by Jeff King
Ebac Northern League Division 2 - Saturday 5th November 2022
Chester-le-Street United 2 v 5 Birtley Town
Having succumbed to the Town in Birtley earlier in the season to the tune of a 6 - 2 defeat, United were hoping for a reversal in fortunes in the return fixture. They knew though going in that Birtley were 2nd in the table and the highest scorers across the Northern League.
A tough task lay ahead for the returning Captain Taylor Campbell and his charges. But, United themselves had achieved their biggest ever NL win a week previous with a 5 - 0 demolition of Esh Winning. It looked like a tasty encounter in prospect.
As the game got underway and both sides began to find their feet it was Birtley who had the first opportunity. From a corner on the Chester left, Glen Hargrave swung the ball in, and Aiden Rutledge got his header on target but with not enough power to trouble Mauro Asikaogu.
Chester replied with a lovely flowing move as Thomas Cole found James Bakou who transferred the ball left to Alex Fil. He cut in from the left driving into the box past two defenders.
With Jay Gibson pulling unmarked to the penalty spot and screaming for the ball to be squared, Fil ignored him and hit a shot just wide of the far post when perhaps he should have passed.
It was obvious early on that Town had a weapon in Hargrave's ability to throw the ball long and deep. From one such throw Cole conceded a corner. Lewis Exley took it and his dangerous ball swung in was missed by all and flew harmlessly wide.
Benji Shodeinde then did well to win a ball played up to him from Dylan Wilkinson. He switched it wide to Fil who again showed great power ro go past his marker before smashing in a shot that unfortunately deflected off Shodeinde following the play and the ball went wide.
The Birtley play-maker and Captain Alex Francis then showed his skills by making ground and breaking into the box, but his final cross lacked direction and drifted over the Chester bar.
There was no doubting that United were holding their own and producing some great football. Sam Johnson showed excellent awareness to spot Dan Robinson unmarked on the right.
Robinson in full flight delivered a great cross into the box only to see Owen Lancaster make a decisive interception to deny Shodeinde an opening at goal. Johnson and Robinson were combining well and forced two successive corners taken by Campbell, but both were well dealt with by the Birtley defence.
The game all changed dramatically on 30 minutes after United had made one of their brighter starts to a game but were rocked by an opening Birtley goal. A long ball from the Birtley defence was misjudged by Cole whose header went wide.
Asikaogu came out of his goal and off his line but was beaten to the ball by Hargrave and with the keeper struggling to get back into position, Hargrave spotted the opportunity to swivel and curled a beautiful effort into the far corner of the empty net.
Unbelievably inside a minute it was 2 - 0. Fil forced into a hurried back pass that he overhit. Asikaogu tried to keep the ball in play but only succeeded in giving it straight to Rutledge who spotted Hargrave in acres of space.
Rutledge unselfishly squared the ball to his strike partner who had the simple task of tapping the ball home from six yards. A double blow for United but it was about to get worse as two minutes later it was 3 - 0.
Birtley pushing forward with ever increasing confidence won another corner on the left. This time Exley's delivery was floated towards the six-yard box and Hargrave timed his run perfectly to get across the United defence and head neatly in to complete his four-minute hat-trick.
United were reeling and the misery intensified before half-time. This time it was Asikaogu that was the problem. He came to deal with another Exley corner and did well under pressure to punch the ball away and the fell awkwardly to the floor.
Birtley's three-goal hero Hargrave immediately realised the seriousness of the incident and Chester Physio Josh Karaka was called to the fore. It appeared that Asikaogu had damaged his shoulder but after intensive treatment he stayed on the pitch.
It was obvious though he was still in pain, and it played a large part in Birtley making it 4 - 0 on 42 minutes. Another ball over the top saw Asikaogu hesitate to come off his line and with his defenders unsure the ball fell to Rutledge who finished comfortably to put the game out of sight.
Sadly, it also marked the end of proceedings for Asikaogu as he was led away to the changing rooms after handing the goalkeeper's jersey to Sam Johnson who bravely volunteered to go between the posts with no sub keeper on the bench.
Brandon Young was the substitute that came on as United held out without any further drama until half-time trooping off the pitch shell shocked at what had happened after they'd made a good start to the game.
At half-time Cole joined Asikaogu on their way to hospital as he appeared to be suffering from concussion which was later confirmed. Asikaogu with a slightly dislocated shoulder.
It meant John Anderson coming on for Cole as United also withdrew Dan Robinson in the interval break and replaced him with Ethan Gray. It could have been expected that the changes may have disrupted Chester but that wasn't the case as they reduced the deficit on 47 minutes.
Shodeinde got away down the left and cut inside getting into the box before unleashing a low shot to Conor Grant's left. The keeper got down to it but fumbled the ball and Young was on hand to smash the close range rebound home.
Birtley almost restored their four-goal advantage immediately and it was also nearly a fourth for Hargrave. Exley finding him inside the Chester area and the striker hit a good shot on the half turn past Johnson, but it came back off the post.
Young then went into the book for a foul on Hargrave just inside the Chester half. Exley hit the free kick deep into the United box where Rutledge got their first but headed wide from a good position.
The fifth goal did duly arrive on 56 minutes killing off any faint hopes of a Chester fightback. Josh Holland played a neat ball forward to Rutledge whose close control and allusivity got him the half yard he needed to fire low past Johnson and net this second of the game.
United to their credit never gave up and showed excellent character to keep going. Anderson made ground in midfield before spraying the ball wide to Fil on the left. The wing back showed power and pace to to come inside hitting a 14-yard shot that Grant did well to get down and save.
Gray then fouled Ben Garrity as he stormed down the right. Once again Exley was the creator as he floated a great ball into the box finding Francis who got up to flick a great back header inches wide with Johnson beaten.
United made their final two substitutions with just over twenty minutes to play with Shodeinde and Huddleston being withdrawn and Matt O'Brien and Elliot McClen coming on. It eventually led to United pulling another goal back.
It came on 78 minutes and was not only the goal of the game but may even be a goal of the month contender. Gibson was fouled some 30 yards from goal. Campbell stepped up and floated a ball into the box that Grant punched clear.
The ball dropped over the head of a Birtley midfielder back to Campbell whose first touch was sublime to bring it under control and the second was even better as he smashed an unstoppable left foot shot from fully 25 yards into the top corner giving Grant no chance.
It buoyed United slightly as they kept pressing forward looking to cut the deficit further. Gibson showed great hold up play in midfield before releasing Gray on the left. The substitutes cross was a good one and Lancaster had to concede a corner.
Campbell's kick was cleared to Anderson just outside the area. He wriggled past a defender and sent in a cross shot that O'Brien missed getting a decisive touch too as the ball flashed agonisingly wide.
A good Birtley break saw substitute Riccardo Tanok force a corner off Wilkinson. Another substitute Kevin Mertakhanian took the kick, and the ball was cleared back to him. His second cross was pinpoint, and Lancaster got his head to it directing the ball off Johnson, but it came back of the bar.
The last chance of an open and entertaining game fell to United. O'Brien neatly setting up Gibson whose right foot drive was kept out by Grant in fine style as he got down well to save.
The final whistle brought an end to a strange affair where for long periods United were in the game . Burt those four minutes around the half hour mark of the first half ultimately made the difference which was compounded by Asikaogu's injury.
Head Coach John Gamble had this to say after the game.
" It was a hard one to take as we started the game very well against the wind. However, their front lads made the difference and are something at the moment we haven't got."
"We had a good reaction after half-time and I want to say well done to Sam Johnson on taking on the goalie gloves. He's got a top attitude. "
"We did really well for 25 minutes and then a very poor four minutes cost us the game. Our fundamentals of defending were really poor and the back three in general failed to win headers which put us on the back foot.
"We did say we had to turn them around in this period to relieve pressure. In reality when unopposed we couldn't find length on our clearances if that was the train of thought playing up against a slight wind."
United are back in action at The Ford Quarry Hub this Saturday against Jarrow FC with a 15:00pm kick-off.
TEAM : 1. Mauro Asikaogu 2. Keallan Huddleston 3. Dylan Wilkinson 4. Taylor Campbell (c) 5. Thomas Cole 6. James Bakou 7. Dan Robinson 8. Sam Johnson 9. Jay Gibson 10. Benji Shodeinde 11. Alex Fil
SUBS : 12. Brandon Young (for Asikaogu 43 mins) 14. John Anderson (for Cole 46 mins) 15. Ethan Gray (for Robinson 46 mins) 16. Matt O'Brien (for Huddleston 67 mins) 17. Elliot McClen (for Shodeinde 67 mins)
SCORERS : Young, Campbell