In a roller-coaster of a game, Grays returned home having scored four away goals yet finishing as the losing side at the impressive Nene Park Stadium. Ex-Spurs boss Peter Shreeves took over as manager for the afternoon and on the first half showing must have feared the worst as Rushden sliced through the anaemic Blues tackling almost at will. With Lee Tomlin, the class act on the field, Rushden tore into Grays from the start; as early as the 3rd minute, Kurt Robinson was allowed, unchallenged, to reach the edge of the area before unleashing a shot that Lee Butcher saved well.
Seven minutes later a fine 40 yard diagonal pass from Tomlin saw Matt Pattison cut inside the isolated Glen Poole and smash a deflected shot past Butcher. For most of the remainder of the half, Grays came under considerable pressure from the homesters but they failed to add to their tally due to a combination of wayward finishing and last-ditch defending.
Then on the stroke of interval, Grays were given a life-line; a Poole free-kick 20yards out took a deflection off Robinson and the ball looped over the startled Dale Roberts to give the Blues the equaliser. Grays had been woefully short of steel in mid-field (Kenny Davis the exception) and Thomas Harvey was substituted by Jack Obersteller in the 37th minute, the formation reverting to a more familiar 4-4-2. Also Charlie Taylor was introduced in place of Jack Jeffrey straight after half-time and he made a difference. Although plainly raw he has serious pace and works his socks off for the cause and he troubled the rather static Rushden defence (including even the “Master” Jamie Stuart—strange and sad to see him in opposition colours).
Rushden had a couple of chances at the start of the second half but, not for the only time in the match, Grays stunned the home crowd by taking a shock lead. In the 52nd minute, Poole curled in a free-kick that was converted at the far post by Obersteller. The lead lasted just 4 minutes as ex-Blue Aaron O’Connor was allowed to run 40 yards before passing to Tomlin who finished with aplomb. The subdued Jamie Slabber then had the ball in the net but it was adjudged offside. Grays were now pushing Rushden back and in the 55th minute Davis scored a cracking goal to put his team in front. After gaining possession, he strode forward and let fly with his left boot and the ball arrowed into the top corner past Roberts.
Sub James Reid then equalised in the 63rd minute, capitalising on some clever approach play that opened up an over-worked Grays rearguard.
Most of the Grays travelling fans thought this was the end for the Blues chances but in the 70th minute the Rushden defence was caught napping when, at the far post again, skipper Anwar Uddin gleefully scored to regain an improbable lead for the Blues. But it was not to be. Grays almost increased their lead when a huge clearance from sub Billy Crowther was latched onto by Taylor who easily out-paced Stuart but his attempted lob over the keeper went over the bar. In the 78thd minute Crowther conceded a penalty for, it seemed, handball and Tomlin duly made it 4-4.
Under a baking sun, the effort of forcing their way into the match seemed to catch up with the Blues and Rushden with their more fluent football had the last laugh as sub Cliff Akurang, so often Grays’ nemesis over the years, headed the winner in injury time from a Tomlin corner.
An extraordinary game in which, in truth, Grays were mostly outplayed; however, for a period early in the second half they showed enough spirit and doggedness to really rattle Rushden and could count themselves a little unlucky to come away with nothing. Problems remain in a lack of bite in mid-field and a failure to engage the opposition in all areas of the pitch. But it’s never dull watching Grays Athletic!
Report by Martin Candler
Thanks to Your Thurrock for the match report