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|Stephen McCartney reports from Homelands
Barry Gardner 82
|Michael Power 81
Jamie Wood 90
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Cray slip up in pitch lottery
FULL credit must go to the
Homelands ground staff for getting the game on - helped by Sittingbourne based
referee Gary Johnson - and although the playing surface was very muddy and
waterlogged in most places, this Kent derby was very entertaining.
Ashford Town started the game trapped inside the relegation zone, six points from safety, and their visitors have aspirations of promotion, so it was an important day for both clubs.
Ashford, however, adapted to the pitch conditions better than Cray. The home side were happy to get the ball out of defence as quickly as possible, lumping the ball up field at every opportunity. Cray, however, a very talented side, tried to pass their way out of trouble, often coming unstuck, until they changed their play and improved in the second half.
Ashford took the game to their visitors and after Matt Bower volleyed over from 25-yards and a 12-yard drive from Paul Jones slide its way to a diving Cray goalkeeper Steve Northwood, Ross Lover's shot at the other end was smothered by home stopper John Whitehouse.
It was good attacking play early on from both sides and another chance fell Ashford's way in the sixth minute. Barry Gardner evaded a sliding tackle from Tony Russell on the edge of the box but the shot rolled agonisingly wide of the far post.
Cray almost took the lead after 12 minutes when good build up play set up a headed chance for Michael Power. However, the striker, who has played for Cray, Thamesmead Town, VCD Athletic and Erith & Belvedere this season, planted a header over the bar from seven yards from a pin-point Phil Collins' cross.
Ashford, however, took a deserved lead five minutes later. Former Erith & Belvedere left sided midfielder Solomon Henry played an intelligent ball over the top of the Cray defence for Paul Jones to exploit. His pace got him down the flank and his cross was tucked home into the right corner by Lee Blackman.
After so much early action the game died a little bit and the next chance fell to Henry whose 18-yard shot sailed high over the bar then a minute later Jonathan Thorogood whipped in a cross, which was headed out by visiting skipper Ian Rawlings, but Matt Bower's 25-yard volley bounced comfortably to Northwood.
Buoyant Ashford should have doubled their lead as they missed two gilt-edged chances in the last ten minutes of the first half, as Cray didn't come to grips with the surface.
Blackman met a good cross from the left at the far post but his close range header was clawed away from the post by Northwood and in trying to curl the ball into the top left hand corner, Jones got it all wrong and his shot sailed over instead from 12-yards.
Collins' was denied by Whitehouse early in the second half as he pounced on a loose ball, which splashed in the mud, inside the Ashford box, but Whitehouse got down well to block the good shot on goal.
Ashford rued another good chance to put the game beyond Cray's sight after 51 minutes. Thorogood whipped in a superb low cross, which Northwood nor the Cray defence could deal with, it was that good, but Blackman touched it just wide of the right upright.
Ashford's chairman-manager raged: "How did he miss that?" from the dug-out.
Both skippers were sacrificed and as soon as Cray's central defender David Gray was put up front to form a 3-4-3 formation, this suited the visitors and three goals in the final nine minutes set up an entertaining finale.
Cray drew level after 81 minutes when Wood lifted the ball over the advancing Ashford goalkeeper and his shot was rolling towards goal but Power stabbed the ball home from close range to make sure.
Ashford, however, responded very well and re-gained the lead seconds later. After having a chance cleared off the line, the ball came out of the penalty area and was met by Bower, whose 30-yard drive, fired through a crowded penalty area, creeping inside the left post.
But a much needed victory was taken away by Cray, who drew level for the second time, 54 seconds into stoppage time.
Matt Woolf's hanging cross from the left was just too high for Wood and found Jamie Kempster instead. The talented midfielder cut the ball to Wood to sweep home his 16th goal of the season to share the spoils.
Ian Jenkins, the Cray manager, wasn't very happy with his players, especially in the first half.
He said: "First half Ashford did exactly what their manager asked them to do, where as our team didn't. The players in our side like to play football in all conditions but at the end of the day you can't be doing that (on that pitch)."
However, a lesson in how to play football on muddy and waterlogged conditions from the Sidcup based manager improved their performance in the second period.
"I told them not to lump it but to just put the ball into areas that will be difficult for their defenders, behind them, where the ball sticks and stays there. It was a hard day for defenders today and that's what you've got to do, put pressure on them. They done that to our defenders and they should have been three or four up at half-time to be honest with you.
"We didn't do what they were asked to do in the first half. But we did in the second half."
Was the long-serving Cray-ite happy with a point? "In the end you are happy with the point because you score a last minute equaliser but overall I'm not because I wanted more than that."
Weather permitting, Cray travel to Ramsgate on Tuesday night to play their John Ullmann Kent Senior Cup tie against Margate. Cray were leading 3-0 in the initial game but the game was abandoned after 48 minutes due to fog engulfing the Homelands.
"Are the players up for that one? Because they certainly weren't up for today's game," Jenkins asked.
"If they aren't up for it on Tuesday we'll get beaten. I desperately want to win on Tuesday to get back to winning ways."
Jenkins' side remain one place and one point behind a play-off place and he is desperate to clinch promotion in their first season playing Ryman League football.
Horsham's 2-1 defeat at home to Hastings United, means Cray are only nine points of an automatic promotion place - with AFC Wimbledon - with ten games to go.
"Horsham are nine points clear of us. It's a hard task this time of the season to pull that back. The play-off's are a cert but if we don't get into the play-offs I would be absolutely gutted to be honest with you."
Ashford's manager-chairman Tim Thorogood was pleased work on the training ground paid to fruition on match-day.
"Of course we're disappointed. I think overall today we deserved to get the result," he said.
"It would have been no injustice to have come in three goals up because we were so much dominant than they were."
The Homelands chief admitted not keeping leads has been his team's downfall this season.
He said: "Missing chances have been our season all year. We don't take our chances when we should and we gave them a bad goal late in the game and that's killed us.
"Our goals were two good finishes. We've actually worked in training and it's pleasing when it works. We do work on crossing in the training ground, people say we don't, but we do, and at the end of the day we are working to make those crosses.
"So yes, the two goals are pleasing. We've created good chances and I thought throughout the game we created a lot more better chances than they did."
Before the game, Thorogood and his squad were sitting inside the bar watching a video of their recent 2-2 home draw with Croydon Athletic to try to rectify the problems that have cursed their season.
Thorogood added: "We've had plenty of words with the players this week and they've taken a bit of stick. We've had a bit of a heart to heart because the last two performances have been poor.
"Today was a great response, what we are looking for from our players. If we carry on that way then we can perhaps get out of this mess but they've got to show that attitude."
Ashford's next two games will give them a chance of staying up, only if they beat their relegation rivals, Newport IOW (away) and Croydon (home) in their next two games.
However, they travel across the Solent with the knowledge they've only collected five points on the road in 16 away league games this season but must improve that form next Saturday as Newport are the side one place above them in the table.
Croydon - who lost a seven goal thriller at Bromley - are rooted to the bottom of the table, two points worse off than Ashford.
if Ashford lose them both - well, let's not even think about the consequences!
Thorogood added: "You have to be motivated. Today's a slap in the face but it's not the first one we've had this year.
"We are probably the worse side in the league for actually being in the lead and lost or drawn the game.
"We were 2-0 up at Cray, murdered them in the first half, but what do we go and do, we drew two all.
"We've done it against the good sides all season and it's a slap in the face but you pick yourselves up.
"You've got to be positive, we've had a good performance today. If you looked at the two sides you wouldn't have thought we were the team second from bottom and they were the team near the top."
Eleven more performances like that please Ashford!
Ashford Town: John Whitehouse, Tom Adlington, Paul O'Brien, Marc Cumberbatch, Tony Ritrovato, Matt Bower (C, Leon Dussard 72), Barry Gardner, Jonathan Thorogood, Paul Jones, Lee Blackman (Shaun Bradshaw 85), Solomon Henry (Tom Evans 46). Subs: Joby Thorogood, Eddie Achoko
Cray Wanderers: Steve Northwood, Dean Morris, Ian Rawlings (C, David Gray 74),Tony Russell, Danny Bower, Luke Anderson, Ross Lover (Drew Watkins 68), Jamie Kempster, Phil Collins (Matt Woolf 57), Jamie Wood, Michael Power. Subs: James Millar, David Hall
Referee: Gary Johnson (Sittingbourne)
Assistants: Ashley Hyne & Paul Lockley
|If using this article, please credit to: Stephen McCartney - www.kentishfootball.co.uk