Three vital injuries and two woeful mistakes by players who should know better saw Grays fall to rivals Stevenage Borough 2-1 at the New Rec last night (Thursday 25th September).
Under the gaze of Setanta, it seemd set up for Grays under Wayne Burnett for the first time and - for a long time - it looked like Grays were picking up where they left off.
In the 3rd minute, Sean Rigg chested the ball into the path of Mark Molelsley whose shot was well blocked by keeper Chris Day. Infact the name Chris Day kept cropping up all the time and it was his standout performance that was the difference between the two teams.
Ishmael Welsh and Sam Sloma were seeing plenty of the ball with Stuart Thurgood and Stuart Elliott creating a sound wall in the middle. For most of the first half, Mitchell Cole and Steve Morison had nothing to work with.
A wonderful move in the 20th minute involving a long cross field pass by Stuart Thurgood and then intricate passing between Welsh and Sloma before Sean Rigg fired the ball at the goal with the ball deftly tipped over by Day.
But the game turned on Fabian Wilnis being injured. Up to then, Grays looked assured and fluent. Over the next half hour, Stuart Elliott and Rob Gier were also sidelined with injuries and with Downer, Cannoville and Ashton watching on also injured it looks bleak for Grays in defence.
That is taking nothing away from the subs especially Kenny Davis. The former Harlow Town favourite has been waiting in the wings patiently. Once he came on he played very well especially one slide tackle and retrieve late in the first half.
The bad news for Grays as well was that Kieran St Aimie was very quiet. Strikers are notorious for having stand out first games followed by famine (for Spurs fans see Mido, Kanoute, Rebrov...stop now..Edit) and he seemed bereft of pace today. Granted Wrexham's defence were awful but Stevenage back line were also there for the taking.
The defence had just one natural defender in their line up but it was a seasoned midfielder that was to slip up. In the 47th minute, a lack of concentration by Stuart Thurgood let the swift Mitchell Cole in to slot the ball past David Button to put Boro one up.
Yet the defiant Grays immediately struck back two minutes later when Jamie Stuart pounced on another fine save by Day to fire the Blues back to level terms.
It didn't last long as this time skipper Jamie Stuart made a mistake in the 53rd minute that saw Cole speed past the makeshift defence, round Button and in.
Grays didn't lie down and the passion and commitment from the players has to be applauded. In the 59th minute, Mark Molelsley's header was again well saved after a good cross by Kenny Davis while the tireless Rigg shot hit the side netting.
Stuart Thurgood's clever free kick nearly fooled Chris Day as did a cross from the right a moment later but it was clear that Stevenage and their passionate supporters in contrast to the funereal atmosphere among Grays fans, were heading for the three points.
This was the type of game in which you couldn't blame Grays for the goals. You had the feeling that Jamie Stuart and Stuart Thurgood would not have made those mistakes had the injuries not come. Fabian Wilnis was key on saturday and for 40 mins but he does seem very fragile. Perhaps more significantly, he got changed and then sat on the bench, starting to chip in with coaching advice. Which brings the key question, will Wayne Burnett bring his own staff?
Wayne's role model should be Crystal Palace last year when Neil Warnock took them from the relegation zone to the play offs. He has the staff, it is just a matter of getting everyone healthy. With Simon Downer due back soon that will be a boost. Anything is still possible this year...
Report by Michael Casey
Thanks to Your Thurrock for the match report