12.08.2006 @ 15:00 The Recreation Ground
1 - 1
Referee: S Cook
IT may have been the start of a new era for Grays on Saturday but on the pitch is was the same old story as Blues were held to a disappointing draw against a dogged but clearly inferior Stafford Rangers side.
The Frank Gray chapter of Grays Athletic has the potential to be the most successful in the club's history but the Scotsman is going to have to find a way to win at home if he is to realise his ambition and take the club into the football league.
Gray has done his homework and knows that his new side could well already be in League Two had they had converted just a handful of their nine home draws last season into wins.
And though the Scotsman insists he has not given much thought to the problem yet, it is clear it is something he will have to resolve if Blues are going to push on from last season.
"It's not something I'm conscious of at the moment," said Gray. "We have to concentrate on people not coming here and beating us. This was never going to be an easy game.
"Promoted teams always dig in. St Albans, Northwich Victoria and Weymouth all won today. Stafford Rangers haven't won. I'm just pleased we have got the game out of the way and have a point on the board."
Gray handed debuts to four of his summer signings Jay Smith, Adam Green, Ashley Nicholls and Lee Boylan but the rest of the starting line up all played in Blues' FA Trophy final win in May.
Gray is well aware that the nucleus of last season's side has the potential to make the next step-up to the Football League and has resisted tampering with the side too much.
And Blues picked up from where they left off at Upton Park with a pulsating opening five minutes which had Rangers pinned up against the ropes.
Smith came desperately close to grabbing a debut goal when, from Glenn Poole's corner, he got on the end of Nicholls' cut back and glanced a header towards the bottom corner only for it to be hacked from the line by Kevin Street.
Grays were not to be denied for too much longer as two minutes later they opened their season's account in trademark fashion.
A Stafford attack was broken down by John Martin who fed the ball to Lee Boylan on the half way line who in turn swivelled and picked out Poole in acres of space on the left.
The goal-getting midfielder strode purposefully into the box and struck a crisp drive across the face of goal which keeper Dean Williams did well to get a hand to.
But luck wasn't smiling on the Rangers stopper as the loose ball broke free and, under pressure from Michael Kightly, defender Nathan Talbott bundled the ball into his own net.
The crowd fully expected Blues to drive on and hammer home their advantage and maybe they would have done had they not been pegged back two minutes later when Green felled debutant Guy Madjo as he broke into the Blues box.
Veteran Neil Grayson stepped up to take the penalty and sent Ashley Bayes the wrong way.
Buoyed by the goal Stafford began to look the more threatening and the Blues back line creaked.
The two debutants in the defence, Smith and Green, looked far from comfortable leaving Jamie Stuart to shoulder much of the responsibility.
Madjo in particular was causing Smith no ends of problems. The Cameroonian's sheer presence seemed to perturb the ex-Farnborough man who was being turned this way and that.
And it was Madjo who was the architect for Stafford's best chance of the half that culminated in a wonderful save from Bayes.
Tricking Andy Sambrook this time, Madjo crossed for Robin Gibson who helped the ball on to Ged Murphy who, from six yards out, was thwarted by the enormous presence that is the Grays number one.
Bayes' opposite number produced an equally good stop from Poole's 35-yard thunderbolt that looked destined for the top corner until Williams' intervention.
Grays re-grouped during the interval and dominated much of the possession in the second half without ever creating too many clear cut chances.
Two minutes after the re-start Aaron McLean attempted to conjure something out of nothing when he acrobatically volleyed over Sambrook's huge throw into the box.
Ten minutes later McLean went close again when he jumped highest to meet a Poole cross but couldn't keep his header down.
Poole then struck another effort from distance which Williams dealt with comfortably and, from a similar range, Kevin Street, ensured Bayes was kept on his toes.
Kightly was the next to spurn a good opportunity for the home side as he fired straight down Williams' throat after good build-up play involving McLean and Martin.
Gray threw on Dennis Oli - who has not been seen in a Grays shirt since the FA Trophy final - for Boylan in the 69th minute as Blues searched for a winner and the striker, who spent much of the pre-season with Premiership new boys Watford, added far more verve to the hosts game.
He came within inches of guiding in Sambrook's cross-shot and released Kightly for the best chance of the half three minutes before the end but the ex-Southend winger could not find a way past the impressive Williams.
Watford decided not to take up the option to buy Oli this summer but have promised to keep an eye on him this season and re-assess the situation come May.
If that gives Oli the kick up the backside he sometimes needs, Blues could have the most talented player in the division on their books.
On the evidence of his 21 minute cameo the omens are good.
By Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the report.