ROCKS progressed to an FA Trophy Third Qualifying Round tie at Vanarama Conference South Havant and Waterlooville with this hard-fought win at Arlesey on Tuesday evening – which was a tie that ended a lot closer than it should have.
As in the first meeting between the two sides on Saturday, East Thurrock were the dominant force throughout but they struggled to convert superiority into goals until late in the second half and then suffered anxious moments as their hosts grabbed a goal back in the second half and threatened a repeat of the weekend when they twice battled back from a two goal deficit.
Rocks’ early play matched Arlesey’s neat and tidy ground, it was attractive and purposeful and the home side struggled to cope.
Reece Harris, who is having something of a love affair with the Trophy this season, was a focal point of an attack shorn opf top scorer Sam Higgins through suspension and he ought to have done better when spurning an early opportunity to shoot and soon after saw another strike deflected just wide.
Arlesey were largely on the back foot but did have a great chance to take the lead on 15 minutes when Rocks lost concentration and the ball broke for Saturday’s goalscoring hero Hallelujah Basmel but there was to be no chorus of celebration as he failed to make good contact from close range and David Hughes was able to make a save and claw away Dean Mason’s close range effort.
There was a remarkable escape at the other end soon after when a shot from Ryan Sammons squirmed through the hands of keeper Nick Thompson and it seemed he had gifted the visitors a goal but somehow the ball struck his trailing leg and remarkably, from about a yard out, rose above the crossbar.
Harris again took the spotlight with a run and fierce shot at goal that came back off the underside of the crossbar and then referee Hallam Cutmore waved away penalty appeals after Warren Plowright played basketball in the box.
Arlesey still posed the occasional threat and Hughes was forced to make an instinctive save from Dean Mason.
The deadlock was finally broken in the 38th minute when Lewis Smith was played in on the left and clipped a goalbound shot past the onrushing Thompson. As the ball rolled towards the line Sam Willett did well to stretch and divert the ball away, but only into the path of Harris who had followed up and the ball ricocheted into the net to reward his tenacity.
The lead was doubled two minutes before the break when David Bryant, who was superb throughout, picked the ball up on the right of the box and cut inside to launch a remarkable, fierce angled rising shot that crept in under the apex of post and crossbar.
A two goal lead has proved a vulnerable lead for East Thurrock on several occasions, including Saturday, and they were reminded of that when, moments before the half time whistle, Rocks ceded possession cheaply and Mark Gallagher had a glorious opportunity to cut the deficit but struck the ball straight at a relieved Hughes.
The second half, played out in a thickening mist, saw less goalmouth action as Rocks consolidated, though they did go close to a third goal when Harris and Smith combined, with the latter flashing a shot across the face of goal just inches away from Bryant and Mitchell Gilbey.
Gilbey did have the ball in the net soon after when he pulled back an angled cross from Bryant that took a deflection off a defender en-route and tapped it into the net but the effort was outrageously denied by a dreadful decision from the assistant referee who deemed the ball had been played forward when Bryant clearly cut it back.
The decision provoked a sense of injustice among the visitors and they also began to back-pedal as Arlesey picked up the pace. The bulk of the play was in and around the visitors’ box but they looked capable of holding out, though Basmel did flash one shot inches past Hughes’ far upright. Home persistence eventually won a free kick on the edge of the box and Christian Tavernier’s shot bounced in front of Hughes who misjudged it and it hit the back of the net to set up a nervous closing 15 minutes for the Rocks.
Remembering the brittle nature of their visitors, Arlesey pressed hard but Rocks found the necessary backbone to hold out and take a narrow win from a game they dominated over two legs, even if the 6-5 aggregate scoreline didn’t reflect their superiority.