Grays Ath 1 – 1 Wealdstone
1 - 1
The script was written and the fans travelled in number to see it played out. A win against the mid-table Essex outfit and Wealdstone would be crowned champions. Sadly, Grays hadn’t read it and Stones once again suffered stage fright.
The early signs were encouraging. From the kick-off, delayed by 7 minutes in respect for those who lost their lives at Hillsborough, the impression was that the big day had finally arrived. An early free kick, from Pigden on the right, was cleared. Penny went on the break and was hauled down for another on the edge of the box from which McGleish headed over.
The game then settled into a far more even phase. The ever-impressive North was called into action after 8 minutes to calm some chaos in the Stones area. Wes Parker came close with a header from another free kick. Both defensive units appeared to be showing nervousness on the big stage, although the clear-cut chances were few and far between.
As the half progressed, Stones appeared to be gaining the upper hand. Efforts by Penny and Cronin, from successive corners, gave the vocal away fans some confidence. News filtered through that Dulwich, one of the last remaining rivals, were losing. The terrace fervour increased. Yet, on the pitch, this appeared to only increase the jitters. Indeed, Grays ended the half strongly, with a claim for a penalty and a shot passing perilously close to the crossbar.
Half time: Grays 0 – 0 Wealdstone
The home side started the second half the stronger, bringing another good save from North in the opening minutes. 10 minutes later, Stones had their first real chance of the half, with Cronin shooting close from distance. The welshman was again centre stage a few minutes later as he made a necessary, if cynical, challenge to halt a Grays break. The tackle resulted in both a yellow card and an injury, requiring Hamblin to come on in his place. The tension increased as Stones attempted to seal the deal. The sight of legendary veteran Glen Little replacing Scott McCubbin was warmly greeted by the fans. Straight away, the difference told as Little cut infield, delivering an inch-perfect pass to Pigden who shot just over. And then, after 74 minutes, disaster. Grays, working on the break from a Stones corner scored from a Jordan Wilson effort. Gordon Bartlett reacted by making a change up front, with Penny making way for Jonny Wright. The crowd desperately tried to lift the team but the weary legs were having trouble responding.
Scott McGleish, making a welcome return to the side following a calf injury, characteristically stepped up to the plate to save the blushes. His shot over the bar only preceded the main act. With just 3 minutes left on the clock, the ball was chipped back from Wright on the left and McGleish powered home from the near the penalty spot. Cue scenes of delirium. And yet, despite late Stones pressure, most notably from a Pigden knock on, it was not meant to be and a draw would have to suffice. The result means that Stones finished the day 11 points clear at the top, with only Bognor able to mathematically overtake them. Tuesday night will see both teams in action, with Stones travelling to Margate when, one way or another, the final act will surely be played out.
Team: North, Hammond, Okimo, Parker, Cronin (Hamblin), Godfrey, McCubbin (Little), Pigden, McGleish, Penny (Wright), Pett.
Unused subs: McCluskey, O’Nien
Attendance: 473 (340 Away fans)
By Neil Rands