In a physical encounter, Rangers were slow out of the blocks in the first half and struggled against their opponent’s direct style. South Coast opened the scoring after about 15 minutes when a Rangers defender was dispossessed in his own final 3rd allowing the striker to run through on goal and finish neatly past keeper Josh Langley-Fineing. They extended their lead shortly afterwards when debutant John Blundell was adjudged to have tripped the opposing striker in the box, and the resulting penalty was dispatched for 2-0. With Rangers looking flat and lacking in sharpness, they were punished further when an opposition midfielder had time to turn on the edge of the area and place a shot that just squeezed in at the at far post.
With striker and top scorer in pre-season Glen Noble forced off due to injury, Rangers were forced into a reshuffle with new signing Jos Calugay coming on to fill an advanced midfield role in place of Luke Davies who was pushed up top. It was Davies who gave Rangers some hope, running onto a defence splitting pass and firing low past the keeper into the far corner to make it 3-1. At half time Rangers knew that an improved performance would be needed to drag themselves back into the game. The reaction was immediate as virtually from the kick-off, half time substitute (and late replacement for a drop out) Will Gray received the ball on the left flank around the half way line before accelerating past two opposing players, cutting into the box and jinking past a defender then firing the ball into the far corner past the despairing keeper to make it 2-3. A goal of high quality, which gave Rangers a real boost with plenty of time still left on the clock.
With their opponents visibly tiring, Rangers were really starting to take the game to them, with Ben Jesson shaking off the rust after not playing since February pulling the strings in midfield and Gray & Calugay tormenting the defence with their pace and trickiness. The pressure eventually paid off and it was Gray again, sticking his head in where it hurts to nod in from a free kick beating the goalkeeper and a defender to the ball. 3-3 and it was really game on now.
Rangers did have a let off when the referee felt that another of the half time substitutes Rob Anderson was guilty of barging over their striker in the box and awarded another penalty. This time Langley-Fineing came out on top, blocking the spot kick with his legs to keep the scores level. With the clock running down, both teams went on the attack looking for the winning goal as the action moved from end to end at pace. With several more injuries sustained, Rangers had to face the final ten minutes with just 10 men. This saw the opponents pile the pressure on Rangers, but despite a couple of close shaves they were unable to find the net again, with Blundell (who had been switched to centre back because of the injuries) in particular providing a formidable barrier which Athletico were struggling to breach.
With the referee’s watch hovering on 90 minutes and it looking like the game was headed for stalemate, there was time for one more moment of magic and it was no surprise that it came from Gray. In almost a carbon copy of his first goal, he picked up the ball on the left just inside the opposition half and turned on the afterburners, bursting past several attempted challenges before running through on goal. This time he went for the near post unleashing a fierce strike that gave the keeper no chance, delivering a dramatic late winner much to the delight of the whole Rangers contingent.
Despite the enjoyment of the win, Rangers definitely weren’t at their best in this game and despite coming back from 3-0 down with an improved 2nd half performance the players know they will need to improve on this for the challenges to come. However it was more minutes banked for the players and another good run out in preparation for the big kick off in a month’s time. Man of the match was deservedly given to Will Gray for his 2nd half hat-trick and all round excellent performance. Thanks to South Coast Athletico for the game and for stepping in at short notice. Good luck to them for their inaugural season in the East Sussex league.