What should have been an evening of celebration turned into a damp squib on Tuesday night as Grays returned to the New Rec for the first time since securing a play-off place and were held to a disappointing draw by lowly Southport.
A disappointing crowd of just 918 turned out to salute the Blues players â€“ who after three games on the road were returning to the New Rec fort he first time since securing their play-off spot â€“ and those who did turn up struggled to create much of an atmosphere.
Whether that was because of the lack of entertainment on the field or whether the lack of entertainment was caused by the absence of any atmosphere whatsoever I donâ€™t know. But one thing is for sure the Blues players deserved more.
Boss Mark Stimson said: â€śThe noise should have been deafening but unfortunately that was not the case tonight and I think the performance was affected.
â€ťBut also the players out there tonight may have been thinking about not picking up an injury.
â€ťMost of them know they will be playing in the semis and Iâ€™ve been there. You do start thinking about injuries and donâ€™t go all out.
â€ťBut credit to Southport they are scrapping for their lives and theyâ€™ve come here and got the point they needed to stay up. I think they and their supporters celebrated that more than we did when we won the Trophy and Iâ€™ve said that to the players. Weâ€™ve got to enjoy things more. Weâ€™ve reached the play-offs and thatâ€™s an unbelievable achievement for this football club.â€ť
Stimson resisted making the expected wholesale changes and left just Aaron McLean out from the side that beat Altrincham four daysâ€™ earlier.
Mark DeBolla came on for McLean and the ex-Notts County man provided the highlight of a desperately poor match when he put Grays in front with a fantastic 25-yard drive after a classy bit of skill made space for the shot.
Blues didnâ€™t really do enough for the win though and the Sandgrounders equalised mid-way through the second half when skipper Steve Pickfordâ€™s volley flew through a sea of players and nestled in the bottom corner.
The point ensured Southport, who looked dead and buried at Christmas will remain in the Conference next season though Grays will be hoping itâ€™s the last they see of them for a while.
The visitors had the first chance of the game when a bad mis-judgement from Jamie Stuart allowed Neil Robinson to steal in and was only denied when Joe Bruce scuttled round on the cover and made a crucial block.
Grays huffed and puffed but struggled to get any moves of note going as Southport were content to let the back four have the ball and press the play only when Blues ventured inside their half.
It must be said the pitch, which has seen an awful lot of games over recent weeks (and most of them not Grays matches), hardly helped Bluesâ€™ cause as the ball was almost impossible to control on a surface thatâ€™s become more akin to Grays beach than a football pitch.
John Martin did his best to defeat the pitch when he made a trademark burst from midfield to latch on to a neat pass from Dennis Oli but the diminutive midfielder dragged his shot wide with only keeper Steve Dickinson to beat.
Dickinson had to be on his toes to turn over Glenn Pooleâ€™s cross which took a wicked deflection off Pickford and then Michael Kightlyâ€™s touch let him down badly as he beat the Sangroundersâ€™ offside trap but took himself far too wide to trouble the visiting stopper.
At the other end, Stuart bailed Ashley Bayes out of trouble when the Blues keeperâ€™s punch landed at the feet of Liam Blakeman whose controlled lob from the edge of the box would have given his side the lead had Stuart not been on the line to head clear.
Things got better at last four minutes after the re-start when DeBolla broke the deadlock with his first goal in a sky blue shirt.
Showing great skill to bring the ball out of the sky, DeBolla out-foxed Pickford with a wonderful change of direction which gave him enough room to fire a fine curling effort that beat Dickinson at his near post. The goalkeeper will probably feel slightly aggrieved that he was beaten at his near post but DeBollaâ€™s shot was unloaded so quickly he really didnâ€™t stand much chance.
Blues failed to kick on from the goal however and Southport were given the opportunity to get back into the game.
The impressive Carl Baker was desperately unlucky not to have equalised when he worked space on the edge of the box and fired a fierce shot just past the post but the Sandgroundersâ€™ fans didnâ€™t have to wait too much longer for the equaliser.
Seven minutes later, Jerome Fitzgeraldâ€™s long throw into the box was half-cleared by the Grays defence and Pickford fired a crisp volley through a crowd of players into the far corner.
The visitors could even have nicked a winner when Blakeman robbed Bruce on the right and curled a delightful effort at goal that was parried spectacularly away by Bayes 13 minutes from time but they held on for a well-deserved point that guaranteed their Conference survival.
By Ryan Goad
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report