Grays failed to rain on Morecambe’s play-off parade as the Shrimps came from behind to seal a win that booked them the fifth and final play-off spot.
The loss mattered little as, thanks to Canvey Island’s win at Halifax, Blues remained in third place and ensured their play-off semi against the Shaymen will begin with a visit to Yorkshire.
Boss Mark Stimson rested a raft of players for the game – including Ashley Bayes, Jamie Stuart, Stuart Thurgood and Aaron McLean – to guard against red cards and injuries but the players coming in hardly did their cause much good.
The notable exceptions were Mark DeBolla, who scored Grays’ goal and once again looked lively upfront, plus Cameron Mawer, who returned for the first time since damaging knee ligaments against Woking in March and bedded back into the team seamlessly.
Stimson said: “It’s never nice to lose but today was about resting players making sure there were no suspensions and injuries. The players we left out like to compete and I think that showed today because we didn’t have the fight out there.
”But we put our hard work in previous to today and got enough points to be in the play-offs and there’s a couple of games to look forward to now. Today’s performance was a bit indifferent because of the changes I made to the team but there were a few positives to take out of it.
”DeBolla looked very sharp but unfortunately those around him weren’t as sharp as him. He was one who came out with a lot of positives.”
The Blues boss gathered his whole squad for a huddle in the centre circle after the match and he revealed that he was urging his players to learn from the loss.
Stimson said: “I told the boys ‘We’ve had a fantastic season but this is just the start and whoever gets selected over the next two games make sure you compete. If you compete you have a chance of winning, if you don’t then you will get beaten’. A few of the players didn’t compete today and they’ve got no ammunition to come and knock on my door and ask to play in these games now because one or two of them showed they are not quite ready yet for that challenge. Lucky enough I’ve got four or five on the sidelines who are ready.”
Stimson made five changes from the side that drew with Southport with Nicky Eyre, Tom Williamson, Ade Olayinka, Cameron Mawer and Gary Hooper all coming in for Bayes, Stuart, Thurgood, John Martin and Michael Kightly.
Perhaps weighed down by the task that lay before them Morecambe, who only needed a point to book their play-off spot, started nervously and went behind as early as the seventh minute.
Tom Williamson won the ball in midfield and slipped in Dennis Oli who span and released Mark DeBolla with a perfectly weighted ball threaded between the Shrimps’ centre backs.
The-ex Notts County man took a touch, steadied himself and despite the best efforts of keeper Steven Drench, slotted his second goal in as many matches into the far corner.
Only a goal-line clearance from Chris Blackburn prevented Blues from doubling their advantage minutes later when Glenn Poole was denied another scrapbook goal after he beat two defenders with a mazy run across the box.
But Shrimps gradually warmed to their task and began to impose themselves on the makeshift Blues line-up.
Strikers Danny Carlton and Michael Twiss both saw headers go wide and the lively Gary Thompson blazed high and wide. But home stopper Nicky Eyre went untested until Wayne Curtis broke down the left, cut inside and unleashed a thunderbolt tat the ex-Spurs youngster did magnificently well to parry over the bar.
But Morecambe were not made to wait much longer as from the ensuing kick, Twiss’ deliver to the near post was met by Carlton who guided his header past Eyre and into the top corner.
Curtis then almost punished Eyre for a poor clearance but his lob drifted over the bar and Garry Hunter should have done better when he was set-up by Thompson, but dragged his shot wide from a good position.
Kightly came on at the interval for the sick Oli but it had little impact as the visitors began the second half as the had ended the first.
Bentley came within inches of slamming home a Twiss corner and a sweet move involving Twiss and Carlton saw Fraser McLachlan scuff his shot wide from close-range.
Morecambe got the goal their pressure deserved minutes later , however, when Twiss swung in a delightful free kick from the left and Bentley rose highest to fire a textbook header past Eyre.
The game petered out as a spectacle after Bentley’s strike with the visitors content to slip into ‘we hold what we have mode’ and Grays were struggling to get their own game together.
Ged Brannan had a free-kick palmed away by Eyre for Morecambe while the best Blues could conjure up was a fierce drive from Poole that Drench did well to gather at the first attempt.
Blues midfielder Olayinka was carried off late on with a head injury but the knock is not thought to be serious.
Report by Ryan Goad
Thanks to The Thurrock Gazette for the report