Defeat against Royston at the weekend meant Wingate had won just once in their last five games and exited the FA trophy just three weeks after dropping out of the FA Cup. A tight fixture schedule has tested the Blues squad depth amidst numerous injuries and Kieron Street was drafted in to fill the left-back position for his first league appearance since the opening game of the season. With Grays Athletic sitting just one point and one place above Wingate in the table, Simon Lanes men knew their work would be cut out against a team that came into this game off the back of a 4-0 victory last time out in the league.
Despite Alfie Bartram and Tommy Tejan-Sie applying pressure to Lamar Joseph-Johnson in the Athletic net during the early stages, it was Wingate keeper Jack Metcalfe forced into the first real save of the game, tipping Bradley Fortnum-Tomlinsons close-range shot on to the bar after 10 minutes. With chances falling for both sides it was Grays that seized the advantage six minutes later, a Roman Michael-Percil cross skimming its way through a crowded box before Fortnum-Tomlinson got the ball under control and drove a shot under Metcalfe at his near post. Wingate switched back on quickly and held the ball, penning Athletic into their own half until Oliyides flick-on sent Lee Barney through on goal, the striker taking no time in sliding the ball under the keeper into the bottom corner to pull Wingate level after 25 minutes.
Wingate refused to take their foot off the gas and after Alfie Bartrams jinking run seven minutes later caused Grays defence to stick to him, he found Rob Laney in space on the edge of the box, many strikers unable to hold a candle to his finish across the keeper and in off the post to give Wingate the lead. The Blues weathered a brief Athletic storm before half-time, Metcalfe pulling off a fine double stop when his clearance from a Michael-Percil corner left Jay Leader with a clear sight at goal, but the keeper blocked his powerful shot away with his legs. Fortnam-Tomlinson beat Rifat for pace and dragged a shot wide of the post three minutes before the break, but Wingate held out and took a slender lead down the tunnel.
Grays began the second half the stronger side, holding the ball well and not allowing Wingate any real time in posession and their pressure paid off 58 minutes in when Roman Michael-Percil found himself with enough space inside the box to drive an equaliser past a full stretch Metcalfe into the bottom corner. Subsequent chances were few and far between for both sides; Joao Carlos drove a shot into the side netting 11 minutes later before Metcalfe held Harry Agombars curling effort seconds later. Laney put a header on to the roof of Joseph-Johnsons net with 20 minutes to go but just as fans began to settle for a draw, the players had different ideas.
An 80th minute Karl Oliyide counter-attacking run after a spell of Athletic pressure sent Blues three-on-one, and the midfielder managed to deftly switch the ball to Barney who had time to settle himself before smashing his third goal in as many games past Joseph-Johnson. Athletic ramped up the pressure towards the end and when Mason Bloomfield was brought down just outside the box with two minutes left on the clock, Glen Little curled his free kick around the wall but could only watch as it smacked off the post and rolled away from goal. Continuing to push for a last-minute equaliser, Grays captain Sean Cronin broke in to the Wingate box and lifted the ball over Metcalfe but, like all reliable defenders, Leon Solomon was behind him and on hand to hook the ball away off the line to ensure victory. Wingate will be proud of the determination shown to overturn their recent run of bad luck and will look to carry this performance into back-to-back fixtures home and away against Farnborough in the coming week.
WingateTV interviews with Rob Laney and Ahmet Rifat: HERE
Report by Andy Gerlis