The FA Carlsberg Trophy, First Qualifying Round
| A typically resilient performance saw Ashford recover from going behind to secure a replay at the new home of former FA Trophy winners Grays Athletic, despite never being at their best.
Ashford made changes following their heavy defeat at home to St Albans City in the FA Cup last weekend. Central defender Bairoh Conteh, while not fully fit, was deemed sufficiently recovered from a leg injury to start the match in place of Jack Mullan while youngster Perry Luckins made his first start of the season following the sudden departure of midfielder Ashley Lodge, who has decided to sign for Chipstead.
The match took place in an oddly muted atmosphere, possibly not helped by the fact that the pitch was significantly narrower than it might have been, given the wide expanses of grass between the touchlines and the 122 dedicated souls who had travelled to Romford – some distance from Grays, of course – to support their teams. As a result, there was something missing from the spectacle and the Ash Trees will be grateful to have brought the tie back to the familiar surroundings of the Robert Parker Stadium.
It was the travelling Southern League side who started the match strongly, albeit without really testing debutant home goalkeeper Jake Larkins, signed on loan from Grays’ landlords, West Ham United, although two shots were blocked by the Blues defence during a strong first fifteen minutes.
However, the Isthmian Leaguers took the lead in the 22nd minute. Athletic skipper Danny Bunce hit a free kick from a long way out and the fierce strike eluded the dive of Paul McCarthy.
The Tangerines might have levelled within two minutes, Scott Weight fizzing a shot over the crossbar from the edge of the penalty area, but the home side quickly established a rhythm that saw them dominate possession. However, for all of the time they had with the ball, the hosts did not do enough to threaten McCarthy’s goal and when Ashford hit Athletic on the break they looked dangerous, Dan Brown and Mark Bitmead both having half chances. With just two minutes remaining of the first half, Bairoh Conteh missed a decent chance from six yards, firing over after Brown’s header had created the opportunity.
The second half opened with home defender being cautioned by the excellent referee, Mr Bakalarz, not so much for the cynical foul he committed as for his reaction to being penalised. That was a rare moment of excitement as these two sides traded blows without ever looking like scoring. Both clubs were creating half chances but doing little with them. In the 64th minute, home forward Joao Carlos shot wide while one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
Chasing the game, Ashford withdrew the subdued Kofi Lockhart-Adams and replaced him with Joe Bennett, who brought fresh impetus to the forward line. The new energy helped the Tangerines to equalise in the 71st minute, a long throw from Russell Canderton causing consternation in the home defence. Mark Bitmead pounced with Bennett lurking, hooking a shot over the defence and into the far corner of the net.
A previously turgid match suddenly came to life, with the hosts trying to regain the initiative. Bunce hit a long shot off Bitmead to win a corner, from which Junior Baker headed just over while unmarked, while at the other end, Harry Knock’s deep cross caused problems for the home defence. With five minutes of the 90 to play, Junior Baker almost put through his own net, heading a wicked corner from Alex Duffy goalward, only for one of his colleagues to clear the ball of the line. Baker might have been dismissed in stoppage time, for a two-footed and potentially dangerous lunge at Bennett, but was merely cautioned/
Neither side could conjure a winner, so there will be a replay on Tuesday evening.