Lee Clarke confirmed a return to his best goalscoring form at a bitingly cold Clarence Park on Saturday by notching a brace that removed Thurrock from the Setanta Shield to set up an eagerly awaited Fourth Round clash at home to Torquay United, this coming Saturday, 22nd December.
Thurrock fell well short of matching the 5-0 romp they enjoyed at St Albans earlier this season but had it not been for a number of crucial interventions by City keeper Nick Eyre then the Fleet could well have been looking forward to entertaining Torquay themselves.
With suspension ruling out defenders Craig Vargas and Hasim Deen, and Gary Elphick released barely an hour before the game, City boss Dave Anderson was forced into a drastically changed backline. Ben Martin was recalled from Ashford Town for his first run out for the Saints since the end of last season, alongside him was Ryan Frater, a recent capture from Hitchin Town. The no nonsense approach of both players ensured that Thurrockâ€™s relatively small attack went home fully aware that City are no longer a soft touch.
The early exchanges were lively with both sides getting forward although Hakan Heyrettinâ€™s side created the better openings. Excellent slick passing involving Bai Mas Lettejallow and Greg Lincoln sent David Bryant away on eight minutes only for Eyre to spread himself well and make a fine save off his legs.
With some enterprising work in midfield Thurrock continued to offer the greater early threat but a swift counterattack ended with City taking the lead on 20 minutes. Attacking down the right, Hassan Sulaiman put a poor ball straight to Thurrock defender Matt Paine, but as Paine lost his footing Richard Butler cut in to race clear. After nudging the ball wide of David Blackmore, the City striker was brought crashing to the ground by the sprawling keeper. Referee Neil Hair pointed to the spot but surprisingly only gave Blackmore a yellow card.
With Anderson fuming at the match official from the touchline, Clarke calmly stepped forward, then stuttered, before sliding the ball to Blackmoreâ€™s right as the keeper fell to his left.
The match looked as though it contained more goals but prior to the break the best City could muster was a shot into the side netting by Scott Cousins after Butler had cut back a long ball from the commanding Frater. On the half hour Eyre safely gathered a well struck Lee Flynn free kick and made a more significant stop on 41 minutes after Matt Bodkin and Lincoln had sliced open the City defence.
As the temperature continued to drop Cityâ€™s lead began to appear increasingly fragile although Blackmore survived an anxious moment when he failed to hold a Clarke effort from 20 yards and only just managed to scramble the ball wide as Cousins closed in on the loose ball. Thurrock responded with a spell of sustained pressure. Eyre tipped the ball over high to his right following a fine Rob Swaine header from a Flynn corner, and Flynn was denied again by Eyre after Kenny Clark had fluffed a good chance close in.
Butler had a golden opportunity to settle the tie on the hour but his soft effort from six yards was beaten out by the grateful Blackmore. Butler was more decisive four minutes later when, latching onto a Paul Bruce ball down the City right, he sent a crisp drive towards the back post where Clarke nipped between two defenders to stab home his seventh goal in nine appearances.
Again Thurrock came back strongly and put the York Road goal under some threat before another City break saw Bruce free Clarke whose shot from the edge of the penalty area was well saved by Blackmore with Bruceâ€™s follow up deflected wide.
Thurrock continued to squander chances with Lettejallow and Che Stadhart both missing from close range but three minutes from time Stadhart did find the target with a smart near post header from a Bodkin corner. Far from proving to be the launching pad for a late Thurrock revival, City saw out the closing moments in comfort.
Report by David Tavener