Grays retained the FA Trophy in style on Sunday when they outclassed Conference rivals Woking in a memorable encounter at Upton Park.
Those of us who feared that crashing out of the play-offs just four days’ earlier would undermine Blues’ efforts to retain the Trophy needn’t have worried – because from first whistle to last this match was never in doubt.
Grays put in a truly sublime performance, brimming with pace, power and no little skill, to stun a Woking side who were, quite simply, second best.
Yes, Ashley Bates did have to make three wonderful saves to deny the Cards but Grays themselves created a hatful of chances themselves and the only real surprise was that the Woking net rippled just twice.
Dennis Oli and Glenn Poole were the Blues’ goalscorers with man-of-the-match Michael Kightly having a hand in both goals.
Although it’s hard to single out Blues players, Kightly was immense and his electric pace had Woking’s defenders running scared for the whole game.
But it wasn’t just Kightly; Stuart Thurgood was superb, as was Bayes, Jamie Stuart, Dennis Oli and Aaron McLean. The list goes on and on. From one to eleven every Blues player played their part in what was a fitting end to another terrific season.
Grays boss mark Stimson made one change from the side that drew with Halifax the previous Wednesday with Christian Hanson returning to the side at the expense of Cameron Mawer.
Hanson may have though he would be in for a tough afternoon, when in just the second minute Craig McAllister beat him to an early header and set up Woking’s chief goal threat Justin Richards who dragged wide the game’s first chance.
But Hanson was barely troubled after that as Grays took the game to their Surrey opponents who despite their 15 day break since their last game, failed to cope with Blues’ high-tempo football.
John Martin was first to test the Cards’ goal when he blazed over from the edge of the box after Dennis Oli had escaped behind Stuart Nethercott and cut the ball back.
Glenn Poole was then denied by a desperate block from Woking skipper Neil Smith after McLean’s knock down and McLean himself was unfortunate when he charged down keeper Shwan Jalal’s attempted clearance but could only watch as the ball spun agonisingly away from goal.
A feature of Blues’ play was their corner routines which were evidence of hours of practice and which troubled Woking every time.
Time after time, Thurgood was allowed to work a short corner and it was only down to a combination of luck and last-ditch defending that the Cards’ were not punished.
More often that not it was Martin who was the spare man on the corner kick and the diminutive midfielder went desperately close when he collected the ball on the edge of the box and sent a curling effort inches over the bar.
The tireless McLean then got lucky with a ricochet and with Kightly alongside him, Blues found themselves in a two-on-two situation. McLean, wrongly as it turned out, elected to ignore Kightly and tried to go it alone but, with his weaker left food, he screwed the shot wide.
There was a heart-stopping moment for Grays on 26 minutes when Gary MacDonald’s close range header was spilled by Bayes, but McLean helped out his defence with a lofted clearance and from the counter attack Grays won yet another corner when Stuart Thurgood’s shot on the break was charged down.
MacDonald’s chance injected a bit of life into Woking and McLean was forced into defensive action when he hacked away McAllister’s header from Stephen Evans’ free-kick and, after Andy Sambrook was guilty of over-playing, Martin had to fling himself in front of Richards’ goal-bound effort.
Despite these efforts, Woking were very much second best and Grays capitalised on their superiority with two goals in five minutes shortly before the interval.
Sambrook intercepted Steve Ferguson’s pass and quickly released Kightly who span MacDonald and strode purposefully towards goal.
Woking’s defenders hacked off and backed off allowing the ex-Southend man to reach the edge of the area from where he rolled a delicate pass into Oli who, despite a heavy first touch, managed to dab the ball over Jalal and into the back of the net.
Thurgood could have made it two minutes later when John Nutter’s fine pass over the top picked out the Blues skipper but he couldn’t get the necessary direction on his lob to find the back of the net.
But, just 10 seconds before the half time whistle, Grays did double their advantage.
And yet again it was a goal worthy of the big occasion. Martin released Kightly with an exquisite chipped pass that the 20-year-old took in his stride before lobbing Jalal and running around to collect.
As Kightly looked to set to apply the finishing touch Tom Hutchinson unfairly blocked him and with everyone looking towards referee Howard Webb, Poole stole in to head into an empty net.
Woking started the second half strongly and just two minutes after the re-start Stephen Evans forced Bayes into the first of three fine saves when his free-kick was curled around the wall and turned away by the Blues stopper.
But despite Woking trying their best to make a breakthrough, Grays continued to look the ore threatening.
Oli should have finished the game off when, with great dexterity, he span the beleaguered Nethercott but scuffed his shot horribly wide.
Indeed, so bad was Oli’s shot, Kightly was able to retrieve it and his cross picked out Martin who missed an even easier headed chance from six yards.
Bayes made another breathtaking save to deny Evans when Richards got away down the Woking right and cit the ball back for the midfielder whose crisp shot looked to be arrowing towards the bottom corner until Bayes stuck out a big paw to turn the ball away.
Thurgood then almost produced a moment of magic that as Stimson later said, would have graced the Champions League final never mind the FA Trophy final.
Receiving the ball just inside the Woking defence, the former-Spur absolutely bamboozled Hutchinson with a magnificent change of direction before clattering an upright with a curling effort struck with his weaker left foot.
The over-worked Jalal was called into action again when Oli, who rediscovered the kind of form that marked him out as one of the hottest properties in non-league football at the start of the season, waltzed past Hutchinson and MacDonald, only to be denied by the Cards’ stopper.
Woking huffed and puffed and seemed certain to set-up a nervy finale when McAllister’s back post header drifted across goal to Richards, who on the stretch, thought he had given his side hope only to be denied by a stunning one-handed save from Bayes. At the other end McLean looked to be pulled down as he tried to get on the end of a low cross from Kightly but Mr Webb showed no interest in his penalty claim.
It didn’t really matter as Grays showed composure beyond their years to keep the ball and run down the three minutes of added time to secure their grip on the unique Non-League Trophy and become only the fourth club ever to retain it.
Report by Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report