Never say die!
Grays came from behind to stun runaway Conference leaders Accrington on Saturday and move back into the play-off positions.
A brace from Glenn Poole and a late winner from man-of-the-match Aaron McLean earned Blues the win after they had been trailing 1-0 at half-time and been pegged back to 2-2 midway through the second period.
The win lifted Mark Stimson’s men two places into the fifth and final play-off spot and with games in hand on all of their nearest rivals, it seems the Blues’ promotion charge has been timed to perfection.
Crucially, the team has re-discovered the form that sent them to the top of the league at the start of the season and arguably their performances in the past two league games beats any of their displays earlier in the campaign.
Blues fans must have thought it would be hard to trump the 5-0 win at Kidderminster four days’ earlier but the win against champions-elect Accrington was undoubtedly their most impressive result of the campaign.
Not only did Grays play the sort of scintillating football we have all become accustomed to, but they also squared up to a side who have physically bullied a number of top sides this season and refused to give an inch.
It all means that Blues now have eight games left this season and if they continue in this form they will surely be in the play off spots come the final reckoning.
Goal scorer Aaron McLean said: “Confidence is so high at the moment and we’re playing like we did at the start of the season.
”The last three games against Exeter, Kidderminster and now Accrington have given us a massive boost.
”Hopefully, we can carry the momentum forward and, even if we have to make changes to the side, it won’t affect us finishing the season strongly.
”After the Exeter win, the gaffer told us we could either rest easy until the final or play for promotion – we obviously want to get out of this league.”
McLean’s delighted boss Stimson added: “If the boys are not full of confidence now they never will be. It will be difficult to get into the play-offs with so many games coming up but we’ve got six points from two tough away games so we’ve given ourselves a great chance.
”I am very proud. My boys went for it from the start and I think, in the end, we got the right result.
”I thought we were in control of the game, even when they took the lead.”
Stimson reserved special praise for the match winner McLean who he believed is fast becoming a real icon. He said: “Aaron put in a phenomenal performance – probably the best I have seen in a Grays shirt since I came here. I think he’ll become a legend at this club.”
Grays made one change from the side that defeated Kidderminster with Mark De Bolla replacing Dennis Oli who picked up a hamstring injury on the eve of the game.
Not that the change hampered Blues who proved to be the stronger side from the outset.
However, they fell behind to a shock, breakaway goal after 18 minutes, Accrington right-winger Andy Todd dispossessing John Nutter before firing a low cross into the goalmouth.
Grays goalkeeper Ashley Bayes was only able to palm the ball into the path of the on-rushing Gary Roberts, who fired into the bottom right-hand corner to give the home side the lead.
Following Roberts’ goal, Accrington – who lead the Conference by 13 points – came into the game, but neither side created a clear-cut chance until first half injury time.
Then, Jamie Stuart’s long ball was flicked on by McLean to full debutant De Bolla. Unfortunately for Grays, the former Notts-County man’s goalbound shot was blocked by a superb saving tackle from centre back Robbie Williams.
The game sprung to life after half-time, with Accrington keeper Rob Elliot saving from McLean after 49 minutes.
Just before the hour mark, however, Grays were level as McLean cut inside from the right before feeding De Bolla, whose first-time cross-shot was turned in by Poole at the far post.
Four minutes later, the visitors were ahead as more good work from McLean on the right win produced a deep cross for the unmarked Poole to nod in.
Having dominated the opening 20 minutes of the second half, Grays were pegged back almost immediately.
Accrington midfielder Ian Craney cut inside Andy Sambrook before curling a 25-yard shot over a stranded Bayes into the top corner.
With the score at 2-2, both teams continued to push for a winner, with McLean, Craney and De Bolla all going close.
Inevitably, it was McLean who had the final sa. With just over ten minutes to go, the lively forward burst into the penalty area, only to be pulled back by his shorts by Williams.
McLean’s shot was parried by Elliot and the ball cleared to Grays’ skipper Stuart Thurgood, who slid a low pass back into the box.
An alert Michael Kightly dummied the ball and rolled to McLean, who had regained his feet but stood with his short down around his knees.
Despite this handicap, the 22-year-old kept his calm to slot past Elliot and send Grays’ 55 travelling fans into raptures.
Afterwards, McLean was far from embarrassed by his “wardrobe malfunction” .
He joked: “I walk around all the time with my jeans around my bum, so it felt normal and didn’t put me off.”
Even after going ahead for a second time, Kightly had two superb chances to add further goals, only to foiled by fine Elliot saves.
But Grays held firm for victory and despite the distraction of next month’s FA Trophy Final, winger Poole is convinced his team-mates are focussed on securing promotion to the Football League. He said: “Saturday’s performance was up there with the best of them. Our main aim is to get into the Football League and if we play like this every week we can certainly do it.
Report by Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report