ROCKS REVIEW: Rocks 1 Whitstable 1

Luke Nightingale returned to the Rocks starting line-up – and weren’t they glad of it as he rescued a point in a frustrating clash with strugglers Whitstable.

He was on hand four minutes from time to tap in a loose ball from two yards out after a Ben Johnson cross was not dealt with by visiting keeper Shaun Smith and a defender under pressure from Jason Prior.

The Kent side had taken the lead midway through the second half with a 20-yard free-kick that was deflected past Craig Stoner.

It looked like a second home league defeat of the season was on the cards for the Rocks – until Nightingale struck.

The striker was back in the XI for the first time in two-and-a-half weeks and skipper Michael Birmingham was the man to make way for him, the midfielder one of five subs.

The Rocks have made a few poor starts to home games and they were very nearly a goal down in the second minute when Ian Pullman found himself with only Craig Stoner to beat 12 yards out, but he shot over the bar.

Whitstable looked a bit like Arsenal in their classic red and white kits, and they were playing a bit like the Gunners - well, almost - in the opening stages.

The first opening for the top-of-the-table hosts came when Prior found space down the left for a chip into James Fraser, but his headed flick-on was cleared.

The Rocks almost took the lead with a familiar routine on seven minutes. Johnson’s left-sided corner was met by a firm Prior header but keeper Shaun Smith palmed it away athletically.

An enterprising run and shot from Johnson on 12 minutes forced Smith into another sharp stop and he was fortunate the rebound didn’t fall to the in-form winger.

An even better chance fell to James Crane on 15 minutes when Prior touched a ball across the edge of the box on to the defender. Smith saved with his legs.

A minute later Prior robbed a defender by the by-line but a surprised Dan Beck couldn’t get any power in his shot and Smith saved it at the near post.

The Rocks were well in control and Prior curled a 20-yard free-kick high and wide after Whitstable struggled to clear in a passage of play that saw the Rocks vainly claiming a handball in the box.

Next to threaten was Beck as he beat his man on the by-line and sent a lovely cross over which a defender had to head to safety on the back post. It came back into the box to Fraser but his shot was blocked.

Johnson’s driven cross in the 25th minute was almost headed past his keeper by Peter Hawkins.

A long, high free-kick from the Whitstable left caused Stoner a scare on 26 minutes. He came for it but ended up leaving it, and would have been relieved to see everyone else miss it as the ball drifted out for a goal-kick.

Crane went on a surging run down the left and cut inside for a vicious curling shot which a defender blocked.

Some of the Rocks’ final balls into the box were poor and play was becoming ragged.

Crane obviously thought it was his turn to get among the goals and another right-footed effort from 25 yards was deflected out for a corner. That was played short and eventually came out to Johnson whose dribble into the box ended with a shot palmed away from inside the post by Smith.

A sweeping move on 41 minutes had Beck feeding Crane down the left and his low ball into the box was met by Prior and his marker and their joint contact led to the ball skimming the bar and going over.

Whitstable showed they were capable of carving out chances when a free-kick floated into the box was only just too high for the unmarked visiting skipper Lloyd Buckman.

HT 0-0

The Rocks began the second half looking eager to make their dominance count, and Jon Marzetti’s floated high ball to the far post was met on the volley by Crane, whose effort hit the side netting.

Five minutes into the second half, Prior wanted a penalty when he tumbled under a challenge as he tried to go past a defender. It wasn’t given – but a booking was, to Prior, for complaining about the decision.

Soon Nightingale’s cross-field pass found Prior on the edge of the box but he shot well wide after taking a touch to beat his marker.

At the other end Gareth Cornhill missed a sitter when a build-up down the Whitstable left ended with the ball falling to him near the penalty spot.

Prior’s header from Johnson’s cross on 54 minutes was too weak and easily held.

A crowd of 303 had turned out on a wet night, but at least the rain had stopped – even if it hadn’t started pouring goals.

The Rocks decided to change things ten minutes into the half, introducing some much-needed width in the form of Dan Royce, who replaced Fraser.

A promising three-on-two Rocks break was thwarted by an offside flag against Nightingale.

Nightingale was fouled 20 yards from goal on 63 minutes, but the Rocks took the free-kick quickly and it was a couple of yards wide.

A quick throw on the left allowed Johnson a chance to shoot from a tight angle but Smith gathered at the second attempt.

Whitstable broke quickly and Tim Bond fouled his man on the edge of the D, and Cornhill’s free-kick was deflected past Stoner. The goal was almost inevitable after the amount of possession and number of chances the Rocks had failed to turn into a goal.

Brimingham replaced Beck with 20 minutes left.

Royce ran on to a return ball from Marzetii but sliced it well wide of the far post from 22 yards.

Prior should have done better from Johnson’s low corner to the near post but sidefooted wide, perhaps surprised the ball had fallen at his feet.

Whitstable skipper Buckman was booked for dissent as the Rocks looked for some inspiration.

Cornhill might have put the game out of reach with 15 minutes left when he ran on to a through-ball but Stoner rushed out to save with his legs.

Crane hit another long-range effort high and wide after cutting in from the left, and it was hard to see where a goal was coming from.

Matt Whitehead was the Rocks’ third sub, replacing Marzetti, and Jim Sherman replaced Buckman.

No sooner had the changes been made than Prior almost nodded in a cross from Royce, only for Smith to keep it out.

Prior wasted another golden chance, shooting over from 12 yards after Whitstable failed to clear yet another cross into their box.

Finally the equaliser came in the 86th minute, Nightingale having the simplest of tasks to tap the ball in from a couple of yards out after Prior made a nuisance of himself from a Johnson cross.

Now the Rocks felt they might have time to win it, although that led to their approach play being hurried and coming to nothing.

The ref added on five minutes and soon Birmingham found himself booked for his part in a melee that followed Whitstable being awarded a free-kick deep in the Rocks half.

The Rocks had two penalty shouts in quick succession, both when Royce went down, first under a defender’s challenge and then as he tried to round the keeper. But neither claim looked totally convincing.

The final whistle blew, strangely, after only three-and-a-half minutes of stoppage time.

Rocks: Stoner, Marzetti, Crane, Wills, Axten, Bond, Beck, Fraser, Prior, Nightingale, Johnson. Subs: Royce, Wood, Whitehead, Turner, Birmingham.

Whitstable: S Smith, L Smith, Ulph, Peacock, Lloyd, Hawkins, Cornhill, Bodle, Buckman, Pullman, Heard. Subs: Sherman, Morris, Douglas, Williams.

Ref: A Whittaker (Salisbury)