by Jeff King
Ebac Northern League Division 2 - Saturday 1st April 2023
Chester-le-Street United 2 v 5 Billingham Town
This was a game where something had to give. Billingham came into it on the back of an eleven match unbeaten run whilst United had only lost one in their last nine. Ironically that defeat had been at Billingham Town.
The visitor's recent run had taken them to third in the league table almost confirming their play-off place and still with a chance of winning automatic promotion. United's had lifted them from relegation contenders to potential top half finishers.
For United the game was a chance to assess how far they've come in recent weeks. For Town it was a must win game to keep their challenge at the top going. An eagerly awaited clash with both sides looking to keep their runs going.
The first 45 minutes were potentially as good as had been seen at The Ford Quarry Football Hub with both sides showing their confidence and ability in a rip-roaring first half that some how only brought two goals after plenty of incident.
Both sides started brightly but it was Chester that struck first with a lovely goal after only 5 minutes. Benji Shodeinde was the architect. He won a ball about 30 yards from goal and swept the ball wide to the left to Alex Fil.
Shodeinde continued his run whilst Fil held the ball up. Shodeinde looped around the outside to create space for Fil to move into and he side-stepped James Oliver and from 20-yards smacked in a low daisy cutter.
It was perfectly hit and perfectly placed as it beat James Winter's despairing dive and nestled in the bottom corner of the net giving Fil his fourth goal of the season. Fil then created the next chance from a similar position.
This time he chose not to shoot with the defence closing him down. Instead he played a delightful cross into the box that Jay Gibson got on the end of 8-yards out and headed firmly at goal.
Winter though got across and did extremely well to parry the ball up on to the underside of the bar and when it came down the Town defence scrambled it clear. Fil was certainly looking the most likely to create something for United in the early going.
He was found in space again from Dylan Wilkinson's excellent long diagonal ball from defence. Fil sped into the box and was one-on-one with Winter who denied United's wide man a second with a brilliant blocking save.
Chester's start had been excellent and had pushed Billingham back in the opening stages but gradually they began to get a foothold in the game and thought they should have had an opportunity to equalise with a penalty claim.
Leighton Harris was the man involved as he twisted and turned past the United midfield only to be met by a challenge from Keallan Huddleston inside the box. It did look like Huddleston may have took Harris and not ball but the theatrical way Harris went to ground did him no favours as the referee waved the claims away.
Undeterred Town now began to look really dangerous. Jack Pounder played a lovely ball inside the box looking to give Kyle Bell a chance but Bell was blocked by a brilliant clearing block by Wilkinson.
Pounder who netted 25 goals this season thus far really should have made it 26 minutes later when he squandered a great chance to bring Town level. Harry Laydon conceded a free-kick for a foul on Paul Braithwaite.
Left back Davey Gordon went across to the right to swing in a wicked curling cross that saw Pounder rise unchallenged 10-yards out but he could only direct the free header over the Chester bar.
Billingham were really pressing and it took a brilliant interception for United inside his own box by Dan Robinson to deny Luke Spalding the opportunity to get on the end of Bell's fizzing low cross.
United though were still looking dangerous themselves particularly when they got Fil into the game who was giving Oliver on the right side of the Billingham defence a torrid time.
Shodeinde found Fil again with a nice pass and his low cross was collected by Gibson who played a great inside ball towards the marauding Robinson but Mathew Wade made a crucial clearing tackle to deny Robinson a shot.
On 23 minutes United were forced into a re-shuffle as Gibson limped off with a hamstring pull and Elliot McClen came on. He went wide left and Fil was pushed inside to lead the line alongside Shodeinde.
Gordon was proving a great outlet for Billingham on the left and created a chance that should have brought an equaliser. He swung in a cross that Kieran Harwood in the Chester goal called for but was always struggling to get too first.
Indeed Bell got to it and looped a header over the stranded Chester keeper. Somehow though Harwood back peddled and clawed the ball away before it crossed the line.
His palmed save though only fell to Bell again who inexplicably could only direct his second header from about 3-yards out wide of the post. It was a gilt-edged chance that should have been taken.
Thomas Cole then did brilliantly for the home side to win a strong challenge against Pounder and then move towards the right touchline before curling a delightful ball into the box where Fil met it full on the volley but could only smash it wide from 16-yards out.
Then it was United's turn to spurn a great chance that could have doubled their lead. Skipper Taylor Campbell did superbly just outside the box to win possession and then twist free before releasing Shodeinde in on goal.
With only Winter to beat and bearing down on goal he pulled his shot past Winter but it scraped the wrong side of the post and flashed wide of the gaping target. The let off seemed to lift Town as they pushed forward with purpose.
Gordon with another good cross into the box finding it's target in Pounder who nodded neatly down into Bell's path and the Town striker hit a great first time effort that was bettered by Harwood's close-in save with his feet.
The Gordon-Pounder combination then produced another chance but this time Pounder's header from his full-back's cross wasn't convincing and Harwood saved easily.
The equaliser that Town had been threatening duly arrived on 38 minutes although there was an element of good fortune about it. Laydon fouled Harris on the right and Oliver took a quick kick finding Bell in space on the right.
Bell tried a cross into the middle with the ball striking Wilkinson inside the box on the arm. The referee deemed that Wilkinson's arm was far enough away from his body for it to be an infringement and awarded a spot-kick that no-one disputed.
Gordon stepped up and drove the penalty unerring down the middle and with Harwood choosing to go to his right the ball smacked the back of the net and it was 1 - 1 and game on.
United though should have regained the lead on 41 minutes. There appeared no danger as Shodeinde chased a loose ball in the box towards the by-line but as he moved towards the ball he was tripped in a crowded box and it was a penalty to United.
Shodeinde himself who hadn't missed a penalty to that point stepped up and drove the ball low to Winter's right. But the experienced keeper had read United's top scorer's intentions and dived across well to push the ball away in fine style.
The half ended with Billingham creating the last opportunity. Pounder's flick-on from a long ball from defence almost put Harris in on goal but Huddleston got across brilliantly to block the way to goal.
From Gordon's well delivered ball into the box the ball bounced loose and Robbie Bird latched on to it only to see Huddleston complete a double defensive play with a brave block.
The referee's next whistle signalled an end to an excellent first half of football where both teams had great chances and opportunities to establish themselve but they both squandered them and it was all-square as they left the field.
It was United that opened the second half the brighter. Shodeinde with a shooting chance from 20-yards that he saw deflect off Wade for a corner which was easily cleared by the Town defence.
Chester's good start with McClen showing up well and O'Connor prompting and probing found a reward on 55 minutes as they re-took the lead. Fil and McClen set the opening up for Shodeinde to burst into the box in the inside left channel.
The angle looked against him as he switched the ball onto his right foot. His shot was on target but was hit straight at Winter who somehow failed to prevent the ball coming off his body and dropping into the net.
United's joy though was short-lived as Billingham and Bird hit back in spectacular fashion to take the game away from United in a devastating 12-minute spell. It started right on the hour mark.
Luke Spalding's cross into Pounder saw the big centre forward win another header. This time cushioning a lovely lay-off into the path of the onrushing Bird who hit a lovely first-time half volley from an angle past Harwood's right hand.
Six minutes later the Visitor's took the lead and it was Bird again. Billingham cut through United's defence and Harris was in on goal. He was denied by a great block by Harwood but the ball fell nicely for Bird who was able to steer it home past two Chester defenders trying to cover the goal.
On 72 minutes Town struck again and Bird completed a hat-trick. A lovely move down the right initially saw Tom Price release Oliver freed from the shackles of Fil. He in turn found Bell in space in midfield.
Bell slid a a great pass through the United defence and Bird got to it first to steer it past Harwood. Huddleston almost made a heroic goal line clearance as he scrambled back but his intervention couldn't quite keep the ball out.
The game had turned on it's head as United finally succumbed the pressure Billingham had put them under. Until that 12-minute Bird burst they'd been right in the game but suddenly for the last twenty minutes they were chasing the game.
Emanuel Igiehon, John Anderson and Jack Ledger replaced Cole, Laydon and Robinson. Fil moving to the right and Igiehon initially was thrown up front as United tried to salvage something in the closing stages.
Anderson actually opened up the Town defence with a great diagonal ball to Fil who controlled well and then found Shodeinde inside the box. United's main striker hit a neat snapshot but Winter got down well to smother.
In the end though it was Town that went further ahead with only two minutes left on the clock and grabbed a fifth goal that in all honesty gave them a slightly flattering score line.
There seemed no danger as a through ball evaded everyone and Harwood looked to see the ball over the by-line for a goal kick. But Harris didn't give the ball up and retrieved it much to Harwood's surprise.
Harris tried to turn back inside but Harwood clumsily bundled him over an conceded another penalty kick. With Gordon having gone off Harris himself decided to take the kick.
He coolly dispatched it down the middle with pace as Harwood chose to dive to his left and made the final score 5 - 2 to Billingham which whilst a tad harsh on Chester was a deserved and well earned win for the visitor's.
After the game United's manager John Gamble summed up his feelings of the day.
"It was a disappointing result but in large parts not a disappointing performance. We played up well against a strong side with a good front three who we competed with but couldn't dominate."
"Also our midfield at times failed to get a grip on their players when they were making runs. However, there were crucial moments in the game that in the end defined the result."
"Opening the scoring early and then missing great chances to extend that. Losing Gibson was a blow as Fil was doing well out wide and we had to move him inside. For all McClen tried he's not a natural wide player and we lacked balance."
"Having a penalty saved as well didn't help but I have no complaints on the results as we gave poor goals away."
"I'm proud of these lads and what they have achieved in the last two months to guarantee Northern League football next season."
United have three games left starting with Easter Saturday on the road against Newcastle University at Essity Park, Prudhoe.
TEAM : 1. Kieran Harwood 2. Thomas Cole 3. Dylan Wilkinson 4. Taylor Campbell (c) 5. Keallan Huddleston 6. Harry Laydon 7. Dan Robinson 8. Ryan O'Connor 9. Jay Gibson 10. Benji Shodeinde 11. Alex Fil
SUBS : 12. Elliot McClen (for Gibson 23 mins) 14. John Anderson (for Laydon 76 mins) 15. Emanuel Igiehon (for Cole 76 mins) 16. Jack Ledger (for Robinson 76 mins)
SCORERS : Fil, Shodeinde