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Battling United Can't Halt Leaders

by Jeff King

Ebac Northern League Division 2 - Saturday 17th February 2024

Chester-le-Street United 0 v 2 Blyth Town

After two wins in a row United faced the runaway League leaders Blyth Town at home looking to deal with an extremely well-organised and talented side. The final score line shows they didn't succeed but a great second half performance had plenty of positives moving forward.

United had faced Town twice already this season. Unluckily going out on penalties after a 1 - 1 draw in the FA Vase and then being on the wrong end of a 7 - 1 thumping in the League game at Blyth.

Since then the expensively assembled Blyth side had gone from strength to strength and whilst not quite past the finishing line yet, they're certainly an odds-on favourite to win the Division and with it promotion to Division 1.

Almost from the off in this game Town flexed their muscles and showed their quality. Their first attack almost bringing them a very early reward with Louis Calvert attacking down United's left and getting to the by-line.

From there he pulled a great ball back into the path of Dan Wilson whose fierce on-target drive from 10 yards was brilliantly blocked by the covering Micky Nelson.

Max Cowburn's free kick shortly afterwards was well delivered and caused confusion in the United box.

The ball eventually falling to Ben Fell who on the half-turn on the 6-yard box fired it inches wide of the post. It took United a full 10 minutes to mount a counter threat.

Ryan O'Connor playing a ball wide to Ashton Houlahan on the right. The midfielder chipping a lovely ball to the far post that was just too for the stretching Jack Wilson.

Then Dan Robinson took a quick throw-in halfway inside the Blyth half finding O'Connor in space. He played a neat ball to Wilson just inside the visitor's box and Wilson saw his well hit effort deflect off Robbie Dale giving Alex Lawrence an easy save to make.

Blyth then began to get on top and were forcing the pace and putting United on the back foot. Possession in the United final third was beginning to tell and it was no surprise when the League leaders went in front on 24 minutes.

Liam Paul gave a free kick away on the left hand side of the pitch after fouling the lively Calvert. Cowburn delivered to the back post and United's defence allowed Calvert too much time and space to plant his header firmly past James Hughes.

Blyth had the bit between their teeth now and a long diagonal ball from Ben Fell found Town skipper Joseph Gibson breaking forward into space with pace. From 20-yards out he struck his effort beautifully but it was straight at Hughes who held it well.

United though were not out of the game and came within inches of levelling just after the half-hour mark. Houlahan's dangerous cross from the right just evading Wilson at the far post who had stolen a yard on the defence.

But Blyth gained control of the game on 38 minutes with a second goal giving United a mountain to climb for the remainder of the game. Aother long range ball from Dale this time picking out Wilson inside the United box on the left.

Michael Mallaburn was unable to get a decisive challenge in despite trying to cover the situation and Wilson's neat downward header was fired crisply home by Calvert from 10-yards to double his and his side's tally.

United tried to respond with an excellent piece of play from Houlahan who picked the ball up on the halfway line jinked past two Blyth defenders into space but as he lined up his shot the ball bobbled and he sent it well over the top.

Right on the stroke of half-time Blyth wasted a glorious opportunity to seal the game with a third goal. It came from a missed penalty when O'Connor gave the ball away and Paul upended the dangerous Calvert in the box.

Brandon Slater stepped up and drove the spot-kick to Hughes' right but the United keeper was up to the task as he dived across and made a superb stop to keep the ball out and prevent a three-goal lead at the break for the visitor's.

That dramatic penalty save did give United hope for the second half and they certainly seemed to come out with an extra bounce in their steps looking much more likely as the game progressed.

Dylan Wilkinson doing well to win a ball in midfield before finding Reyhan Grimaud well. Grimaud in turn holding the ball up well before releasing Robinson on the overlap who fired a fierce cross into the middle.

Lawrence came to claim but could only spill the ball into the path of O'Connor but much to Lawrence's relief he was saved as Evan Fogarty got across to block O'Connor's goal bound effort.

Just after the hour mark following Wilson's flicked effort that went just over the bar for Town, United almost snatched a way back into the game with a glorious chance for Houlahan.

Nelson finding substitute Jude Anderson inside the box. Anderson found Houlahan in space and he looked to have a great chance to strike it home but delayed just a little too long and Nathan Beesley made a goal saving block.

Then it was Houlahan again showing real speed and presence to get onto the end of another Anderson pass and outpacing the Blyth defence. As Lawrence came to meet him Houlahan flicked the ball past him but it went inches wide of the post.

It was so close that several of a United persuasion actually thought it had gone into the net and shouted in celebration only to see their joy dampened.

United replaced the injured Paul with Sam Bajrami and the tiring Jack Ledger with the fresh Jacob Mallinson as they continued to ask questions of a Blyth side that looked as if they'd settled for holding what they had.

They were almost undone with seven minutes remaining. Houlahan showed great determination to win and then control a ball just outside the box before finding Mallinson inside the area.

The substitute produced an exquisite moment of composed skill as he delightfully chipped the helpless Lawrence only to see his well-intentioned effort can back off the cross bar and be scrambled clear.

Then from a free kick inside United's half Nelson hit a fine diagonal ball to the back of the Blyth box. Bajrami got up well and headed it down to Mallinson whose first time snapshot half volley brought a great diving block out of Lawrence.

United certainly ended the game on top with Mallinson in particular showing up well but just couldn't find a finish or end product to match their endeavours. Mallinson putting their last chance of the game in injury time narrowly wide from the edge of the box.

So, in the end, beaten but not battered and Blyth despite being so many points, wins and positions ahead of United certainly knew they'd been in a scrap. If United continue to play with this style they'll surely pick up the wins they need to be safe.

TEAM : 1. James Hughes 2. Dan Robinson 3. Jack Ledger 4. Dylan Wilkinson (c) 5. Micky Nelson 6. Liam Paul 7. Ashton Houlahan 8. Reyhan Grimaud 9. Jack Wilson 10. Ryan O'Connor 11. Michael Mallaburn.

SUBS : 12. Jude Anderson (for Wilson 48 mins) 14. Sam Bajrami (for Paul 79 mins) 15. Ben Lawton (for Mallaburn 63 mins) 16. Jacob Mallinson (for Ledger 73 mins)

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