All quiet as Grays slip again
Grays threw away a two goal lead for the second home game in succession to hand play-off rivals Hereford United a share of the spoils on Saturday.
Goals from Aaron McLean and Stuart Thurgood helped the Blues to a comfortable half time leas but their opponents came out fighting in the second period and a couple of bullet headers from centre backs Tamika Mkandawire and Dean Beckwith rescued a point for the Bulls.
The Blues let Stevenage, another side battling alongside them for promotion, recover from the same deficit on New Yearâ€™s Eve and the two result are symptomatic of the struggles Grays have had on their own ground this campaign.
In their 12 games at the New Rec, Mark Stimsonâ€™s men have won just four times, drawing six and losing to leaders Accrington Stanley and neighbours Canvey Island.
If just a handful of those six draws had been converted into wins, Blues would be sitting on the shoulders of Stanley and looking at the very real possibi9lity of automatic promotion instead of being embroiled in a fierce play-off battle alongside the likes of Exeter, Hereford, Halifax, Morecambe et all.
Itâ€™s not a fact lost on boss, Mark Stimson, who is calling on the home supporters to make the New Rec more of a fortress.
â€ťThe pitches away from home are better,â€ť he said. â€śNo disrespect to our pitch, it has come on really well and the groundsmanâ€™s doing a great job. But in this league when you play away from home you play in ex-league stadiums where the pitches and the atmosphere are fantastic.
â€ťThe best players play to bigger crowds and at times here itâ€™s so quiet. We have a great bunch of supporters who stand at the Bradbourne end who would be here singing even if we were in the Essex Senior League.
â€ťMy hat goes off to them. They were here when I took over and theyâ€™re here every single game, but the 1,000 other people we have picked up this season, for whatever reason, donâ€™t want to make anymore noise and we need them to.â€ť
On the game, Stimson admitted to being slightly disappointed at watching his side let their advantage slip but was still relatively pleased with a point.
He said: â€śAt half time it looked good but we knew Hereford were going to come back because, like I said at the start of the season, they are a good side and they wonâ€™t be far away at the end of the campaign.
â€ťTheyâ€™ve got so much experience at this level, we havenâ€™t and that showed. Unfortunately today we couldnâ€™t get that third goal. With a little bit more luck Gary Hooper, who was outstanding today, might have got the third when he was clear through and that would have been game over.
â€ťBut credit to Hereford they put us under a lot of pressure and got the first goal through a fantastic delivery then managed to get the second.
â€ťOverall itâ€™s a point and it keeps us where we want to be up in that top part of the table.â€ť
Fresh from their morale-boosting 2-1 at York last weekend, Grays began the game brimming with confidence and had their opponents on the back foot from the outset.
McLean could have opened the scoring in the 10th minutes when he capitalised on a poor clearance from Andy Williams and struck a shot on the turn which keeper Wayne Brown did well to hold on to .
Simon Travis then made a great block when John Martin put Gary Hooper through and Martin himself tested the visiting keeper with a crisp strike from the edge of the box.
Herefordâ€™s sluggish start was not helped by an injury to Guy Ipoua who was replaced by Danny Carey-Bertram mid-way through the half with Williams pushing forward to join Adam Stansfield in attack.
Blues broker the deadlock just short of the half hour mark when Michael Kightly burst from midfield and slipped in Hooper behind Hereford full back Alex Jeannin. Hooper, who celebrated his 18th birthday this week, reached the by-line and cut the ball back for McLean who swept home his fourth goal in three games from close range.
The Bulls should have equalised five minutes before the interval when an Andy Sambrook slip let in Stansfield who crossed for Williams.
Williamsâ€™ shot was hacked off the line by McLean but the ball fell kindly for Danny Carey-Bertram who shot wastefully at Ashley Bayes.
Instead of being on level terms, the visitors found themselves further behind minutes later when Thurgood swept home a swell rehearsed free-kick after Beckwith had fouled Hooper on the edge of the box.
Hereford emerged for the second half with far more determination and their slick passing gave their hosts a taste of their own medicine.
However, despite their control of possession, the Bulls struggled to find a way past Graysâ€™ new-look back line, which included three players â€“ Brett Johnson, Andy Edwards and Christian Hanson â€“ making their home debuts.
After soaking up the visitorsâ€™ pressure, Blues should have put the game to bed in the 67th minutes when a dreadful back header from Travis allowed Hooper a clear run on goal but the teenager, whose usually deadly in these situations, blazed over the bar when a cooler head was required.
That miss was to prove costly and just four minutes later Hereford started their comeback.
A sweeping move that spanned one side of the pitch to the other side end with Bulls skipper Mkandawire powering home a delightful cross from the boot of Jeannin.
Grays came painstakingly close to restoring their two goal advantage a minute later when Dennis Oli and Gary Hooper combined to pick out one of Martinâ€™s trademark burst from midfield but eh ex-Leyton Orient man couldnâ€™t force the ball past Brown, who saved well with his legs.
Hooper then headed straight at Brown from a Sambrook cross before the Bulls grabbed the equaliser.
Once again the Frenchman Jeannin was the architect when his wicked corner was met by Beckwith and the centre-backâ€™s header some how crossed the line after several deflections helped it on itâ€™s way.
Both sides almost gifted their opponents a winner in the final few minutes, First Brown almost flapped a Martin free kick into his own net and then, at the other end, Thurgood almost inadvertently shot beyond his keeper after he tracked a run from Williams.
But a draw was a fair result and one which leaves next weekâ€™s FA Trophy tie at Edgar Street, very much on a knifeâ€™s edge.
Report by Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report