AVELEY against Grays Athletic, the most eagerly anticipated Thurrock derby of the season, was always a game that, given its importance, might struggle to live up to the hype.
Fourth against fifth in the chase for Ryman Premier League promotion certainly didn’t lack controversy though, with a first half penalty and a second half red card proving to be the game’s decisive moments.
Grays, according to manager Hakan Heyrettin, earned their biggest win of the season while Millers boss Justin Gardner felt his team had been robbed by some poor refereeing.
Jordan Cox, Aveley’s top goal-scorer, was sent off just when Millers needed him most as they chased the game having gone a goal down through Daniel Bunce's penalty.
In the end it was another sterling defensive display - tinged with a little luck - that meant Grays bolstered their title credentials. This was their sixth clean sheet in a row, coming against a rampant Aveley side who had won their last six.
Victory moved Blues to within ten points of league leaders Maldon and Tiptree, still with two games in hand.
On a bitterly cold Monday night, Grays were the better side in the first half and got the breakthrough after 30 minutes. Marcus Rose stuck his hand out in the box, catching the ball as it was crossed in from the left.
The referee pointed to the spot and Bunce stepped up to fire the ball into the bottom left-hand corner of Andre Foster’s goal.
In the 61st minute, Jordan Cox was shown a second yellow card for a late challenge on Lee Flynn, His first yellow came late in the second half when he appeared to kick the ball out of the hands of Blues keeper Lamar Johnson.
Bunce’s penalty turned out to be the only goal of the game but both sides went close to adding to the score line. In the 70th minute, Bunce forced Foster into a superb save with a free kick from 20 yards.
Second half substitute Sheldon Sellears had a big impact on the game causing Blues’ left back Lee Flynn a few problems. The Millers’ wide man sent a shot over the bar following some direct running and a neat one-two on the edge of the box.
He then came close to forcing an equaliser when his low shot across goal was turned onto the post by Billy Holland from six yards.
Afterwards, a jubilant Heyrettin told the Gazette: “That’s a massive win. They’re a very good team. You’ve got to give them credit.
“Sometimes you’ve got to come to places like this on a cold Monday night, roll your sleeves up and get on with it. We didn’t play particularly well, anyone who’s seen us knows that we can play much better.
“But the sign of a good team is to win when you’re not playing well and we proved that tonight.
“I didn’t feel we were lucky at all. The penalty came because their right back didn’t know what to do because Joao Carlos had pulled out wide. That’s good play by Grays Athletic. We earned that.
“It was the biggest league win of the season in terms of results, but it’s no coincidence we are where we are.”
Aveley boss Justin Gardner felt a bit hard done-by, but was proud of his team: “Grays are a massive club but we played them off the park with ten men.
“The referee gave a penalty, that’s the only decision I thought he got right all game, it was a handball, but he wasn’t good enough. I’ve not criticised refs in public once this season and I don’t want to say too much and get myself in trouble, but at the same time, he wasn’t good enough.
“We’ve played three games in five days and to play against a good team like Grays, I couldn’t ask any more. In that time I would have settled for six, but I couldn’t have asked for any more.
“Jordan’s down. He’s let his team mates down. He will play at a higher level, but he’s got a lot to learn.”
Aveley: Foster; Rose, Nesbitt, Leader, Thomas; Hopkins, Kamara, Holland (c); Appiah, Burnett, Cox
Grays Athletic: Johnson; Pope, Flynn (c), Kirby, Baker; Beaney, Bunce, Lalite, Carlos; Hammond, Small
Gazette MoM: Leon Lalite