Missed chances make it Grays' blue Christmas
The ghost of chances missed came back to haunt Grays as they were held 1-1 in the Boxing Day derby by Ebbsfleet United., a game in which they commanded the vast majority of the play and missed a late chance to win it from the penalty spot.
In the first minute an Ebbsfleet free kick was solidly held by Ross Flitney who gave a towering performance between the posts. Grays immediately went on the attack and produced a beautifully choreographed piece of interplay down the right hand side.
Ebbsfleet showed no tactical awareness playing against a 4-3-3. In fact they cancelled any advantage by just hoofing the ball up to former blue Chukki Eribenne. Plan B consisted of hoofing the ball as near to the river as possible.
Grays were in attritional mood, closing down spaces, snuffing out attack and hunting in packs.
Danny Kedwell was again outstanding, blending the aggression of the traditional forward with the delicate touches and interplay that has become his hallmark.
He opened the scoring in the 19th minute when he met a long throw from Simon Downer with a looping near post header. England X1 keeper Lance Cronin misjudged its flight as it sailed over his head into the net.
Grays continued to pose a threat. Ian Selley was quietly effective laying anchor in midfield and Murray continued to use his angled runs to great effect.
Ebbsfleet rarely attacked apart from the 23rd minute when Downer did well to clear off the line.
But as the half hour passed, Ebbslfeet started to settle down. Their younger talent, Luke Moore, Liam Coleman and Stacy Long started to get the ball on the floor and move much more fluently. Long's corners became a potent threat.
With Jamie Day looking short of match sharpness and no midfielders on the bench there was a fear that Grays could be over-run. Fortunately, the meanest defence in the league remained steadfast.
Whatever Liam Diash said at half time, it had no effect. Ebbslfeet came out and continued only to be a hazard to shipping. Kedwell snarled away, Ben Watson started to come into the game and a second goal didn't seem far away.
In the 52 minute after a melee in the goal mouth, the ball came to the feet of Kedwell. He was only three yards out but he struck it straight at the keeper. In the 55th minute from six yards, a flying Aaron O'Connor header struck the post. This was different from earlier in the season: it felt as if a goal would come and was testament to how dominant the Blues were.
The midfield really gelled. Selley got through a power of work illustrated by a last ditch tackle in the 74th minute and Day found his feet.
Ebbsfleet believe 18-year-old striker John Akinde could go on to big things. He came on for Coleman in the 57th minute. In the 74th he latched on to a through ball that Ashton mysteriously let through. He had little space to work with but from the edge of the area blasted the ball past Flitney to equalise.
Grays kept battling away. In the 82nd minute Karl Murray chased a through ball. The keeper came out of his area but missed it. Murray's cross found sub Gavin Grant. His bike kick was handled by skipper Paul McCarthy. The ref pointed to the spot, gave McCarthy a red and the three points were there for the taking.
O'Connor stepped up but telegraphed the kick. Cronin dived to his right to produce his third penalty save this season and leaving Grays with a haunted look.
The attacks kept coming.The game had changed form a war of dour attrition to a full scale assault on each goal and was first rate entertainment for the meagre 813 (200 from Ebbsfleet) who attended.
Another fine shot from O'Connor was saved. Deep into injury time he was challenged in the box and went down but the referee thought otherwise and gave a free kick. Justin Edinburgh was rightly incandescent with rage.
When the final whistle went, Ebbslfeet celebrated and Grays looked bitterly disappointed.The could have gone ninth but instead dropped down two places to 13th.
After the game Edinburgh was in rueful mood.
He said: "We are all bitterly disappointed. We should have been far more clinical in front of goal. The game should have been out of sight.
"But the team played very well as a unit. We were strong, we closed them down and in truth deserved the three points."
Grays now play hosts to Aldershot whose lead has now stretched to eight points. They will do well to get a point and then face Ebbsfleet again on New Years Day, a team who will feel they have the momentum.
These were the games that they were losing earlier in the season or indeed against Oxford where the point was seen as a victory.
In many ways they have come a long way. Grays are now a team that are really going to give you a hard time for 90 minutes but it was very apparent that while many teams have a striker who has scored 13 goals plus, Kedwell and O'Connor have five.
That may be the difference between success and failure this season.
Thanks to the Thurrock Gazette for the match report