Rarely has a controversial decision by a referee transformed a match as this one.
More than 70 minutes played and Sittingbourne were 2-0 up and while not exactly coasting seemed to have the game sewn up.
It was then that John Coker, by far and away Sittingbourne’s best player this season and a star again on this fiery night, went into a tackle.
It was hard but to me it was fair and he clearly won the ball. But down went a Cray player, in rushed his teammates – just as they did on a horrible night at Sittingbourne a couple of months ago – and out the came the referee’s red card.
From the moment Coker went off, Cray ratcheted up the pressure and it seemed it was suddenly 10 against not just 11 but 12 as everything went their way.
Sittingbourne had been so strong and determined up till then, but it all went awry in that dreadful last quarter-of-an-hour or so as Cray scored three goals and won a game they simply never deserved to.
And in that period, Sittingbourne’s Bola Dawodu had to go off with a horrible head injury suffered in an off-the-ball incident that the referee, whose default position always seemed to be 25 yards behind play, didn’t see.
I can’t comment as I didn’t see what happened to him either, but some fans reckon they did, and Bola went off literally spitting blood and furious that his assailant had got away with it.
Mind you, Cray also lost a defender with a head injury in added time after a penalty area melee – what’s football coming to when players are suffering damaging injuries like this.
It’s impossible to ignore the context of this match after the previous clash between these teams when Cray’s Aaron Rhule twice punched Sittingbourne’s Chris Elliott, the second time after he’d already been sent off, and sparked an ugly mass brawl.
The return match demanded a strong, uncompromising referee who would stand no nonsense but I’m afraid this one was just the wrong man for the job.
Sittingbourne, as I say, had done so well until the final period. They’d pressed and chased and hassled Cray out of their normal passing game, and seemed to have completely nullified them as an attacking force.
And all this against a Cray team who haven’t lost a home league game this season and went into this game on a 13-match unbeaten run.
Sittingbourne’s reward for probably their best 45 minutes of the season was a 32nd minute opening goal. Ben Davisson fired in a superb low 25-yard free-kick that took a deflection and the diving Cray keeper couldn’t hold on to the ball. Dawodu, who’d previously missed a great chance when he blazed over from close range, got a header in that bounced down off the underside of the bar and after a brief melee, Kane Rowland pounced to smash it in at the far post.
After taking much of the game to Cray in the first half, Sittingbourne were forced backwards a bit after the interval but they were still defending calmly, comfortably keeping Cray at bay, and looking dangerous themselves on the break.
And they made it 2-0 just before the hour when David Smith, on the run from midfield, unleashed a terrific 25-yard shot that flew in just the right side of the post for a cracking goal.
Then came the game-changing incident when the outstanding Coker got a straight red, and Cray sensed their moment.
They pulled one back on 77 minutes when Sittingbourne keeper Jordan Carey seemed to be impeded going for a corner – he was never going to get that decision – and Leader squeezed the loose ball in.
Sittingbourne then lost Bola to his horrible-looking head injury, but still posed a threat at the other end with sub Chris Elliott firing in a powerful shot that the Cray keeper turned onto his post.
With 90 minutes on the clock, Cray vociferously claimed a free-kick when Tyrone Guthrie was penalised for his challenge. From about 25 yards Frieter lifted a perfectly-placed free-kick over the wall and into the corner of the goal for the equaliser.
Only Miles Cornwell of the present Sittingbourne team was in this pitch last season, when Cray fought back from 3-1 down to draw 3-3 with two injury time goals.
So it was déjà vu when they did it again, though this time coming back from 2-1 down to win 3-2, as a minute later that man Rhule got to the byline and his cross to the near post was scuffed in from close range by sub Parker.
There was another nine minutes of time added on for various injuries and incidents but Sittingbourne couldn’t grab the equaliser the vast majority of their performance deserved.
Infuriating as it was for them to lose a game like this, it’s also a worry how many points they’ve now lost to goals in the last few minutes of games.
They showed a lot of character and ability in this game only to end up with nothing – but at least they won’t have to play Cray Wanderers again this season.
32 mins, Kane Rowland, Sittingbourne
60 mins, David Smith, Sittingbourne
78 mins, Jay Leaeder, Cray Wanderers
90 mins, Michael Frieter, Cray Wanderers
90 mins, Freddie Parker, Cray Wanderers
Referee: Mr Damith Bandara. Assistants: Mr Stuart Marriott, Mr Harry Phillips.
Salvin Kisitu (Yellow card),
David Smith (Yellow card) (Tyrone Guthrie, 64 min, Yellow card),
John Coker (Red card),
Kane Phillip (Yellow card) (Lex Allan, 73 min),
Bola Dawodu (Chris Elliott, 82 min).
Subs not used: Laurence Ball, Harry Brooks.
Lea Dawson (Yellow card) (Freddie Parker, 88 min),
Zak Henry (Dean Carpenter, 60 min),
Jerome Frederico (Yellow card) (Brandon Scott, 69 min).
Subs not used: Ralique Lawrence, Marcus Evans.
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