The grim grim reality of life in the relegation zone hampered this error strewn game as Grays and Lewes eked out a laboured goalless draw.
Fabio Capello looked at his England team as they laboured woefully against Andorra and concluded that they had to stop playing with fear. The same applied this afternoon for the Blues and that will be the main task of Wayne Burnett.
They were clearly doing this in training and for the first twenty minutes looked as if they would transfer it into the competitive arena.
It was interesting to watch players popping up in different positions around the pitch particularly Stefan Bailey who Burnett must believe has the potential to fulfil that once saw him on the books of QPR.
In the 12th minute, Sam Sloma’s free kick sliced through the penalty area, finding the head of Gavin Dayes but his header finished the wrong side of the Lewes goal.
It was Jonny Dixon who made the biggest impression in the first half as he started to unravel the Rooks defence. He beat the offside trap in the 15th minute but shot straight at keeper Rikki Banks and then had a clever backward header once again saved from close range.
As each chance came and went so it seemed to drain the team of confidence. Ishmael Welsh was forcing corners down the left but every last pass seemed to go astray.
This was causing Wayne Burnett no end of grief and frustration and as he started to tighten up, so did the team.
Lewes started to grow in confidence. Ex-Blues Michael Standing and Scott Taylor linked up well in the 31st minute but Taylor’s left foot shot flew over the bar.
In the 35th minute, Grays produced a wonderful pitch length move that will have encouraged the new manager. It ended with Welsh slotting the ball from the left to Jonny Dixon whose shot hit the post. Six minutes later, he danced past two Lewes defenders but again the shot failed to hit the target.
The second half descended into a dour relegation battle as Grays, realising they were never going to score started to wilt. Pass after pass after pass went astray as the team’s self-belief hit rock bottom.
Lewes, a relegation side in waiting began to believe they could steal three points here. In the 56th minute, Scott Taylor produced a magnificent chip that defeated David Button but hit the bar. Shabazz Bainoo came on and started to unsettle the Grays team as seasoned midfielders such as Stuart Thurgood started to look hesitant.
The game started to become and end-to-end affair but with no real chances instead shots went sailing over the bar or passes simply went horribly astray.
Thurgood nearly redeemed himself with a clever free kick in the 82nd minute which evaded everyone as it whistled into the area while at the other end, Kenny Davis made a last ditch tackle that saved the point for the Blues.
It was with a sense of palpable relief that the referee, Amy Rayner (for she is a lady) blew the final whistle.
In many ways, Grays are back where they were in October 2007. The defeat at home against Weymouth saw Justin Edinburgh close to the exit. What he had on his hands was a sound defence but a group of players that he couldn’t get scoring. Wayne Burnett has the same dilemna. The defence looked sound. Kenny Davis once again played well and Gavin Dayes seemed assured. The attack has been woeful and it is of real concern that it is hard to discern where the next goal is coming from.
The key challenge will also be morale. In three years reporting on the team, this reporter had never seen such a bond with the team as after the Wrexham victory. There was a real joy in the victory and the whole coaching staff and players seemed in tune. Of course, this was against a woeful Wrexham whose manager was axed a few days later. The players, however had a huge respect for Tim O’Shea and the way he thought. However players are the biggest fans of success and whoever can bring it. It always looked like three coaches and no manager.
Now there is a manager and one wouldn’t be surprised if at some stage he brings in his own people. If he has the time, then one can envisage a team next season populated entirely by Wayne Burnett signings.
Wayne has been in charge for two games and yet he has entered the whirlpool in a goldfish bowl that is Grays Athletic. They may have the lowest attendance in the league but they generate a huge amount of copy and interest.
He is clearly keen to put his firm impression on the team. If he has been instrumental in the departure of Simon Downer, then that may well make or break his season/tenure. If the team are successful and the defence is sturdy then Simon will be a footnote in Grays’ history whose injuries over-shadowed the work of a magnificent intelligent defender.
Both Sam Sloma and Stuart Thurgood took exception to being criticised this afternoon. Slomna shouted his dissent from across the pitch while Thurgood simply blanked the criticisms. This is where the battle may lay ahead. There is a touch of Detective Inspector about Wayne and it may require a bad cop to bring the best out of this team. To make an omlette, you have got to break a few eggs. The bonhomie can come from Neil and Gary but the hard edge, the Sir Alex school of “Come here son” may need to come from Wayne.
Mick Woodward has promised a restructuring of the club and so far he has delivered. Newly installed Chief Executive Tony Turbeville was at the game and we will be speaking to him on Monday. Mick wasn’t visible at the game and a new manager is into his second game in charge. He believes that Grays can put a run together but with six defeats away from home, the matches against Rushden and Northwich are a huge challenge
Report by Michael Casey
Thanks to Your Thurrock for the match report