Maidstone United 3 v 2 East Thurrock United
EAST Thurrock had plenty of opportunities to spoil Stones’ Ryman Premier championship party and travelled home reflecting on yet another game where they gave their opponents a goalscoring start and mounted a cracking fightback.
In many ways it was a match that encapsulated the second half of the season for John Coventry’s side – after getting themselves in pole position for a crack at the play-offs a succession of poor starts to matches and a host of individual errors meant they slipped out of the pack chasing the top five positions.
There were no such worries for Maidstone, who all but mathematically clinched the title before Saturday’s sell-out all ticket clash at the Gallagher Stadium.
Rocks formed a guard of honour to clap their hosts onto the pitch but the plan was then to put a dampner on celebrations.
For the opening 22 minutes things went to Coventry’s plan as Rocks worked hard to keep their freescoring hosts in check, albeit the home side did create a few half chances with Billy Bricknell firing wide and Tom Mills firing just wide. At the other end, from time to time, Rocks tested Stones with some measured passing and interplay though they weren’t able to test home keeper Lee Worgan.
But another mistake was to lead to the opening goal when full back Ryan Sammons had the opportunity to shut down any danger from a long ball forward but he hesitated – a fatal mistake in the presence of Stones’ flying winger Matt Bodkin who acted decisively while Sammons considered his options and in a flash he was away down the left flank and delivered a fine cross which gave Jai May the chance to slide the ball home from close range for the game’s opening goal.
It was May’s 24th goal of the season, but he is well behind the division’s top scorer – Rocks’ Sam Higgins and the visiting striker got the chance to put his side on level terms and take his season’s tally to 45 in all competitions when referee Lee Marks rather generously awarded East Thurrock a penalty when, to most people in the ground, it looked as if Steve Watt had made a clean challenge on livewire Mitchell Gilbey. Justice was done as Higgins crashed a thunderous shot off the upright.
The home supporters’ party mood soon went up another notch on 38 minutes when the Stones added a second goal. James Rogers gave the ball to Bricknell who worked his way across the edge of the box before picking his spot and curling a fine strike into the left hand side of the net.
In the later stages of the first half Maidstone could have added to their tally. May and Frannie Collin exchanged passes while pushed forwards and Collin’s eventual cross was met by Bricknell who scooped the ball over the bar from about six yards out.
Then shortly afterwards, Bricknell expertly turned into space and went on a strong run forwards. He then waited before playing May in on goal. Keeper David Hughes came rushing off his line and although May went round him, he was forced too wide and the opportunity passed.
The second half was a different story as Rocks dominated play from the restart. They increased their tempo and a succession of free-flowing passing moves and decent hold-up play around the edge of Stones’ box saw them force Maidstone into something of a rearguard action.
The first chance fell to Gilbey who cut in from the left but his low shot hit the sidenetting and on 54 minutes, Lewis Smith’s low drive was creeping inside the right hand post until Worgan intervened with a superb one handed save.
Just before the hour, Smith got in on goal only for Worgan to make another fantastic block. Then at the other end, substitute Jack Paxman went on a good run which ended with Bodkin’s shot just failing to be turned in by Collin as Hughes came off his line to snuff out the danger.
It was East Thurrock who looked the more likely to score though and they should have done so just past the midway point of the half. Smith found substitute Joe Paxman, younger brother of Maidston’s Jack, who unselfishly laid the ball back in for Higgins but with the goal at his mercy from six yards he unfathomably dragged a low scuffed shot yards wide of the post.
A goal eventually arrived for Rocks on 75 minutes and it was a superb one, a series of neat passes carving the way through the home side, ending with Gilbey picking it up on the end of his well timed run and he clipped it past Worgan.
At that point the ascendency was firmly with East Thurrock but they were to gift Maidstone what proved to be the matchwinning goal eight minutes from time. They were actually on the attack and keeping possession while seeking an opening. The ball was pushed back to full back Tom Stephen who was put under pressure by Collin and opted to roll the ball along the artificial carpet to Hughes. He was put under a bit of pressure by Collin who continued his run but he rushed his booted clearance and the ball sliced wide at ninety degrees to Bricknall who gratefully rolled it goalwards and despite the keeper’s run, dive and outstretched arm he was unable to claw the ball back as it dribbled over the line.
There was still time for Rocks to pull another goal back within two minutes when Smith delivered a fine cross from a free kick and Max Cornhill rose with a bullet header. The visitors pressed hard through the closing minutes but were unable to find the equaliser they deserved and so left the stage for Maidstone’s celebrations to begin in earnest.