AFTER a season-opening run of ten matches without defeat, including seven straight victories, East Thurrock hadn’t won in four games and Tuesday brought a first Ryman One North league defeat of the season.
It came, almost as ever with East Thurrock, with plaudits from the opposition who praised their free-flowing, attacking endeavour. One Wingate official even apologised for winning!
None of that will cut any ice with Rocks boss John Coventry, who must be heartily sick praise and would love to see his side win ugly for once.
For three seasons Rocks have perpetually dominated matches but have often lacked the killer touch. In their FA trophy defeat against Brentwood on Saturday they were likened to artists rather than artisans – on Tuesday they found themselves also-rans against a team with shape, method and above all application.
Rocks were lethargic in the first half, much improved in the second but always second best to a side that have joined them in the top four of the Ryman One North. In fairness, East Thurrock are running with a depleted engine room, missing the midfield energy of the ill Steve Harrison and the steadying influence of newcomer Stanley Muguo and on Tuesday lost dynamic youngster Reiss Gilbey to an ankle injury after just five minutes. Those losses leave the squad looking thin, but it is the fragility of their temperament that is of more concern.
Quite simply they were not at the races for the opening half on Tuesday, being out run and out thought by a Wingate team of some promise – and no little skill.
They had already given notice of their intention, sweeping the ball into the net inside three minutes but the effort was ruled out for offiside. Then came Gilbey’s injury when he fell awkwardly and that brought about the introduction of a new formation, with newcomer Hakeem Araba, signed from Billericay, taking his place in a two man strike force.
He almost made an immediate impact with a fine run, slipping the ball to Kris Newby who cut inside but elected to shoot from close range at an impossible angle when others were well placed for a squared pass. The youngster had scored nine goals in his previous seven matches so might be excused his optimism but, like so much of Rocks play on the night, poor decision-making cost his side.
A strange moment followed when Rocks next attacked, with Sam Sloma tripping Araba as he ran forward off the ball. Referee Matt Foley clearly didn’t see it and play progressed, with Wingate clearing their lines and forcing Rocks to defend a throw in. But before it could be taken assistant ref Dan Richardson called the ref’s attention to the foul – and Sloma was booked. Quite why he didn’t do it at the time of the offence was beyond most people in the ground but it wasn’t to be his only gaffe of the night.
Wingate continued to press and grabbed the lead in a most direct fashion on 25 minutes when keeper Gavin King hoofed the ball down the middle. Centre-back Steve Sheehan, recalled in place of James Donovan, misjudged the flight of the ball and missed his header. The ball went over his head and with-one coming round to cover, pacy striker Leon Smith chased down the ball and thrashed a shot past Richard Wray.
Rocks rallied briefly when Jimmy Webb struck a shot at King, which bounced off him but no-one anticipated the mistake and the chance came to nothing.
However, the visitors did get level on 32 minutes in the most controversial of circumstances. A harmless ball was floated over the Wingate backline, picking out Araba who was clearly at least three yards offside but Mr Richardson again went into inexplicable mode and didn’t raise his flag.
Araba looked almost embarrassed as he raced away with no-one in his wake, but remained composed enough to round King and pop the ball in an empty net.
To their credit Wingate kept pressing, with Rocks’ lethargy once more exposed in the second minute of added time as Wingate worked the ball through the defensive half with barely a challenge and Ahmet Rifat found himself with space to put the finishing touch to a flowing move with an accomplished finish.
Rocks came out with a bit more fire in their bellies in the second half and could well have drawn level had not Ben Wood and Araba got in each other’s way attacking a deep cross. Webb forced another fumble from King with a fierce shot but again no-one in a red shirt was at home for the rebound.
The closest we were to come to a fourth goal came on the hour when Richmond got on the end of Webb’s cross but tried to be precise with his header when a bludgeoning blow might have worked better and King was able to stretch and paw the ball round the post.
Another great chance came soon after when a strong run by Kye Ruel saw Rocks have a three on one advantage but rather than slip the ball to either Webb or Richmond, Ruel elected to try and beat the last man but lost the ball.
It wasn’t the first bad decision of the night, nor the last – that fell to youngster Conor Mead, on for injury victim Richmond for the closing stages. He raced onto a deep, swinging cross after great build-up play by Rocks but when a header surely looked the better option, he tried an audacious volley and missed the ball completely.
It was to be the last chance for the visitors who huffed and puffed through the closing minutes without ever really threatening, while Wingate spurned a couple of great chances of their own, Josh Cooper shooting wide and Wray pulling off a decent save to deny Smith.
They didn’t need another goal though and celebrated with great delight at the end – such is the prize that is Rocks’ scalp but unless they can regain the killer instinct it could be one that a few more teams will be laying claim to.