Chester FC exited the FA Trophy at the second round stage after a limp peformance against National League South outfit East Thurrock United.
On a heavy pitch at Rookery Hill the Blues fell well below the standard of their displays in their last two outings and were second best throughout to a hungry, committed and organised Rocks side.
Calvin Ekpetita’s goal on 17 minutes separated the sides, but had it not been for the heroics of Sam Hornby it could have been much more damaging.
Missing out on what would have been a valuable £7,000 was a kick in the teeth and a sending off for Gary Roberts just 10 minutes into his Chester debut for a reckless tackle compounded the misery.
After a positive week in the National League that saw them glean four points from two tough away trips, Chester switched their attentions to Trophy action and a tricky visit to Essex.
East Thurrock, while sitting in mid-table in the National League South, had been free scoring during the current campaign and had put National League promotion chasers Aldershot Town to the sword in convincing fashion, running out 4-0 winners.
Chester boss Marcus Bignot made one change to the side that drew 1-1 at AFC Fylde on Tuesday with Ross Hannah coming in to the starting line up after Reece Hall-Johnson was sidelined through injury in what would have been the last game for the Blues before his loan expires on January 19. Kingsley James filled in at right back.
Chester started brightly and came close inside the first three minutes when James Akintunde jinked his way through two challenges before feeding Hannah who then checked inside and fired an effort goalwards that deflected inches wide.
But it didn’t take long for East Thurrock to find their feet.
James Jones brought down Sam Higgins on the very edge of the Chester area on seven minutes after some panicked defending from the visitors. And Higgins stepped up to take the free kick, striking a shot through a crowd of bodies to force a fine save from Sam Hornby.
The hosts were seeing more of the ball in the opening exchanges and Chester were struggling to get on the ball and find their rhythm, with midfield unable to dominate their lower league opponents.
And East Thurrock grabbed the lead on 17 minutes when a searching ball found Montel Agyemang who found himself in acres of space on the right hand side of the box, advancing before hitting a low ball across goal where Calvin Ekpitita was on hand to bundle into an empty net from close range.
It didn’t act as a wake-up call for Chester, though, as Jones had to be alert to block a Lewis Smith effort before Ryan Sammons saw 25 yarder saved well by Hornby.
The hosts continued to come forward with Chester listless across the park.
A Sammons ball to the far post almost found a lurking Smith before Hornby was called in to action again to keep out a Max Cornhill snap shot from the edge of the area.
The Blues performance was one that fans had become all too used to over the past 12 months, with Chester limited in quality on the ball, losing the midfield battle and disjointed from front to back.
On a heavy pitch they were wasteful in possession and the home side looked a threat on every break forward, with Hornby’s efforts keeping Bignot’s charges in the contest.
The Blues did try to get the ball down and find a way through in the final 10 minutes of the half but were lacking in energy and had no cutting edge. A lethargic display.
They could consider themselves fortunate to still be in the game at the half-time interval.
HALF TIME: EAST THURROCK UNITED 1 CHESTER 0
Bignot made one change at the break and brought on Lathaniel Rowe-Turner instead of Paul Turnbull, switching to a back three of Ryan Astles, Jones and Jordan Gough.
And it was the Blues who had the first effort of the second half, almost restoring parity.
Akintunde looked to have been outmuscled by the defence but managed to stab the ball across the box to Harry White whose first time strike from 15 yards was pushed away superbly by Rocks keeper Lukas Lidakevicius.
At the other end Hornby was called into action on 50 minutes to tip over a looping header from Lee Burns before pushing away an Agyemang strike from 18 yards to ensure the Blues remained in the contest.
Chester needed a spark and Bignot threw on Craig Mahon in a bid to try and find it.
And his introduction immediately lifted the Blues with the diminutive Irish winger getting the ball down and getting at their full backs.
The Blues were starting to press and White’s low cross caused havoc when Lidavikevicius couldn’t claim it, but no Blues player was able to force home.
And there was also a debut for Gary Roberts, who was handed a chance to shine with 19 minutes left, replacing the ineffective Lucas Dawson.
But East Thurrock were still hungry to kill off the tie and the impressive Sammons almost doubled their lead when he thundered an effort from 20 yards that rattled the crossbar and went out to safety.
But the Blues almost drew level with a little over 10 minutes left when, from inside his own half, Roberts weighted a stunning through ball that set Hannah free, but the Chester striker couldn’t find a way past Lidakevicius who did enough to put off the striker and deny him the leveller.
The home side were still in the driving seat, though, and Hornby pulled off a superb reflex save to deny Higgins from point blank range, with a melee ensuing before the ball was hacked clear.
But Chester’s bid to salvage something from the game was made even tougher when Roberts was shown a straight red just 10 minutes into his debut for a reckless challenge on Cornhill when going for a loose ball.
There was to be no late drama and the hosts saw out the game with relative ease to leave the Blues with plenty to ponder on their long trek back from Essex.
East Thurrock United: Lidakevicius, Sammons, Clark, Burns, M Ekpiteta, Phipps, Agyemang (White 71), Cornhill, Higgins, C Ekpiteta (Harris 59), Smith. Subs not used: Honesty, Knott, Marlow.
Goals: C Ekpitita 17.
Chester FC: Hornby, James, Jones, Astles, Gough, Dawson (Roberts 71), Shaw (Mahon 62), Turnbull (Rowe-Turner 46), Hannah, Akintunde, White: Subs not used: Lynch, Roberts, Crawford, Mahon.
Red card: Roberts.
Referee: David Rock.
Star man: Sam Hornby.