Play-off delight for BluesâŚ
Grays booked their play-off spot with two games to spare after a comfortable victory over troubled Altrincham on Saturday.
After a first half display that hinted the effects of four games in eight days had caught up with them, Blues dug deep into their reserves following the re-start and led by their inspirational skipper Stuart Thurgood they ground out the required win.
Thurgood was one of several Grays players to look jaded in the opening 45 minutes. But he fought off fatigue in the second period to play an integral part in both goals and steer his side over the finishing line.
The ex-Southend man created the opener when his wicked free-kick was headed into his own net by Mark Maddox and then stepped up to convert a penalty which sealed the three points.
The win means Grays are guaranteed a play-off place in their debut Conference season and Thurgood admits itâs a remarkable feat.
He said âEveryone is buzzing at the moment because it is a fantastic achievement. If someone had said to us at the start of the season that we would be in the play-offs at the end of the year we would have laughed because we really didnât think we would do it. But the boys have worked so hard for each other and we are just happy to be there.
The win means Grays canât finish any lower than fourth and could finish as high as second in the league with the exact positioning to be determined after the last game of the season at home to Morecambe on Saturday.
The Blues could find themselves up against any one from Hereford, Halifax, Morecambe or Stevenage in the two-legged play-offs and Thurgood revealed heâs got no preferences.
âWhichever team we get paired with itâs going to be hard,â he said. âWe want to finish as high up the table as possible and get a good position but itâs the play-offs and it doesnât matter who you play itâs going to be difficult.â
Thurgoodâs boss Mark Stimson was just as delighted as his skipper.
âItâs an outstanding achievement,â he said. âAt the beginning of the season I said we would be happy with 10th and I wasnât lying.
âIâve thanked the boys in the dressing room and said âwhat youâve done this season is fantastic, youâve really put Grays Athletic on the map now can you continue it? We are going to try and take this one step further.â
Blues went into the game knowing that one win would be enough to secure promotion and were up against an Altrincham side reeling from a massive 18 points deduction that has relegated them bar an appeal.
It was difficult to predict how the heart-breaking ruling, made by the Conference after the Robins were found guilty of fielding an ineligible player would affect the hosts.
Would it deflate them or would it spur them on and make them determined to finish the season on a high.?
The answer during the initial stages seemed to be the latter as the hosts pushed forward and caused problems to a leg-weary Grays side but as soon as the opening goal went in you could thee the home heads drop.
Ashley Bayes made two comfortable saves in the first half from Rod Thornley and Peter Band and one fantastic block from Warren Peyton, who exchanged neat passes with Colin Little and looked all set to finish until the Grays stopper rushed from his line and blocked his shot.
Joe Bruce, who replaced the injured Andy Sambrook, was also forced into a goal line intervention when Karl Munroeâs header from Colin Pottsâ corner looked to be heading in as Alty put on a spirited showing.
Grays had their fair share of chances to score in the first half too with Dennis Oli and Glenn Poole both missing golden opportunities.
Oli latched onto a careless back pass from Munroe only to blaze horribly over with only the keeper, Stuart Coburn to beat, while Poole â whose amazing run of netting in eight consecutive games came to an end â headed tamely at the home stopper after god wing play from Michael Kightly.
The visitors came out in the second half determined to stamp their authority on the game as Thurgood and John Martin began to dominate midfield so Altrinchamâs spirit and fitness waned.
Blues got the breakthrough 10 minutes after the re-start when Thurgoodâs devilish freekick, won after Aaron McLean was dumped to the ground by Munroe, was met by Maddox who resoundingly thumped his header past his keeper and into the top corner. It was a real âI wish the pitch would swallow me upâ moment for the Robins skipper.
Stimsonâs men doubled their advantage nine minuteâs later when Kightly out-tricked Munroe in the box and sucked Coburn into a challenge before nicking the ball past him and leaving the keeper with little choice but to bring him down.
The decision was a little hard on the Robins as Kightly had over-run the ball but that matter little Thurgood who scored his 10th goal of the season from the subsequent spot kick.
Oli had an even stronger shout for a penalty waved away later in the second half when he out-muscled Gary Scott who then looked to have pulled him down in the box.
The referee waved away the protests but it looked a stone wall penalty from where I was sitting.
No matter, Altrincham barely troubled Blues for the remainder of the game and Stimson was able to withdraw McLean, Martin and Oli with one eye on the bigger battles that lie ahead.
Report by Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report