Photographs from the match by Ken Medwyn are here CLICK HERE
The good news was that Sittingbourne put in a super performance, surely their best on an opening day for many a year.
The bad news was that two goals conceded very late on left them with only a point from a game they absolutely deserved to win.
Their spirited and organised display was a credit to manager Nick Davies, as it clearly showed the result of a lot of hard work and planning in the pre-season build-up.
Only right at the end, when they probably ran out of steam on a warm day and on a lush energy-sapping pitch, did they wilt as Cray hit back from 3-1 down after 88 minutes to force a draw.
Even the Cray Wanderers’ official website admitted: “Sittingbourne will wonder how they manage to leave with just one point from a game they had the better of.”
Cray got through to the play-offs in Ryman North last season and were immediately installed as one of the favourites when they were switched to Ryman South for this season.
Sittingbourne went into the match with eight of last season’s squad, joined by newcomers Simon Overland in goal, Dan Tanner in central defence alongside newly-installed captain Jono Richardson, and Remell Davies up front.
They made a very bright start, pressing possession-loving Cray high up the pitch, and Davies shot narrowly wide, Hicham Akhazzan grazed the bar with a free-kick, and Steven Ita went close.
Amazingly for a team who won a prize as the best disciplined team in the league last season, they also started the new season with three yellow cards in the first 19 minutes, Jack Steventon for preventing a quick free-kick and Richardson and Stef Wright for fouls.
Overland was untroubled in goal, apart from one comfortable diving save, but Cray grabbed a surprise lead halfway through the half with what for them was probably a trademark counter-attacking goal.
Sittingbourne were up one end pressing with a Steventon long throw into the box, but Cray grabbed possession and swiftly moved the ball up to the other end, always seemingly with a man over, before Ledgister struck the finishing blow.
Sittingbourne responded well to the setback and equalised when Ita played a 37th minute corner to the near post and Richardson got a touch on it to squeeze the ball in. Clearly, a lot of work had gone into corner routines and the goal was a triumph for pre-planning.
With the back four solid and the whole team working hard, Sittingbourne were undoubtedly the better and more enterprising side, and they deservedly went ahead on the hour when another Ita corner found Richardson. This time his header hit the bar but Miles Cornwell was quickest to the rebound to put it over the line.
And it was Cornwell again a few minutes later, making it 3-1 with a super individual goal. He raced from just inside Cray’s half into the space made for him by a run by the hard-working Davies, and from outside the area hit a tremendous low left-foot drive inside the near post.
Cornwell’s put an awful lot of spirited effort into his Sittingbourne career but he’s never revealed a shot like that in his locker before.
To tell the truth, Sittingbourne seemed to be comfortably hanging onto their lead, even after Cray nicked a goal back on 88 minutes when lively sub Williams, the smallest player on the pitch, nipped into space to head a left-wing cross inside the far post.
There may have been some tired legs out there for once not closing down the space or preventing the cross, and Cray made it 3-3 deep into injury time. Having carefully played the ball sideways and backwards all game to keep possession, they suddenly lumped a long clearance up into the area and it stood up kindly for Roberts to left-foot it into the corner
of the goal.
Rough justice for Sittingbourne, but plenty of grounds for optimism to take into the brand new season.
Cray Wanderers 3 (1) (Ledgister 23 mins, Williams 88 mins, Roberts 90 mins)
Sittingbourne 3 (1) (Richardson 38 mins, Cornwell 59 & 70 mins)
Referee: Lee Crowhurst
Assistants: Peter Stillwell, Daniel Hayes
Jono Richardson (C) (yellow)
Jacke Steventon (yellow)
Stefan Wright (yellow)
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