As the old adage goes, it’s time to concentrate on the league.
Chester were well and truly outplayed by East Thurrock United as they exited the FA Trophy at the second hurdle, and the dream of a first-ever Wembley visit for the club is over for another year at least.
After the previous 10 days had yielded five points from three away matches, full of plenty of hunger and promise, this was a step backwards for Marcus Bignot’s side, who were outmuscled and tactically undone by John Coventry’s impressive National League South outfit.
Calvin Ekpetita grabbed the winner after just 17 minutes but it could have been far worse for the Blues had it not been for an excellent display from goalkeeper Sam Hornby, who repelled Thurrock striker Sam Higgins as if it was personal.
To rub salt into the wounds late on, Gary Roberts was sent off on his Chester debut for a reckless – if not malicious – tackle on Max Cornhill, and hailing from Blacon that red card will hurt the 30-year-old more than most.
Chester now have 17 National League games remaining to save their season, currently five points adrift of safety albeit with a game in hand, and it could ultimately prove a blessing in disguise to be out of the FA Trophy, given the past two winners of the competition have both ended up relegated in the same season.
“It’s disappointing, first-half we got out-muscled and overran,” Bignot said. “You’ve got to earn the right to play and that generally comes from midfield, we got completely overran in there, they were first to the first balls, second balls, and our lads ran out of steam.
“We changed the game just to stay in the game at the end of the first-half because we were overrun so we changed the system to enable us to get a foothold.
“You give a team from a lower league a head start and it gives them something to hold onto.
“They were physically better than us, physically overran us in midfield. It all happens in midfield and we never got on top in there. It was a blessing only being 1-0 down at half-time.
“We had to be better second-half, we simply had to be better.
“We had a conversation in the changing room there, a constructive conversation and some home truths told. Let’s now see a reaction as I’m looking to my senior players and they’ve got to understand what it takes and they were short in there today. If they are losing the battle in there, they have to learn how to win back that battle.
“We’ll have some bumps along the road, this group we carry that momentum we’ve got into the home game. We didn’t carry that into the first 45 minutes here.
“The first game is the big one. We’ll have a good week of training and we’ve got to be far better from our senior players.”
Bignot made one change to the side who had secured a valiant 1-1 draw at AFC Fylde, with Reece Hall-Johnson dropping out with an injury and Ross Hannah coming into the line-up.
Kingsley James switched to an unfamiliar right-back role and was immediately involved in the action, feeding Tom Shaw down the right side who found Hannah, and his neat turn and shot was narrowly deflected wide of goal.
James Jones rose highest from the corner but Lee Burns got a vital block in and cleared the ball away to safety.
Jones felled Lewis Smith on the edge of Chester’s area and Higgins smashed the resulting free-kick straight at Hornby from 20 yards, the keeper repelling the effort with a fine block.
Rocks full-back Ryan Sammons – the best outlet all afternoon for the hosts – was getting the better of Jordan Gough down the right side and whacked a 25-yard effort goalwards which whistled over the bar, but the warning signs were there for Chester.
Chester had failed to get going and were second to most of the loose balls in midfield, with Thurrock’s goal stemming from such a moment on 17 minutes.
Shaw’s misplaced pass was picked up by Max Cornhill, who fed Montel Ageymang down the right side. The winger’s angle was narrowed by Hornby, but he dragged his effort across goal and Ekpetita was on hand to bundle home into an unguarded net at the back post, under pressure from James.
It was the goal Thurrock’s energy and pressing game deserved and Chester needed a wake-up call in the tie.
Sammons was a real threat on the right flank and whipped a low dangerous ball across goal which just evaded Smith at the far post.
Chester were looking lethargic and lacking in quality, with the Rocks nearly doubling their lead on 36 minutes as Sammons’ low ball found Higgins eight yards out but his header went wide.
Shaw almost played Hannah in on the edge of the area in a rare foray forward for the Blues, as referee David Rock called time on a dismal first-half from a Chester viewpoint.
Lathaniel Rowe-Turner was introduced as a half-time sub for Paul Turnbull and just three minutes after the break Harry White nearly levelled up, his low shot from 12 yards heading for the far corner but Lucas Lidakevicius produced an outstanding tip around the post.
The 347 fans in attendance were now being treated to a decent cup tie, with Hornby forced to tip Burns’ looping header over the crossbar.
From the resulting corner, the young keeper was yet again called into action to save well with his legs from Ageymang’s 20 yard drive.
Craig Mahon was introduced for the ineffective Shaw and immediately offered some much-needed drive and energy to Chester’s midfield, jinking past Cornhill who brought him down and really should have been carded.
Mahon’s cross to the back stick nearly found James Akintunde but Burns headed away into Rowe-Turner’s path, whose shot was inturn blocked by a wall of Thurrock defenders.
James avoided a caution for a rough tackle on Sammons, with the poor Lucas Dawson replaced by Roberts, making his debut for his hometown club.
The impressive Sammons was next to go close for the lower league outfit, rattling the bar from an acute angle 25 yards out with Hornby beaten.
Jones nodded wide from a dangerous Roberts corner, before the Blacon midfielder played the ball of the match through to Hannah from fully 50 yards, but the Sheffield-born striker couldn’t convert as he ran into goalkeeper Lidakevicius.
Hornby produced a superb save on 80 minutes to keep out Higgins from point-blank range with his legs, before a goalmouth scramble saw a mixture of Jones and Ryan Astles eventually hook it clear.
Roberts saw red just 30 seconds later as he flew recklessly into a 50-50 tackle on halfway with Cornhill. Thurrock’s players were incensed and referee Rock reached for a red card, and despite Chester’s protests it looked the right judgement from the officials.
It was a desperately disappointing way for Roberts debut to end as he’d shown a lot of promise before his poorly-timed lunge, and Chester’s hopes evaporated without his creativity on the pitch.
Higgins had the ball in the net five minutes later but was flagged offside, before the Blues tried to rally for an equaliser in four minutes added on, yet Thurrock saw it out comfortably and were ultimately full value for the victory.
For Chester, attentions now turn to 17 league matches to try and escape out of the relegation zone.
“Bossed it might be a bit extreme but I felt we were always in control after we scored,” said Thurrock boss John Coventry.
“They had to keep changing shape and personnel to get back into the game and that can be difficult. We dealt with everything they threw at us, without really creating a clear-cut opening.
“If you had to sum up a perfect performance it’d have work-rate, passion, effort, know-how, every ingredient we needed we had today.
“There’s lots of good footballers in the side and I have to shout at them to do the ugly bits but they did them today and then the football takes care of itself.”