Chichester came away from league leaders Cray Valley PM with a much-deserved point after an enthralling end to end game in which Miles Rutherford’s men had to dig deep.
The clubs last met in September of the Covid-curtailed 2019-20 season with the south-east Londoners similarly flying high at the top of the table, but goals from Jimmy Wild and Gicu Iordache that day gave Chi a memorable win in their inaugural Step 4 campaign with Millers manager Kevin Watson hailing them “one of the best teams we had faced at Step 4 of the non-league pyramid”.
Chichester went on a spectacular fairy tale run in the FA Cup that season through six rounds of qualifying and a unique bye into the second round ‘proper’ and Cray Valley had one of their own the following year, only to suffer a narrow 1-0 defeat to Havant & Waterlooville in the first round.
Very few of the players from that match over two years ago featured here – Wild moved on some time ago and Chi were without Iordache, strikers Scott Jones and Callum Overton, alongside Lloyd Rowlatt and captain Connor Cody.
And in a rejigged line up Kieran Magee had Ryan Davidson, Rob Hutchings, Corey Heath, Ben Pashley and Lewis Hyde in front of him.
Jamie Horncastle and Emmett Dunn sat in the middle of the park and Kaleem Haitham and Ben Mendoza offered Tyrone Madhani support up top.
The hosts forced an early corner four minutes in after slick passing between Paul Semakula, skipper Nat Blanks and Nathan Green which Magee came out to claim.
Davidson had the first shot of the match moments later when he received the ball from Haitham but his curling effort was turned away by keeper Chris Lewington.
Pashley, Hyde and Mendoza got Chi going again only for defenders to block Mendoza’s attempt.
Mendoza then conceded a free-kick some 25 yards or so out which Green hit well wide.
Davidson gave away another sixty seconds later that earned him a soft yellow card too. Connor Dymond took this one and found Francis Babalola who struck an effort into the side-netting.
Pashley then had a Green cross to deal with and matched Marcel Barrington in a foot-race to steer the ball back to his goalie.
Davidson and the pacey Green were involved in a number of duels in the first 45 and the Chichester right back did well on 17 minutes to recover and deny the Cray No3.
Rory Hill and Blanks had a shot blocked and fizzed one wide, respectively, at the mid-point.
Heath was assured as he dealt with an awkward bouncing ball to head it back to Magee before Haitham was inches away from getting to a lovely cross by Madhani.
Good football from Madhani, Mendoza, Davidson and Hutchings won the visitors a corner that Mendoza whipped over. Heath and Hyde were unfortunate not to get a touch but the ball fell to Horncastle who pulled a save out of Lewington.
Chi earned a third corner in as many minutes but again couldn’t convert.
At the other end Davidson and Hyde had defending to do and Magee got off his line quickly to deny Babalola.
Denzel Gayle then had a shot deflected off defenders for a corner.
This caused havoc and Magee got a strong glove on Green’s effort before the same Millers player cracked another only for it to be diverted.
Matt Warren sent his corner kick over and with the ball ricocheting around in the box the hosts appealed for a penalty but referee Harrison Blair wasn’t interested.
First Hyde and then Magee did well to recover after a slip and prevent Barrington.
Mr Blair brandished a harsh yellow card to Hill just before Horncastle’s fierce attempt was bravely blocked.
And five minutes before the break Dymond fizzed an effort past the left-hand stick.
Super feet by Haitham, having arguably his best game of the season, was the highlight of a flowing attack moments ahead of Heath pinging an exquisite pass to Hutchings who in turn found Horncastle only for the hard-working midfielder to drive narrowly off target.
Mendoza, Madhani and Davidson combined effectively on the stroke of half time and Hutchings’ delivery towards the former Bognor man was nicked out for a corner that Madhani took with the last action of a lively first period.
Hill forged the opening opportunity after the break but his shot was blocked.
Five minutes later nice composure from Pashley in the area allowed him to clear after Barrington, Hill, Warren, Gayle and Babalola had all hooked up.
Warren then forced Magee into an impressive save.
There was a lengthy stoppage as Millers captain Blanks received treatment for a head injury.
And on the hour mark Hutchings danced past Gayle, found Haitham who moved the ball on to Horncastle only for the Chi skipper to dally too long and the chance went begging.
Warren then lifted a set-piece high over the bar and Madhani thumped one of his own into the home side’s wall.
Hassan Ibrahiym was introduced for Gayle and the sub almost had an immediate impact when he held off Dunn superbly and cracked an effort against the frame of the goal.
And a minute later Ibrahiym set up Green for a shot that struck the woodwork once more and somehow came back out to safety through a cluster of players.
Jack Sammoutis then came on for Hill before Magee pulled off a stunning reflex save from Barrington at point-blank range.
Ibrahiym, who was a real handful, had a cross cleared before a couple of attempts from teammates were also blocked.
Chichester were fighting like cats in a sack and might have gone ahead when delightful skill by Madhani got Haitham in. Mendoza’s shot was dealt with but the loose ball fell to Davidson whose thunderous drive was spectacularly palmed over by Lewington with 10 to go.
Rutherford & Co rang a change bringing on Ethan Prichard for Hyde.
The hosts rallied once more and only a great tackle from Davidson prevented Green from getting in round the back.
Watson’s team might have taken the lead when Sammoutis lifted in an inviting free-kick but a sliding Dymond couldn’t get a decent connection.
Babalola drove his side forward again on the counter but after Sammoutis exchanged a pass with fellow sub Ibrahiym he shot off target.
Prichard might have grabbed a winner in the five additional minutes but his effort was saved and Madhani couldn’t keep his follow up shot down.
At the final whistle Chichester players, staff and fans alike all celebrated as if they’d won against title contenders.
City boss Rutherford talked to Steve Bone of the Chichester Observer this week about his disappointment at the winless run of three games coming into the encounter with Cray Valley PM but he should be happy with the way his team stayed switched on here and would have settled for a point at Clacket Lane services on the way to the match.
Chi face another stern test in their next league match away at second-placed Haywards Heath on Tuesday 19th October (Kick Off 7:45pm). Heath lost a first south east division game against Herne Bay at the weekend.
Chichester – Magee, Davidson, Hutchings, Horncastle, Heath, Pashley, Haitham, Dunn, Hyde, Madhani, Mendoza. Subs: (Prichard, Spice, Moore, Carroll)