by Jeff King
Alan Hood Charity Cup Semi-Final - Saturday 12th March 2022
Gateshead Leam Rangers 2 v 2 Chester-Le-Street
Gateshead Leam Rangers Win 4 - 1 On Penalties
This was a much anticipated clash at Hilltop between the two leading side's in this season's Wearside. The young pretenders of Chester with no-one over the age of 20 versus the experienced campaigners of Gateshead with no-one under the age of 20.
Age though is an irrelevance. It is what comes from heart and commitment to the cause that is important and both side's showed equal doses of that and then some in a full-blooded 90 minutes.
Both teams had chances to seal the game inside that 90 minutes but the parity of the afternoon saw both cancel the other out before Leam Rangers held their nerve the better in the penalty shoot-out to go forward to a final against FC Hartlepool.
United had gone into the games with the bare bones of a squad available. Several missing through injury including 36-goal top scorer who picked up a foot injury in an Academy game in midweek.
Louis Watts was also still unable to return to the squad that also lost Abdullah Alawahdi and George Riley through injury and Gianny Bacto who was unavailable. Second top scorer Michael Spellman who is off to pastures new was also ineligible for the game.
Leam Rangers were also without one or two normal first-choice regulars, most notably striker Kain Reed but they were still able to name a full bench whilst United only had three substitutes available including goal keeper Arthur Leblond.
The importance of the game was shown in the healthy attendance on the day and when Leam Rangers raced out on to the park like caged lions that hadn't been fed for a week they were greeted by a passionate and loud home support.
Chester for their part had a far sprinkling of support and both teams had plenty of encouragement and advice ringing out from packed technical areas as the game got underway.
The first challenge of the game seemed to sum up the intensity of the occasion and a taste of what was to come. Rangers right-back Ben Miller flew into his direct opponent in Lewis Lembikisa wide on the left and was a lucky to only concede a free kick and nothing more.
United though took full advantage of the infringement. Taylor Robinson floating a superb ball into the Leam box and as the home defence hesitated, Elliot Day rose highest to head past a static Jordon Bolton putting the visitor's ahead inside two minutes.
If the goal buoyed Chester it didn't rock Rangers who came back at the youngsters strongly. Jonny Hirst looked to be free and breaking through but was stopped by Jaden Timmis' tackle.
The ball spun into the path of Matty Halliday who hit a fine low effort to Mauro Asikaogu's left but the Chester keeper got down well to it and turned it round the post. Hirst swung the resultant corner in but Asikaogu did well to punch the ball clear under pressure.
Halliday was prominent for the hosts and not long later hit a shot just wide of the far post with Asikaogu beaten. When the equaliser came on 17 minutes it was no surprise that Halliday was involved.
A quickly taken throw-in by Ewan Vasey caught the Chester defence out and Halliday hit the ball towards the far post where the onrushing Adam Byron met it to guide it home for his 13th goal of the season. The goal had been coming.
Worse was to follow for United with combative midfielder Ryan Muldoon giving himself a tightrope to walk for over 70 minutes when he was booked for a late tackle on Vasey.
Defences were very much on top and in control as neither side were able to carve out clear cut chances. Ebenezer Addo did manage to escape Leam's shackles and set up Jay Gibson but the striker's effort although well-hit was not directed on target.
Similarly at the other end Byron went very close to doubling his and his side's tally with a fierce fizzer from the right that beat Asikaogu but also unfortunately for the lively wide man it beat the far post as well.
The last significant goalmouth action of a tight first-half came when the rangers skipper Rob Houghton who was very solid and strong throughout the game got across well to divert the ball away from Gibson giving United a corner.
Josh Ward swung the ball in and United skipper Josh Crews got up well to steer a downward header towards goal. Miller though was well placed on the post to steer the ball away off the line.
The half ended somewhat controversially with the already cautioned Muldoon receiving a long lecture from the referee but no second yellow. The ensuing result caused both skipper's to be called together and warned of their team's future conduct.
Gateshead in the first-half had the advantage of the wind and the slight slope in the first 45 minutes but often overhit their final pass when well placed. Would United use the conditions better in the second 45 seemed to be the question.
The reality though was playing into the wind seemed to help Rangers and balls held up enabling them to try and play from advanced positions although the conditions had nothing to do with an incident that almost put the home side infront.
Crews turned a ball back towards Asikaogu. Whether the keeper took his eye off the ball or wasn't fully concentrating was hard to ascertain but what wasn't was that he let the ball go under his foot and he did well to scramble back and recover what could have been an embarrassing moment for the youngster.
Leam were certainly pressing and harassing Chester well and Byron was fouled wide right by Day. Hirst fired in a long-range effort at goal that Asikaogu got across well to and helped over the bar in good style.
Chester were finding it difficult to break down Rangers and create any clear chances. The best effort from United came from a well-struck 30-yard volley from Robinson that Bolton held comfortably.
Leam's top scorer Rutledge had also found it difficult against the Chester defence but kept working hard. He created a little bit of space for himself on the edge of the box and sent a left-footed effort on target but Asikaogu got down and made an easy save.
On 69 minutes though Hilltop exploded with wild scenes of jubilation as Gateshead took the lead. A neat Hirst flick opened up the opportunity finding Halliday.
He slid a great ball through the Chester defence and Rutledge was quickest to the ball getting there just before Asikaogu to toe-end home an instinctive striker's finish. It was his 27th goal of a productive season and one that sent him and his teammates into the lead.
Perhaps the celebrations were a tad too zealous and Rangers lost a bit of concentration as they allowed Chester to equalise within two minutes. Once again the source of the goal was a Robinson free-kick and the finish was supplied by Day.
The centre back peeled off his markers at the back post to get on the end of Robinson's excellent delivery and guided his header comfortably into an empty net. It set up a tense and terse final twenty minutes.
Penalties began to look inevitable. Neither side could test either's keeper in the closing stages. Gibson did well to set up the lively Addo but his shot flashed just wide.
Then it was Rutledge again causing Chester problems as he picked up the ball just outside the box. He possibly had teammates better placed but his striker's instincts kicked in and he dragged a shot from a difficult position wide.
Chester's last chance fell to skipper Crews who got free in the box to meet another Robinson free-kick but he couldn't direct his powerful header on target and the chance went a-begging.
Rangers ended the game on the attack and looking for a winner but the Chester defence held firm and the referee's final whistle sent the semi-final into the dreaded penalty shoot-out to decide the finalists.
Houghton went first for Gateshead and it had just enough power to find the net despite Asikaogu getting both hands to it. Robinson was first for United and although he sent Bolton the wrong way he saw his kick hit the foot of the post and bounce away to safety.
Rutledge was next and he unerringly smashed the ball almost centrally past Asikaogu to make it 2 - 0. Muldoon then saw his 'Jorginho' style penalty superbly saved by Bolton's dive to his left.
The vastly experienced Shaun Bell showed all of his coolness and ability to keep his head and drive Gateshead's third kick into the bottom corner giving Asikaogu no chance.
Day now had to score to keep United in the contest and did so with a good effort that Bolton did not get close to. The final act though of a dramatic afternoon fell to substitute Joe Hunter who stepped up and sent Asikaogu the wrong way and put Leam Rangers into the final.
The celebrations from the home support, players and officials showed how much the result meant to them as did the disappointment on the faces of the United youngsters.
Neither side had been at their best during a game where perhaps the atmosphere and intensity got to both sides but Gateshead showed the cooler heads during the shoot-out and perhaps were rewarded for just shading a game more suited to their style.
For United it was a disappointment and whilst the old cliché that they can concentrate on the league may have been voiced it has to be remembered that Leam Rangers are also their closest rivals for that title as well.
United's First Team Head Coach acknowledged that the game hadn't been a classic and that he and his players were disappointed with their performance and the end result. He felt his side should have done better in the second half after grinding through a tough first half.
He commented that it's always disappointing to lose a semi-final and particularly on penalties but felt his side had given him as much effort as they could have but had lacked a cutting edge going forward.
TEAM : 1. Mauro Asikaogu 2. Jaden Timmis 3. Elliot Day 4. Taylor Robinson 5. Josh Crews (c) 6. James Bakou 7. Ebenezer Addo 8. Josh Ward 9. Jay Gibson 10. Ryan Muldoon 11. Lewis Lembikisa
SUBS : 12. Alex Nicholson for Lembikisa 13. Arthur Leblond (unused) 14. Dylan Wilkinson (unused)
SCORERS : Day 2