THESE near neighbours have snapped at each other’s heels throughout a fluctuating Ryman One North season and in this, the first meeting of two in six days as the promotion climax draws near, was an eagerly awaited clash.
It didn’t disappoint, not in terms in quality football – which was in short supply – but in terms of commitment, aggression and a fierce will to put one over on a bitter rival.
At the end of 90 fractious minutes a draw was undoubtedly a fair result, but East Thurrock will feel the momentum is with them after coming back twice from desperately poorly conceded goals.
Rangers, on the other hand, will cast a gleeful nod at the league table and know they a hair’s breadth away from confirming a home play-off slot and will feel this was a job well done.
How you view the result will depend on your affinity to either side but for the neutral it was a fascinating encounter, not least because Rocks went into the match on the back of what one club official described as “their worst performance in five years” when losing to a single goal at Redbridge on Saturday.
East Thurrock boss John Coventry clearly vented his wrath on his side going into the derby and his words lit the yellow and back touch-paper.
Rocks were competitive from the first moment, zipping into tackles, pressing their rivals at every opportunity and showing an appetite for combat that has been sorely missing in some recent performances, even though they had won their previous five games before Saturday.
To their credit Concord were never going to take the pressure on the back-foot and they took snapped into tackles and fronted up their hosts in every way possible.
East Thurrock certainly looked the more likely to break the deadlock in the opening exchanges, with Ryan Sammons and Kris Newby working an early opening that maybe Kye Ruel should have made more of.
But they were to find themselves a goal down after 13 minutes when a disastrous error by Steve Sheehan, who made a complete hash of an attempted clearance just outside his box, gave Lyle Taylor a clear run on goal. He rarely misses such opportunities and in a flash he had drawn keeper Richard Wray and smashed the ball inside the keeper’s near post.
It could have been the moment when Rocks crumbled against a team they have come to regard as something of a bogey side, but they were quickly back on the offensive, driven on by inspirational young midfielder Max Cornhill.
Chances, it should be said, were few and far between and Concord first saw a shot flash across the face of Wray’s goal before a poorly timed challenge by centre-back James Donovan on Nicky Cowley saw him yellow carded, though quite how the ref and his assistants missed Cowley’s retaliatory head-butt beggars belief.
The subsequent free-kick came to nothing and just after the half hour Rocks were on level terms when Rangers failed to clear their lines and the ball fell to Cornhill on the edge of the box. He worked a bit of space and fired home a pinpoint shot to delight most of the fans in a season’s best league crowd of 183.
Cowley, a snarling midfielder with attitude, wreaked revenge soon after with a late tackle on Cornhill that saw him finally enter the book. At that stage, with tempers clearly on edge, few would have bet against there being 22 men on the pitch at the end.
But we got to half time without further incident.
The second half saw Rocks playing into an increasingly dominant wind, which threw their long passing game into some disarray and isolated striker and divisional top scorer Sam Higgins.
Concord were stepping up the pressure and won a corner on the left which they took short and Cowley’s cross drifted through a melee of players straight into the net.
It was another test of Rocks’ nerve but again they passed muster, reverting to a more fluid, passing game and increasingly finding gaps in the Concord defence, who were forced to take steps backward. Manager Danny Cowley – cut in the same mould as his brother with a vocal, aggressive and antagonistic approach to the game – was clearly aware of the danger and increasingly screamed at his side to push out but they paid little heed and paid the price when neat interplay opened the opportunity for Cornhill to exert more influence on the match with a driving run and low cross that saw John Easterford turn the ball into his own net.
The goal set up an intriguing finale and it was Rocks who asked most of the questions.
They almost prised open the visitors with a move down the right that ended with the ball at Higgins’ feet in the box. All season he has latched onto such chances with a lethal finish but, perhaps suffering a touch of nervousness, he delayed his strike as his angled run went goalwards and allowed keeper Dale Brightly the opportunity to come off his line and make a vital save.
There was still time for Rocks, who looked the more likelier at this stage to win it, to force another stop from the keeper – earlier booked for blatant and persistent time-wasting – with Donovan’s goalbound header pushed aside.
In fairness to both sides, the draw was justice done. We await, with some anticipation, the return at Thames Road on Easter Monday and perhaps beyond that a second season running meeting in the play-offs. There’s still a lot of mileage in the season for these two clubs!
Reprinted with kind permission of The Essex Enquirer.