Youssef Bamba’s 93rd-minute equaliser at league favourites Cray Wanderers could prove a decisive moment that changes the outcome of the top six come late April.
The Frenchman struck twice in the second half to earn Walton Casuals a point against high-flying Cray – who still face a return trip to the Elmbridge Sports Hub in the penultimate game of the season.
After a New Year’s Day slip at Corinthian-Casuals and all play-off contenders taking maximum points in the Saturday fixtures, a rare Sunday match proved vital for both sides in the push for a place in the Bostik Premier Division next season.
With captain Daryl Coleman beginning his two-match suspension, 19-year-old winger Sean McCormack was drafted into a more central role and provided an excellent performance for his side.
The game could have been turned on its head early on with Denzel Gerrar rushing out to bring down Wanderers hitman Michael Power, but the goalkeeper walked away with only a yellow card to his name inside eight minutes.
Josh Kelly, completing his first 90 minutes in over six weeks due to injury, came close early on before Lartey Sarpong blazed an effort high over the bar. An even encounter across 90 minutes, both sides had chances to go in front, but Tyrell Richardson-Brown was most frustrated to see his header sail wide after a great manoeuvre from Josh Kelly inside the box.
Cray soon proved their prolific nature for the first time inside 15 minutes, with Michael Power finding Jerome Federico free at the back post to slide and tap in from two yards out.
Shortly after, cries of a penalty from the home supporters were quickly dismissed after Alex Kelly battled Federico off the ball to prevent any chance of a shot. The resulting 40-yard break from Bamba provided a great opportunity to test goalkeeper Nick Blue, but his through ball edged past the path of an onrushing McCormack.
A brave punch from Gerrar late in the first half, followed by an excellent goal-line clearance from Dominic Ogun, ensured the Stags were still in the game going into the break.
Having looked in good form during the first half, Bamba soon ensured he made his mark on the game with a fantastic strike ten minutes after the restart.
However, the equaliser was to last just two minutes courtesy of a rapid response from Cray’s Lea Dawson. A break down the left wing saw a cross fall to the feet of the captain, allowing him to coolly beat Gerrar from inside the box.
The hosts defended resiliently to try and keep their one-goal advantage, while an inch-perfect slide tackle from Max Hustwick prevented Brandon Scott from doubling their lead on a pacey counter-attack.
Power came close for the hosts with a 25-yard free-kick as the clock began to tick down, before Josh Kelly watched his effort cleared off the line up the other end of the pitch.
The introduction of Casuals substitute Jack Battie was to cause quite a stir, and the midfielder was involved in a scuffle with Dawson within minutes of coming on. Play became crappy in the resulting minutes and the game was regularly stopped due to fouls.
Josh Kelly came close once again with an effort tipped onto the crossbar by Blue, and he would have wondered how he hadn’t made his way onto the scoresheet at some point in the day.
As the referee indicated four minutes injury time, a second scuffle broke out between the two sides. After Battie had tackled Power, now trying to see out time in the corner, the Cray forward dragged Battie to the ground before a retaliation saw the midfielder dismissed. Power was fortunate to only pick up a yellow card for his actions, but the Stags broke quickly from the free-kick and won a late corner.
A well-rehearsed set-piece from Josh Kelly was launched over the heads of Joe Hicks and Max Hustwick – with both central defenders sent forward for a possible final attack – before falling to the feet of Bamba. Filled with confidence after his earlier strike, Bamba stepped up to hit another ferocious effort into the roof of the net before running off in jubilation to celebrate with the staff and players on the touchline.
The draw was celebrated more than many wins this season after the tough afternoon at Hayes Lane, and the late point ensures the play-off battle is now closer than ever!