Heybridge Swifts 1 - 1 Grays Athletic
Despite taking a first half lead through a Danny Bunce penalty, Blues couldn't hold on as the home side battled for a 1-1 draw.
On a perfect looking pitch with two footballing sides this should have been a football match for purists but nerves got the better of both sides and a tough game ensued.
The early exchanges saw both teams using their wide players to try to find a way through and this almost worked for the Swifts when they forced a free kick just outside the area but a hesitant shot saw the ball go harmlessly wide. A long ball from Heybridge allowed Michael Toner to put pressure on the Blues defence, and an error between Danny Bunce and Junior Baker saw Ashley Hawkins clear but he couldn’t control the ball and the moment passed.
Grays started to get on top with David Cowley and Kenny Beaney moving the ball well, and a cross from Cowley saw Jared Small’s header saved brilliantly from Man-of-the-Match Jason Willis in the Swifts goal. A Cowley corner saw Willis then pull off a double save from Joao Carlos.
The pressure eventually told when another Cowley cross found Small clear, and he was fouled in the box for Blues to get a penalty. Bunce stepped up to give Grays the lead on 18 minutes.
The Blues took their foot off the pedal and allowed the Swifts to come back into the game. A corner from Danny Barber saw a header from Taylor Hastings go just over, Bertie Brayley found himself clear only for Baker to deflect his shot over the bar.
An over-zealous tackle from Michael Toner on Cowley was followed by a coming together of Craig Pope and Russell Pond as tempers flared. Swift’s Toner was red carded, whilst Pond and Pope were shown a yellow card.
The game settled as the rain fell but Grays could not take advantage of the extra man as they pushed forward. Carlos, Small, Joe Sweeney and Cowley all had shots stopped by the in-form Willis, and Carlos headed over from close range as the first half ended.
Heybridge re-organised for the second half and played tight defensively and Sweeney found nowhere to go when clear as he was closed down quickly. The ten men of the home side started to get on top and pushed forward looking for a goal, but nervous defending from the Blues held.
Cowley came off after a knock to be replaced by Jason Fontaine for immediate effect. Arguably the best move of the match saw a pass from Beaney find Fontaine, and his cross was controlled by Carlos to push the ball into the path of Bunce. His solidly hit shot was expertly tipped over by Willis to stop a certain goal.
Heybridge tactics were to catch the Blues with counter attacks and several times the long ball found their forwards behind the Blues back four only for some desperate running to remove the danger. Grays were trying to play ball to feet and some neat play from midfield saw Fontaine and Carlos taking the ball wide but their crosses were kept out by the home defence as Grays pushed for another goal to finish the game.
Eljay Worrell came on for Carlos as they moved forward. An overhead kick from Beaney, a chip from Worrell and a Baker header all went over as Grays pressed. This allowed Heybridge space, and a defensive slip afforded Brayley space and he lobbed Ali Aksoy to level the match with ten minutes to go.
A period of end-to-end play saw a Swifts shot cleared off the line by Baker after the Blues keeper spilt the ball, before a Worrell cross was controlled and turned on by Sweeney only for Willis to make a point blank save. Another Swifts break was hit wide by Brayley, and a final Blues attack saw a Worrell cross headed wide by Baker as the ref called an end to proceedings.
The Blues would have settled for a point at the start of the match but came away feeling that a good chance to win had gone.
Ali Aksoy, Craig Pope, Ian Gayle, Junior Baker, Danny Bunce, David Cowley (Jason Fontaine 55), Kenny Beaney, Harry Agombar, Joao Carlos (Eljay Worrell 78), Jared Small (Anthony Ryan 88), Joe Sweeney.
Subs not used: - Stephen Northwood, Daniel Smith.