NON LEAGUE: GRAYS Athletic were reduced to nine men before conceding in stoppage time as they were beaten by Maidstone United.
On a boggy, heavy Millfield pitch, Blues – who hadn’t played since Boxing Day – put in a dogged and determined performance but were unable to hold out for a draw which would have felt more like a win.
Maidstone, who brought more than 200 fans to the game, finally breached Blues’ organised nine men when Fabio Saraiva tapped home in the first minute of stoppage time.
Goalkeeper Luke Chambers was sent off in the 28th minute and defender Craig Pope was shown the yellow card twice in seven minutes to leave Grays with just nine players to see out the last 20 minutes.
Ryan Kirby, the Blues boss, said: “The two sendings off have hurt us but I’m encouraged by the way the boys pulled together and defended. We were playing with no out-ball, no centre forward. But it’s a little bit devastating to go down to the last kick of the game having held out for so long.”
Blues started brightly with Joao Carlos tricking his way past the visitors’ defenders. In the fourth minute Jeff Hammond went down in the box under a challenge by Graeme Andrews, but the referee turned down the striker’s fervent appeals.
Maidstone grew into the game and began to stretch the Grays defence. Frannie Collin in particular was finding lots of space and came close on a number of occasions.
After 28 minutes, Zac Attwood beat the offside trap and ran clear of the defence. The Blues stopper Luke Chambers, on loan from Southend United, was left with little choice but to scythe down Attwood and pay the price.
He was sent off and Lamar Johnson came on in place of David East. From the free kick, Charley Robertson smashed the cross bar.
At the start of the second half, Johnson – who had just completed a suspension – made a terrific save, tipping a low Jack Parkinson shot over the bar.
Despite being reduced to 10, Grays looked good. They were defending well and looked capable of creating chances. Carlos struck a free kick straight at Lee Worgan after Joel Nouble was fouled on the edge of the box.
But with an hour gone, Pope – who was not in the best of moods from the outset – was booked for a late tackle on Alex Fisher.
And just seven minutes later, the right back – who was moved to centre back following the dismissal of Chambers – kicked the ball away when referee, David Spain, awarded Maidstone a free kick. He was shown a second yellow – reducing Blues to nine and sparking a backs-against-the-wall job for the last 20 minutes.
Kirby brought himself on and Blues looked solid. In fact, Maidstone failed to fathom a single clear-cut chance until their last gasp winner which came in the first minute of stoppage time. Saraiva taped in from close range after Alex Fisher wriggled his way into the box and cut the ball back from the touchline.
On the two red cards, Kirby said: “Luke was furious with the defence and rightly so. It was bad defending, bad decision making.
“It was 0-0 at half time and we were still in with a shout. The second yellow card on Pope, I understand why he’s [the referee] done it, but there were so many other petty things that he pulled up and could easily have booked Maidstone players for. I feel hard done by for that one.”
On the rain-enforced winter break that Grays have had to endure, the Blues boss said: “It hasn’t been beneficial. If it was a scheduled winter break, it would be easier to plan for but we’ve prepared for every game as if it is going to be on.”
Grays Athletic: Chambers; Pope, Hutchings, Anderson, East (Johnson); Osman, Lalite, Beaney, Carlos; Nouble (Kirby), Hammond (Small). Gazette MoM: Lamar Johnson