IT WAS around this time last season that Grays Ath out in their worst performance of the season, losing to Romford in a miserable night at Mill Field.
Times have changed and when looking at their season so far it is important to not judge the present regime too harshly.
The reality is that Grays Ath fans will be desperately disappointed if they do not gain promotion this year.
It appears that it is a two horse race. Unless Needham or Grays have a dip or another team have a surge it is down to the leaders to battle it out for the one automatic place.
That place is so important because you get the feeling that the team that comes second is going to lose momentum and get dumped out of the play-offs: that was true of East Thurrock in 2010 and Needham in 2011.
So, how have Grays been this season?
Keeper Andy Hall is an illustration that Grays will buy the right players at the right time. It must have been hard to get rid of the dependable Steven Northwood but not so difficult to drop Ali Aksoy who looked a bit fallible at Heybridge back in September. Andy Hall is a lot more solid and has put in some very good performances instilling confidence in the back four.
The back four look like they are starting to creek. There is no doubt that the best formation is Pope, Baker, Thomas and Flynn but whatever the combination there is a fear that there is a going to be a moment in a game when one of them, esp Flynn and Thomas are going to dwell, be dispossessed and put the team under pressure.
Do that in an attack which has Sam Newsom and the game will be out of sight before you know it.
As we have said, we are judging Grays Ath on a level where you want to see them gain automatic promotion and in order to do that they need to cut that out.
On the flip side: Craig Pope has been iconic, Junior Baker has been a postillion, Brad Thomas has been a real leader and Lee Flynn’s crosses and free kicks have cut into the heart of many teams this year.
Grays have been instrumental in the development and nurturing of Harry Agombar. He is a young player who can play at a much higher level and this season could be fundamental in his development. His movement, invention and insight have been excellent and he is enjoying his football as well.
Harry’s partnership with unsung hero, Kenny Beaney is crucial as well. Kenny does the simple things and does the simple things well. A tackle here, a touch there and a lay off at the right time have helped get the defence out of trouble and also been the start of an attack.
The central midfield isn’t a wall and some teams (Aveley) have run through it but Hakan is never going to play a midfield that is a formidable wall.
What they do need is an outlet up front that was not being provided with players such as Jean-Michel Sigere but is provided with Joe Sweeney or Leon McKenzie.
Joao Carlos has been one of the players of the season on the flank. A manager and indeed fans need faith and patience. He has repaid them several times with a number of potential goals of the season as well as key runs to the dead ball line. He also wears defences down.
On the other flank, our favourite former Recreativo Huelva squad player, David Cowley is also impressing. We just hope he is getting a reassuring arm round the shoulder as we do feel a little bit sorry (You are getting old Casey-Ed) as Craig Pope harangues him or fans despair as he runs up another cul-de-sac. We feel that club need to retain that faith. We are not sure that putting Danny Bunce is a viable alternative. Leave Danny to the left support or the water carrying duties in midfield.
It is an attractive midfield and week in week out it asks a lot of questions of the opposition.
Now, in our opinion (You can just hear Hakan muttering…) this could be Hak and Hass’ achilles heel. There have been quite a number of combinations and you get the feeling there could be a lot more, If there is then that could be Grays’ undoing and the difference between automatic promotion and another season in Ryman Div One North. A
At the moment it is Leon McKenzie and Joe Dixon. Leon has been impressive and is clearly comfortable at this level. Joe is clearly a real talent but judging by Soham it is important that he doesn’t use the games as match practise. Surely it would be better to use Louis Dennis or Joe Sweeney.
Managers at this level say, play Joe Sweeney, start with him and you will get 20 to 30 goals. Making him a peripheral, in and out figure isn’t going to help.
It is also important not to waste the talents of Louis Dennis.
Hakan is quite right to downplay the game against Needham. In many ways, Grays are comfortable where they are in this marathon. On the leaders shoulder, breathing down their neck. A draw or even a defeat and they will still be there.
Watching a team every week isn’t always a good thing because you start to become hypersensitive to every flaw and develop a blindspot to their virtues.
The management team (or Hak’s entourage!) have produced a great squad, provided first class entertainment and given the fans renewed hope. Let us not underestimate the influence of Hass, whose commitment is unmatched.
We watched Needham thump East Thurrock 3-1 last season at Needham in January and thought they would run away with the league. But they didn’t and that may nag at the back of the mind. There is also the suspicion that at some stage Sam Newsom is going to go off the boil or he is going to run into Craig Pope….
It should be a fascinating game.