Oli revives Blues
A second half double from the enigmatic Dennis Oli kept Grays’ promotion dreams alive after a 16 minute Halifax blitz had them hanging by a thread.
Blues were staring down the barrel at the interval as goals from Steve Bushell, Ryan Sugden and Lewis Killeen had given the Shaymen a three goal lead.
But Oli, who was a bystander for much of the first half, sprung to life after the restart and gave his side real hope for the second leg with two goals in 12 minutes.
”We were all a bit shell-shocked at half time”, admitted Oli. “You looked around and a few heads were dropping but I’ve got great belief in this team and we knew we just had to pick ourselves up and go again.
”The manager got us in and told us to get the ball down and play like we can play and let’s see if we can win the second half and we did.”
It could have been oh so different for Blues had they not shot themselves in the foot during a mad two minutes either side of the half hour mark.
Already a goal down to a wonderful free kick from Bushell, the visitors’ defence cracked and shipped two sloppy goals to hand Halifax a shock three goal cushion.
Christian Hanson was the man to take the flak for the two goals and the ex-Leyton Orient defender was hauled off by boss Mark Stimson at the interval.
Stimson said: “Christian was not having the best of games so we decided to put Andy Sambrook on at right back and move Cam Mawer to centre half where he was excellent in the second half.”
The Blues defence was certainly shored up when Mawer moved in alongside Jamie Stuart and Stimson must now seriously be considering starting with that partnership in the second leg.
Not that Mawer had a completely flawless game either. It was his foul that led to the opening goal which came somewhat against the run of play.
Blues had certainly started the brighter. Aaron McLean tested Shaymen keeper Jon Kennedy with a rasping drive from 20 yards and Michael Kightly had a goal ruled out for offside after McLean had waited a fraction too long to release the free-scoring midfielder.
But the hosts drew first blood when Mawer needlessly lunged into a tackle on Matt Doughty on the edge of the box.
Bushell stepped up to take the kick and bent a wonderful free kick over the wall that beat Ashley Bayes and then cannoned down off the underside of the bar and into the back of the net.
Blues almost hit back immediately when Kightly did well to work some space on the right and dig out a terrific cross for McLean who did well to reach the ball but failed to generate enough pace on his header to trouble Kennedy.
But as much as the looked threatening at the attacking end, Grays looked vulnerable at the other.
John Nutter was forced to make a courageous block to deny Bushell a second and Stuart was fortunate not to give away a penalty when Adam Quinn’s header was blocked by his outstretched hands as Halifax turned the screw.
It was no surprise then when the hosts struck again through Stimson will have been disappointed with how it was conceded.
Doughty, who is recognised as ne of the best crossers in the league, was allowed all the time in the world to pick out a cross from the left which found Sugden in acres of space and the 25-year-old duly dispatched his header past the despairing dive of Bayes.
Things went from bad to worse two minutes later when Sugden forced his way through Stuart and Hanson and as Mawer came round on the cover, the ball was prodded through to the unmarked Killeen who fired confidently past Bayes.
At this point Grays were reeling and looked a side without hope or inspiration and they were getting dragged all over.
Hanson, in particular looked lost and stretched and as he was embarrassed again when an attempted tackle took out John Grant and earned him a booking.
Grays’ first half disappointment was compounded on 45 minutes when McLean’s neat little through ball appeared to set up a chance for Martin, but he was taken out by substitute Tyrone Thompson, who had replaced the injured goal scorer Bushell. It was as clear a penalty shout as Stuart’s handball so maybe ref Mr Shoebridge was evening things up.
Strangely, the decision may have been the game’s pivotal moment.
Anger is a great motivator and Grays gave notice of renewed intent with the last act of the half when Mawer worked his way into the box on the right and fashioned a great cross that was met at the near post by Glenn Poole. His slight, headed deflection flashed across the face of an unguarded net and the diving Martin was just inches away from getting a finishing touch.
As in the first half, most of the early play after the re-start was around Halifax’s box and on 58 minutes Poole lashed a goal bound volley that he was unlucky to see blocked.
Then Oli, who frustrated in the first half, limbered into action and began to impose himself.
First he got on the end of Thurgood’s whipped free kick, and forced Quinn to make a vital block, and then in an almost identical chance, he started the Blues comeback. McLean won a free kick just over halfway which Poole swung in with clear artistic accuracy and as Kennedy came out to claim, with his defence watching him, Oli rose highest to glance the ball into the net.
Despite getting themselves back into the game, Grays continued to press on and take a risk at the back by leaving two on two at the back at times.
But that courage paid further dividends in the 77th minute when Oli chased an innocuous ball over the top from martin and forced Quinn into fluffing his header.
There was still a lot to do for the 22-year-old but from an acute angle he lobbed Kennedy with aplomb to put his side firmly back in the tie.
It was a brilliant finish and one that shows the enigma that is Oli. For the first half he was lethargic and often flat-footed, and his apparent unwillingness to work and challenge surrendered possession to the home side.
Yet, in two moments of magi8c he popped up to grab the lion’s share of the headlines and leave the tie on a knife edge going into Wednesday’s second leg.
Report by Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report