Harlow Town 2 - 4 Grays Athletic
Blues progress in The FA Cup at the expense of a very good Harlow Town side after a 2nd half masterclass from veteran Glen Little
Grays Athletic progressed in The FA Cup at the expense of a very good Harlow Town side in a match that shows that the gap between the Ryman League divisions is not as big as some would have you believe. To suggest the Hawks 'should' have won this game would be stretching the truth a little though few would begrudge them going in at the break with a two goal cushion had they converted the chances that an at times careless Blues side were generously serving up. As it was, the visitors held firm against an impressive first half attacking display before a second half lesson in organisation and application shattered the Hawks dreams of a good run in the cup.
As a light mist descended on the stadium the game started well for Blues who led inside two minutes. Jey Siva curved a low cross to the far post, beating a defender and deceiving the 'keeper and Jamie Guy's instinctive run put him place to steer the ball into the goal. The Hawks were stung and any hopes they had of building up an early momentum were squashed as Blues looked comfortable on the 3G surface. Despite a couple of probing runs and the occasional direct ball from the home side the advantage was clearly with the visitors as they kept the ball, passed it round well and looked to build patiently. Chris Bryan should have done better after a slide rule pass from Glen Little - fast becoming a Blues favourite - but his shot was easy to save for Hawks 'keeper Dean Driscoll. For all of their possession Blues lacked a clinical edge in the attacking third and were frustrated by some dramatic reactions to contact and by the failure of the officials to award free kicks for the most blatant of infractions.
After Aaron Best-Riley was sent off on Saturday the home side targeted the right-back position and were rewarded a little after 22 minutes when the referee awarded a free kick just short of the corner flag and cautioned the bemused Blues defender who had been at least a yeard away from the player that had gone to ground. The resulting free kick was whipped in and Alex Read, who had ghosted away from his marker superbly, headed the ball through a crowd of players and into the net to bring the scores level and Hawks right back into a game they had hardly been in.
The goal lifted Harlow and for the remainder of the half their forward play was good to watch. From a Blues perspective possession was gifted too cheaply and too often and it would be fair to argue that at times the visitors were the homes sides' best attacking option. While the wide men were kept largely in the pockets of the full backs ex-Blue David Cowley and James Smith found plenty of space and jinked about with the ball and dragged the visitors all over the place; Fabion Simms dropped into space and was able to pick out a forward pass almost at will and won just about every second ball in the middle of the park. Harlow's full-backs were getting forwards under little pressure and if Hawks had a little more quality and been a little more ruthless in the final third then this game could have had a very different complexion at half-time.
Soon after equalising Shane Stamp had a great chance to put Hawks ahead but Conor Gough made a great save down to his right. Glen Little dragged a shot wide at the other end before Fabion Simms gratefully accepted a poor clearance but sliced wide from the edge of the box. Alex Read fluffed his lines when he latched onto a poor back-pass and Stamp's crafty back-heel was hacked off the line by Jay Leader. Cowley and Smith both floated speculative shots on target but were easily dealt with and Blues' Joao Carlos screwed a shot wide under pressure from Ben Glasgow. Gough then made another good save as Stamp's clever lob was dipping just under the bar.
Blues were relieved to go in at the break all-square but there was a sense that the home side might have hit their high notes a little early and may struggle after the restart to match the intensity with which they had finished the first half. The message in the dressing room was to deny the home side the space they had enjoyed in the deep-lying midfield area and in front of the full-backs. As the players returned to the pitch a last-minute change was made as Chris Bryan had to attend a family emergency; Joe Benjamin was sent into action on the left-side of the attack with Carlos switched to the right.
The second half got underway with both sides appearing a little apprehensive as if trying to get a measure of the impact of the tactical information dispensed during the break. Grays were certainly better organised and Hawks, unbeaten this season, looked uncomfortable with having less space to play in. Despite their ruffled feathers the home side still looked to get forward but struggle to make a dent in the Blues back four. Rather than whack the ball clear, the central defenders were bringing the ball forwards and picking out better passes, finding the feet of their own team-mates who were now making the pitch a little bit bigger and letting the ball run more on a fast, firm pitch.
Blues were comfortable and enjoying lots of possesion with Glen Little pulling the strings but hadn't really threatened when they took the lead. It was untidy but deserved as Little almost casually curved the ball in behind the defence and it bamboozled two defenders before it was turned in by an almost embrassed Kenny Beaney at the far post after 58 minutes.
A galvanised Grays Athletic proceeded to take complete control of the game with Little at the heart of everything. Jey Siva's deft free kick into the area just needed a touch but drifted just wide of the upright. Mark Bentley, playing in a holding role, was replaced by Jordan Wilson who went into an attacking position as Jody Brown looked to exert some authority on proceedings. Wilson scored Blues 3rd goal in some style. On 69 minutes He picked the ball up on the left of the D with his back to goal, brought it across his body and curled it right-footed into the top corner beyond the despairing dive of Driscoll.
Minutes later it was 4-1. A free-kick was awarded to the Blues when Josh Urquhart took one for the team in hacking down Carlos just outside the area and was correctly shown a yellow card. 15 minutes were left on the clock when the impressive Glen Little stepped up and fired a low shot goalwards. The wall leapt skywards and the ball bounced twice in front of Driscoll who let it slip under his body and into the net. It was a harsh end to the evening for the stopper who had played well on the night.
Joe Benjamin was withdrawn with a suspected rib injury under an innocuous challenge and Jody Brown sent on Akwasi Marfo for his competitive debut after impressing against Enfield Town in an u21s match last week.
Hawks were gifted a route back into the match after 78 minutes when skipper Kenny Beaney squard the ball inside, straight to Harlow's Alex Read. 52 goals last season tells it's own story and after taking a touch the striker launched an unstoppable screamer from around 30 yards into Gough's top right-hand corner. It was the goal of the night and as their equaliser had done in the first-half it lifted the home side, restored the belief and set up a mesmerising ten minutes of end to end football.
Hawks replaced struggling right-back Ben Glasgow with Danny Norton while Harlow skipper James Smith led the resurgence and his lob was well tipped onto the bar by Gough. Smith again brought a great save out of Gough when he created a bit of space and drove goalwards but the big keeper dived across to his left to palm the ball wide. At the other end Little dragged a shot wide and Carlos' cross caused mayhem in the Hawks defence but Marfo, one yard from an empty net, shinned the ball into the hands of a grateful Driscoll.
It was no surprise when wide players Jared Small and Shane Stamp, largely anonymous and well in the pockets of Aaron Best and Jey Siva in the second half, were withdrawn and replaced with defenders Michael Toner and Robbie Martin as Danny Chapman looked to shore an increasingly tiring defence.
The referee indicated a minimum of five minutes of stoppage time but the home side had given everything they had and Blues comfortably ran the clock down but there was still a chance for Jamie Guy to drag one last good save out of Driscoll when he tried to flick a header over the Hawks 'keeper.
Jody Brown's side continues to develop and learn and this was our sternest test of the season so far. On this evidence, Harlow Town will be playing football in the Ryman Premier league next year and we wish them the very best of luck for the remainder of the season.