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Worcester City 3 Grays Athletic 1
WORCESTER City served up a Christmas cracker of a performance to show they mean business in the FA Trophy.
Richard Dryden’s side advanced to the second round of non-league football’s premier knock-out competition at the expense of higher-ranked Grays Athletic with their best display of the season.
Rob Elvins and Alfie Carter laid the foundations by scoring either side of a freak Jake Meredith own goal in a first-half City dominated.
The hosts then demonstrated their ability to hold out under intense pressure, repelling the Essex outfit time and again after the break through a mixture of dogged defending, keeper Meredith and the occasional slice of luck via the woodwork.
Craig Wilding, named player-of-the-month for November before kick-off, crowned the display, securing £5,000 in prize money, with a blistering free-kick in the 91st-minute.
Both teams came into the match struggling in their respective divisions, but it was Blue Square South City who wanted this one more.
So superior were they, Grays manager Julian Dicks made a double substitution with nine minutes of the first-half remaining to try and stifle the threat.
Carter, who has been struggling with an ankle injury, was outstanding on the left flank, while there were immense performances from back to front.
Elvins was again at the centre of many City attacks, further underlining his importance to the team’s chances of success.
By the time he got Worcester on their way with his 16th-minute header, the hosts had already gone close through both Carter and Wilding and deserved their opener.
Marc McGregor’s deflected effort went for a corner, Graham Ward swung in the flag-kick and Elvins rose unchallenged to glance a header beyond keeper Stuart Robinson at the near post.
Despite having three early corners, Grays offered virtually nothing as an attacking threat in the first period but drew level in a bizarre incident six minutes later.
Harry Agombar’s free-kick looped up off the head of skipper Tom Kemp, Meredith caught the ball but stumbled backwards and was judged to have carried it over the line.
There have been times this season when City’s heads would have dropped, but they simply went up the other end and restored their advantage.
Mark Clyde, playing at left-back to allow Carter to get forward, headed the ball down in the area for his team-mate and Carter hooked a volley across the dive of Robinson into the far corner.
City smelled blood and went for the kill. Growing in confidence all the time, Carter picked out McGregor, the former Weston-super-Mare striker sent over a cross and Gary Walker arrived to crash a diving header against the post with Robinson beaten.
By now, Dicks had seen enough and threw on Glen Poole and Fola Onibuje for Alsseny Cissoko and Agombar.
It had the desired effect as Grays started the second-half brightly and began to turn the screw, Richard Graham being denied by Meredith after jinking his way into the box.
There was momentary respite for City as Clyde had an effort hacked off the line but Grays sensed an equaliser and piled on the pressure.
Onibuje and Poole were central to their enslaught, pinning the hosts back in their bid to force a replay. But City worked tirelessly, dug in and defended as though their lives depended on it.
However, Onibuje still went close on two occasions, while captain Gavin Hoyte and Billy Bingham were both denied by Meredith. The home fans had their hearts in their mouths in the 85th-minute as Poole stole into the area and cracked an effort against the bar.
City were hanging on but they relieved the pressure in the first minute of stoppage time when substitute Matt Dinsmore broke forward and was hacked down by Daniel Bunce
Up stepped Wilding and the player-of-the-moment smashed a free-kick through the defensive wall and past Robinson to send the crowd crazy.
If only it was like this every week.