’t know whether to stick or twist whenever a ball is loaded into the box at the moment, and it’s clearly disconcerting his defenders who are dropping far too deep trying to defend their box.
Poole should have had a penalty when he picked up a Kightly cross on the edge of the box and skipped over Ashley Vickers only for the Daggers’ defender to take him out right in front of the referee, who merely waved play on.
In first-half injury time Bayes showed that, despite his flaws, he’s still a top-notch shot-stopper when he made a great save to deny Scott Griffiths who had stolen in round the back to meet a Mackail-Smith cross. That saved proved vital because had the hosts clawed back a two goal deficit by the interval the force would certainly have been with them.
Instead, within seven minutes of the restart Grays had restored their two goal advantage.
Again on the break, Oli played a wonderful ball to release Kightly down the right who tore down the touchline and picked out the perfect cross for Poole who prodded home his second goal in as many games.
But, for the second time, Grays couldn’t shut up shop and the Daggers were back to within a goal inside five minutes.
Moore should have pegged back the score three minutes after Poole’s goal when the Grays backline parted like the red-sea and allowed Griffiths to pick out the ex-Northwood front man. With Bayes doing well to narrow the angle, Moore’s lob dropped just wide of the post.
With Daggers’ pressing, the goal was almost inevitable but Grays didn’t help themselves by conceding the umpteenth free kick on the edge of the box.
In Saunders, Dagenham possess a man whose dead-ball kicks are as dangerous as anyone in the league and the visitors invited him to test them by gifting the hosts countless free-kicks on the edge of the box.
Poole was the guilty-party this time when he almost took Saunders’ head off with a high challenge and the ex-Carshalton man made him pay by whipping home the resulting free-kick from 25 yards.
But back came Grays and their fourth goal really did knock the stuffing out of their Essex rivals.
Poole won a free-kick on the left and Thurgood’s quick-thinking released Nutter down the left. Nutter sent in a wicked cross which was cleared to the edge of the area by Anwar Uddin to where Jamie Stuart was standing having failed to make it into the box in time for the free-kick.
No matter, Stuart took the ball on his chest and then with his second touch fired an exquisite volley into the bottom corner, past the ageing limbs of Roberts.
Despite having twice pegged the deficit back, Dagenham looked despondent when the fourth goal went in and never really looked like staging a comeback from thereafter.
Moore had a chance when he shrugged off his near namesake, Mawer, but shot wide with jus Bayes to beat, and Saunders hit a left-foot volley that was comfortably fielded and that was just about that.
Report by Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report