A dramatic late equaliser from Forest Green substitute Guy Madjo denied Grays their sixth straight win and put the brakes on their play-off charge.
The result, Blues’ eighth home draw of the season, would not have been what boss Mark Stimson had in mind prior to kick off but it was softened by the failings of fellow play-off hopefuls York, Stevenage and Halifax 24 hours earlier.
Nevertheless the Blues players were understandably gutted about being pegged back in the dying seconds by a side fighting to survive in the division and left the field in sombre spirits.
”Looking at them in the changing room afterwards you would think they had lost the game,” said Stimson afterwards. “But I’ve told them this is just one bad result. We’ve done so well to get where we are over the past 36 games and we just need to keep it going.
”We are on a fantastic run and we haven’t got beaten today and that’s a plus so we’ve just got to keep the run going for the next three games. I think we don’t get beat in those three games then it will be very hard for the other teams to catch us.
Stimson’s side never managed to get all cylinders firing against their lowly opponents who may be at the wrong end of the table but lacked nothing for commitment.
Twice they came from behind to level the scores and though they were over-physical at times, particularly in the first half when Dennis Oli and Aaron McLean were well and truly roughed up, it was hard to begrudge them a point.
Stimson said: “I’m slightly disappointed with the result because we conceded so late. But we’ve scored enough late winners and equalisers ourselves this season, including one at Forest Green, to complain too much.
”They are a big physical side who tried to intimidate us but credit to the players they stuck to their task and kept getting the ball down. That’s the only way we will play until the end of the season.”
The Blues boss made one change from the side that routed Exeter 3-0 five day’s previously with Oli being rewarded for his goal from the bench against the Grecians with a starting place at the expense.
The visitors started the brighter with Ashley Bayes having to save from Michael Brough and Mark Beesley but it didn’t take Oli long to make an impact.
He should have scored in just the sixth minutes when he was released expertly by McLean but lacked the composure to beat keeper Ryan Clarke.
But the ex-QPR man made amends minutes later when he found himself in acres of room in the box and headed home Glenn Poole’s wicked free-kick.
Such was the quality of Poole’s delivery Oli only really needed to get his head to the ball and direct it goalwards and you get the impression watching Oli that’s the sort of situation which suits him best.
When he has time to think too hard about finishing, as was the case with his first chance , he has a tendency to fluff his lines but when instinctiveness is required there’s few better.
Grays dominated for most of the remainder of the half with the visitors having to resort to crude lunges to stop them.
Rovers had four men booked during the game but that tally could have been doubled such was the rashness of the tackles flying around, particularly on McLean and Oli.
Though in fairness, Grays themselves were lucky to finish with 10 men on the field because, on another day, Jamie Stuart could have received his marching orders for kicking out at Julian Alsop.
Referee Russell Fletcher opted instead to show Stuart a yellow card, which given his reluctance to clamp-down on Rovers’ spoiling tactics, was fair enough.
Having soaked up the Blues pressure, which consisted of plenty of possession though very few chances, the visitors grabbed the equaliser when they were awarded a controversial penalty.
John Nutter was harshly adjudged to have hauled down Alex Meechan in the box as the ex-Dagenham man latched on to an Alsop knock-down.
Nutter looked to have beaten his opponent to the ball and Meechan went down in such dramatic fashion that you couldn’t believe that Mr Fletcher had given the penalty.
But given it he had and Brough added salt to the wounds by firing the spot kick past Bayes to level the scores.
Alsop missed a brace of headers at the start of the second period and Darren Jones almost surprised Bayes with a snap-shot as Rovers came out fighting.
Blues’ game seemed a little flat and Gary Hooper was thrown on in place of Michael Kightly to liven things up but it was the man of the moment who looked to have handed the hosts all three points.
Poole made it seven goals in his last six matched when he ghosted in at the back post, behind the sleeping wing back Sekani Simpson, to collect McLean’s pass and fire underneath Clarke.
That statistic nearly became eight in six shortly after when the woodwork denied him what would have been a contender for goal of the season when his 30-yard volley grazed the top of the bar.
Poole landed awkwardly on his back following his stunning effort and was taken off immediately by Stimson who will be wrapping his top-scorer up in cotton wool for the big games that are looming on the horizon.
Had Poole’s strike gone in the points would have definitely been Grays’ but Rovers showed they weren’t going to roll over and accept defeat and in the last minute of stoppage time Brough worked a one-two with Madjo before charging into the box.
Brough’s shot was only parried by Bayes and Madjo arrived right on cue to roll the ball into the empty net to earn Rovers a vital point in their quest for Conference safety.
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report