EAST Thurrock cemented their Ryman One North title ambitions with a valuable victory against tenants Grays at Rookery Hill, while the ‘home’ side shot themselves in the foot with an indisciplined display, ending the match with just nine men on the pitch reports the Thurrock Enquirer.
In terms of chances the sides were equal, and Grays could justifiably point to more clear cut opportunities, particularly in the opening exchanges, but in the end it was the ability of East Thurrock to adapt and one or two shining individual performances that ensured they took the points.
Their hero was outstanding young midfielder Max Cornhill who not only grabbed the two pivotal goals, but exemplified the passion and commitment needed at this level, bouncing straight up from one or two hard knocks while the more petulant Grays players rolled around the floor.
Perhaps the difference between the sides was best illustrated by a couple of incidents when ref Stuart Franklin choose to stop play to allow treatment to Grays players who were auditioning for roles in ‘Casualty.’ In many circumstances these days the drop ball restart means the side in possession giving the ball back with a long boot to the keeper, but East Thurrock decided to go for a contested drop ball – which showed their opinion of the play-acting – and also set a tempo for their level of play.
Having said that, Grays certainly set off at the higher tempo and they pushed Rocks back through the opening minutes. They came close to taking the lead after just four minutes when John Docker delivered a superb angled ball into the box which teased Rocks keeper Richard Wray into coming off his line and parrying the ball. It only rolled wide and was turned back across the face of goal where Simon Thomas picked it up at the far post and he seemed to have all the time in the world to roll it goalwards, only to see Wray somehow scramble back and kick it away off the line.
Two minutes later Alex Osborn whipped an impressively taken low strike across the face of the goal, that East Thurrock were grateful to see go wide.
Having weathered the early storm, East Thurrock finally presented an attacking option, winning a corner which Ben Wood swung in and Steve Harrison rose at the far post, only to nod the ball just wide of the upright.
A flowing move from Rocks then saw Kye Ruel shoot over, though Grays responded quickly and Osborn created a great opportunity for Docker, but he shot over. East Thurrock’s almost immediate counter was a turn and shot from Sam Higgins that rose just over the bar.
East Thurrock then adjusted their formation and style, playing the ball around in front of the Grays backline rather than trying to get beyond them and as the half hour approached some teasing work saw Ruel, Higgins and Cornhill all have chances, Ruel’s cross shot brushing the woodwork.
Referee Franklin had been lenient in response to a rising reckless tackle count and players from both sides began to test his patience before a pivotal moment on 28 minutes when Higgins backed into Duran Reynolds who went down as if pole-axed.
Players from both sides got involved in the subsequent melee, with Grays Bradley Thomas and Higgins going forehead to forehead and both getting booked for their posturing – though it took the intervention of the linesman to stop Mr Franklin booking Cornhill instead of Higgins.
Thomas clearly thought he was the aggrieved party and barely a couple of minutes had passed before he launched a Kung-fu style challenge on Higgins that gave Mr Franklin no option but to dish out a second yellow, though Thomas took an age to leave the pitch and may cop additional punishment if the ref writes up his obstinacy.
What he certainly deserves is a rebuke from the Grays management as his actions were reckless and detrimental, needlessly offering an advantage to East Thurrock who pressed Grays back for the rest of the half.
And on the resumption after half time they continued to press forward, taking the lead after just five minutes of the second half when Ruel won a corner which Wood clipped to the near post and Cornhill’s glance was enough to see the ball past keeper Steve Northwood.
To their immense credit, Grays found a second wind and they were not fazed by the goal, immediately beginning to push East Thurrock onto the back foot.
And they were to get a spectacular reward on 59 minutes when they countered quickly after East Thurrock gave away possession cheaply from a corner. Osborn, who is a real livewire, skipped half the length of the pitch with a teasing run that drew a rash challenge from Ryan Sammons. Depending on your viewpoint and allegiance, ref Franklin’s decision to punish the offence with just a free kick and yellow card might be contentious, by Reynolds extracted full punishment with a superbly struck free kick from all of 25 yards. Keeper Wray’s starting position might not have been all it should be, but even if he had time to pick his stance again, it’s doubtful he would have kept out a fantastic strike.
In similar fashion to Grays, East Thurrock shrugged of the disappointment of conceding a goal and stamped their professionalism on the game by beginning to suck up possession, hold the ball and prising openings.
From one of them, on 70 minutes, Higgins got a free header but was unable to get the pace on the ball he wanted to really test Northwood.
However, two minutes later, the Grays stopper was left rooted as Cornhill picked the ball up on the left, danced inside and struck a thunderous, curling shot that rose into he back of the net to restore Rocks’ advantage.
To add to ten man Grays’ troubles, astute Rocks boss John Coventry threw another striker into the mix by introducing Hakeem Araba for the industrious Harrison – who looked far from pleased at being removed from the heart of a very personal local derby – but the tactic paid dividends as the big striker began to tie up several defenders with his physical presence.
His influence helped create an opportunity for Reis Gilby to force a fine save from Northwood, but not before Grays had spurned their best chance to get back into the game when a counter attack and a slip by Wray offered Simon Thomas the chance to clip the ball into the net, but he fluffed his execution and the grateful East Thurrock keeper was able to make a half save, with the ball gratefully hacked away by his defenders.
It summed up Thomas’s night – and possibly his season. He does get goals but he requires a high percentage of chances to do so and in this instance his inability to strike when it really mattered cost his side dear, especially when Rocks went up the other end with two minutes remaining to seal the tie.
A scramble in the box from a corner saw Araba hook the ball goalwards and Eljay Worrell, perhaps not weighing up the percentages of his actions late in the game, stuck out a hand to claw the ball off the line. It was probably instinctive but the inevitable red card that followed lands one of Grays’ better players with a suspension and gave Higgins the chance to continue his goal-a-game return to East Thurrock as he unleashed a venomous spot kick that gave Notthwood no chance.
The closing moments, if a little fractious, were played out without real incident, leaving Rocks just a couple of points behind pacesetters Needham Market, where Grays go next on Saturday.
They showed the ability, in patches, to sustain the belief that they can still produce the results that earned boss Julian Dicks the Ryman One North manager of the month award for February, and they won’t go to Suffolk without hope of invigorating their play-off push again.
East Thurrock have another Essex derby with Maldon & Tiptree to follow, and a derby with Tilbury after that, and they will need to repeat this level of all round excellence to sustain their hopes of overhauling the Marketmen.