A superb defensive display by Tom Cadmore & Co saw United keep their first clean sheet since September and in doing so scored a victory over Blue Square Premier opposition for the first time as Grays Athletic were beaten at Church Road in the FA Trophy.
The game got off to a pacy start with early chances being created at both ends. Grays were first to cause a stir in the area when after just three minutes Wesley Thomas crossed from the right byeline to the on-coming Jamie Slabber but his volley screwed wide for a throw. Just a minute later United were moving forwards courtesy of Danny Allen-Page who played the ball inside to Steven Gregory who fired a low skidding shot from 30 yards that visiting keeper David Button touched around the post.
Still inside the first ten minutes, Stuart Thurgood played the ball nicely into the path of Slabber but once again he failed to hit the target, this time firing over from twelve yards out. United then laid the foundation for an opener when Tom Cadmore met a Gregory corner but was just off target, something that changed two minutes later when the same scenario was re-enacted, this time Cadmore's header back against the grain found its way into the far corner of the Grays net.
Just three minutes later and the United lead could have been doubled, again a Gregory corner was met by a centre-back, this time Matt Ruby but his header went across goal and wide of the far post. The midway point of the half had just been reached when Grays forced two chances in quick succession. Sam Sloma hit a free-kick from just outside the area that was deflected wide off the wall for a corner, Sloma himself went over to take the kick and found the head of Jon Ashton but he was wide of Aaron Howe's goal.
We then had to wait for first half stoppage time to find another noteworthy chance. Thurgood played a free-kick to Grays skipper Jamie Stuart at the far post but his header despite passing Howe was hacked away by a well positioned Gary MacDonald on the United goal line.
The second half started in similar fashion to the first with early chances coming for each side. Just a couple of minutes had been played when Stuart got his head to another Sloma corner although Howe was equal to the header, catching comfortably. Four minutes later, a long clearance by Howe was flicked on by Josh Scott to Ram Marwa who tried his luck from 25 yards and was only just too high.
Just before the hour mark Howe made a superb stop to keep United's noses in front. Sloma played the ball into the path of the running Barry Cogan but Howe did well to get a strong hand on his shot which allowed MacDonald to clear the danger. On 65 minutes it was a shot from nothing that gave United a two goal advantage, Scott received the ball on the half way line and turned his marker leaving himself and James Mulley against two defenders. The striker switched the ball to the right and despite being slightly behind his teammate, Mulley dragged the ball forwards before unleashing a shot from 30 yards that left Button motionless as it smashed into the back of the net.
As Grays tried to find a way back into the tie, Ashton again headed wide from a Sloma corner before United moved forwards with Allen-Page who fed Marwa but he also could not hit the target from just outside the Grays area.
With two minutes of stoppage time already played it looked as if Scott had sealed the game, the striker superbly controlled the ball before turning past his marker and heading for goal, Scott was caught and tackled by Stuart but had the presence of mind to leap up and slide the ball past Button only to be halted by the award of a mysterious free-kick against him.
United's first precious clean sheet in over two months was almost lost in the final minute of stoppage time when Thomas finally broke free from the defensive barrier. He bore down on Howe who managed to get a fingertip to the ball as the Dagenham & Redbridge loanee tried to round him and although the ball rebounded to the striker he failed to keep his composure and blasted wide of the target allowing United to move on to a trip to AFC Telford United in the second round.
Report by Kevin Watts. Photos by Ray Peploe.
Match Highlights available at www.fcvideo.co.uk
Sponsors United Man of the Match: Tom Cadmore.