by Jeff King
FA Youth Challenge Cup 3rd Qualifying Round - Monday 16th October 2023
Chester-le-Street United 1 v 1 Pontefract Collieries
Chester-le-Street United Win 4 - 3 On Penalties
On a cold Monday night in Durham, United produced a performance full of grit, determination and honest endeavour to book their place in the First Round Proper of the FA Youth Challenge Cup.
They did so in a game where possession wise they were often second best and forced to defend desperately at times. But they also carved out chances, particularly in the second half, where they could have put the tie to bed long before they did.
In the end it came down to a penalty shoot-out. The fourth United have been involved with and they're now level in those contests at 2 - 2. They lost Senior Cup Ties in the FA Vase and Durham FA Challenge Cup after 1 - 1 draws.
But as a 'junior' side they're two from two after defeating Consett AFC and now Pontefract in the dramatic shoot-outs to stay in a very historic and prestigious FA National Competition.
United are one of only two North East Non-League sides below Step 2 still in the competition, the other being South Shields, and now they have their fingers crossed for the draw for the First Round Proper.
At this stage EFL Clubs come into the equation and the Chester players whilst celebrating a huge win in this competition are also dreaming of who they might pull out of the hat for the next round.
That's still to come but looking back at last night they can take plenty of confidence and comfort knowing they weren't perhaps at their best during the 90 minutes but came good when it mattered in the shoot-out.
It was a strong looking United line-up that took the field under Captain Jack Ledger. There were only really two notable absentees that may have made the squad if not injured in Brandon Young and Charlie Loveday.
United did call-up, once again, Park View Academy students Ben Lawton and Charlie Bunton who both currently play their senior football elsewhere but the rest of the starting XI have all featured in United's Ebac Northern League Second Division side at some point this season.
It was Bunton who had the game's and United's first opportunity on 7 minutes with a crisp 20-yard right foot effort that saw henry Holder in the Ponte goal dive full-length to his right to keep out in fine style.
Ten minutes later United had another chance when a Michael Mallaburn free-kick was met well by Emanuel Igiehon 8-yards out but he could only plant his firm header over the visitor's crossbar.
Ponte were looking very dangerous in attacking areas as they moved the ball out well with Frayza Benton in particular looking very impressive. They were really testing the Chester defence.
But they couldn't pierce a strong United back four led by Harvey Rudd and Igiehon in the middle supported by full backs Jono Beattie and Captain Ledger who kept the ball away from danger even if at times it was a little frantic.
Collieries almost snatched a lead from one dangerous free-kick delivered into the United box by Harry Charlotte. A scramble ensued with a United not getting the ball away cleanly at first but managing to block the Ponte efforts on goal.
The visitor's perhaps should have went in front just after the half hour mark when they failed to take advantage of three good openings.
Firstly Benton first well over the top when getting on to a loose ball on the edge of the six-yard box and then when Joel Learmouth hit an excellent shot from the edge of the box he saw it parried well by Kieran Harwood in the United goal.
The ball ran free and Harry Charlotte was first to it but hit his first time effort inches wide of the far post with Harwood on the ground. Then in a crowded United box a scramble ensued that saw the ball turned past the United keeper but it struck the outside of the post and bounced to safety.
Chances that on another day they might well have taken. Their misses and failure to take advantage of the majority of their possession proved costly as United swept into the lead on 39 minutes.
The goal came virtually out of nothing. From a United goal kick Harwood played the ball short to Igiehon who took a chance when beating a visiting player deep in his own half when a long clearance may have been the order of the day.
Suddenly the tall centre back had the to move into space before delivering a long low ball through the Collieries defence where Bunton chased hopefully after it. The Ponte keeper Holder came out of his box to clear but Bunton was too quick for him and got to the ball first flicking it around the stranded Holder.
Bunton continued his run and looking up realised that the goal was completely unguarded as he controlled the ball before running untroubled into the Ponte box and placing the ball into the wide open inviting net.
A goal slightly against the run of play but not one that United were going to argue about or turn down as Pontefract conceded for the first time in four games in the competition.
Ponte seemed rocked a little by the goal and in the remaining minutes of the half didn't really mount a response to trouble United who went into the dressing rooms with their slender lead.
As the game got underway in the second half it felt as though the next goal was going to be vitally important. If Chester got it then it could well be game over but if it fell the way of Collieries it would be game on.
United started well and had a good opportunity created by Bunton with a lovely ball inside the Ponte defence for Jude Anderson to cut in from the left. The angle was tight and Lawton looked free in middle but Anderson went for goal instead but couldn't get enough power in his effort to trouble Holder.
Then a though ball from the back almost caught United out. Harwood alert to the danger came well outside his box and in clearing the ball took out Harry Charlotte at the same time. The referee deeming the contact worthy of a free-kick and yellow card.
Charlotte once recovered took the free-kick and fizzed it across the face of the United goal where not one nor two but three late breaking Maroon Ponte shirts couldn't get a decisive touch.
The second goal United craved almost came on the hour mark. Mallaburn doing well to create some space on the left before crossing superbly to find Lawton about 10-yards out.
Lawton struck an excellent first time volley that looked destined for the net but Holder pulled off a superb diving stop and then did superbly well to keep out Lawton's follow-up with a brave block to keep his side in the contest.
The Colls inspired by their keeper came forward once again and on 62 minutes were given the perfect opportunity to draw level. A difficult ball fell between Rudd and the attacker and as Rudd went in high for the ball he appeared to catch the Ponte player.
The referee though waved play on and the ball fell invitingly to Harry Charlotte's whose instant snapshot was superbly saved by Harwood with his feet. However as United cleared their lines the referee blew the whistle and pointed to the spot.
He obviously decided that Colls had not gained an advantage and decided to award a penalty instead. Despite United's protests the kick was confirmed and Tom Joynt stepped up to confidently drive the ball to Harwood's right for the equaliser.
Just under 30 minutes to go and it was anyone's game now. United were being pushed back but their defence was standing firm and solid and although Ponte were definitely on top they couldn't create any clear cut chances.
Meanwhile at the other end United did and could have got a winner of their own. Colls keeper Holder being the one that stopped them finding one with some great saves to keep the scores level.
Lawton putting Anderson in on goal in the left channel of the box and the striker unleashing a near post effort that Holder did superbly well to block. Holder then was well placed behind his defensive wall to collect a Mallaburn 20-yard free-kick that he got on target.
Then a brilliant bit of play from Bunton saw him spin away from Vinny Ward before firing a ball across the box where Anderson and Lawton were waiting only to be thwarted by Holder's flying interception palm away.
Down the left Ledger combined well with Lawton before firing in a dangerous cross that was only cleared to the edge of the box where it was picked up by Dan Robinson who tried his luck from distance with the ball flying just wide.
United had replaced Bunton with Dan Walton and Anderson with Nathan Conroy as the minutes ticked down. Substitutions for penalties perhaps which looked the likely outcome by now.
Colls forced one more forward thrust and Callum Reynolds did well to create space and lay the ball into the path of Harry Charlotte who hit a really fierce 22-yard shot but it was straight at Harwood who gathered at the second attempt.
It proved to be the last action of a game that had seen Ponte on top for long periods but having to thank their keeper Holder for some fine saves as United had the better of the chances.
So, to penalties. The visitor's going first and Joynt netting his second of the night to open the scoring. Harry Marr was first up for United and drove it firmly past Holder to level. Up stepped Reynolds but his effort was too high for the first mistake.
Conroy did indeed take a penalty, the next one and calmly rolled the ball one way with Holder going the other to give United the advantage. Harry Charlotte then made no mistake with his but neither did Mallaburn who also sent Holder the wrong way to maintain Chester's advantage.
Harley McCormack was next and was fortunate to see his effort hit the back of the net as Harwood got two hands to it but couldn't keep it out. Then the big keeper took United's fourth but it was too high, very wide and not very handsome.
Level as the two final kicks were to be taken. Substitute Harry Wisher also missing the target as he fired well over giving Walton the chance to seal the deal for United which he did very calmly under great pressure with Holder again going the wrong way.
Walton's kick sparking great celebrations from the Chester players as Pontefract's collapsed to the turf in despair. No-one likes going out on penalties but it was United's youngster's that held their nerves the better and duly progressed.
A great sporting game that really could have gone either way was a credit to both sides who have both had great runs in the competition. For Pontefract it was all over but Chester left the field dreaming of the first round proper draw to come.
TEAM : 1. Kieran Harwood 2. Jonathan Beattie 3. Jack Ledger (c) 4. Harry Marr 5. Harvey Rudd 6. Emanuel Igiehon 7. Ben Lawton 8. Dan Robinson 9. Jude Anderson 10. Michael Mallaburn 11. Charlie Bunton
SUBS : 12. Leo Fasuan - DNP 13.James Hughes - DNP 14. Joe Walls - DNP 15. Nathan Conroy (for Anderson 85 mins) 16. Dan Walton (for Bunton 77 mins) 17. Kymani Severin (for Beattie 56 mins) 18. Sol Burton - DNP
SCORER : Bunton 39 mins.