by Jeff King
Ebac Northern League Division 2 - Saturday 8th April 2023 Newcastle University 1 v 2 Chester-le-Street United
Back in the 1980's England manager Ron Greenwood couldn't decide between which one of his goalkeepers to select. Who was the best? Ray Clemence or Peter Shilton.
His solution? To play both on an alternative rotation basis. United's Manager John Gamble has a similar problem with two outstanding young 16-year-old prospects to choose from. Kieran Harwood and James Hughes are the two young men.
Since both were promoted to the first-time squad they have split opinion as to how is the better. Gamble included in that reckoning. With the philosophy of the Club being to promote and develop young talent he's decided to go with the rotation theory.
Against Newcastle University it was Hughes turn to promote his claim to be the No. 1 choice and with huge respect and deference to Harwood, this performance might just have nudged Hughes ahead.
When United went down to 10-men on 68 minutes with the harsh sending-off of centre back Keallan Huddleston they were already under pressure and Hughes was playing well.
After the sending off he turned his performance into a sparkling display that ultimately turned into a Player of the Match award just ahead of outstanding centre backs Thomas Cole and Captain for the day Dylan Wilkinson.
It meant that this fast emerging young United side that seem to mature more with each passing week came away with a battling backs to the wall away win. A win that perhaps earlier in the season would have almost inevitable been a defeat.
United went into the game without unavailable Captain Taylor Campbell and centre forward Jay Gibson, arguably their two most experienced players. It meant a 16-'man' made up of 5 under-17's, 5 under-18's and 6 under-19's.
Alex Fil switching to centre forward to further enhance his athletic versatility, Ethan Gray and Brandon Young were fit again and restored to the starting line-up and free from England schoolboy duties Sam Johnson was on the bench.
United started in fine style on a frankly awkward uneven bobbly pitch that looked as if it might cause their normal flowing passing style to be negated. They had two early shots from Harry Laydon and Ryan O'Connor blocked by the University defence.
Then Young played a peach of a ball through the home ranks for Fil to tear on to but he was thwarted by the pitch as the ball bounced away from his control as he tried to take advantage. Fil though wasn't to be denied.
On 5 minutes he started and ended the move that put United in front. Winning a tackle in midfield he played the ball to O'Connor before darting forward. O'Connor found Dan Robinson who played a great first time pass into Fil's path.
The striker out muscled the challenge from Ben Long before bursting past Lewis Scorgie into the six-yard box. As Max Richardson came off his line Fil showed great composure to slip the ball inside the keeper and it nestled in the far corner.
The goal only fuelled United's attitude and Benji Shodeinde almost got on the end of O'Connor's through ball only to be denied by a great covering tackle from Uni skipper Stephen Pennington.
United's probing pressure almost brought them a second when Young won a ball in midfield and put Shodeinde in on goal. The striker hit is shot well but it was deflected inches wide of the post with Richardson stranded.
Newcastle's first meaningful effort came after they exerted a bit of pressure and a ball up to Gus Mitchinson was laid back to Tim Browne but his 20-yard effort was too high to trouble Hughes.
United were forced into a change on 25 minutes with John Anderson replacing Young who had suffered back spasms after a robust challenge in midfield.
The Uni were now coming right into the game and Gray had to be very alert for Chester to come across as cover and deny Jos Veitch a clear run on goal. Just after the half-hour mark Hughes was called into action for the first time.
Pennington drove with purpose from the back and as he was challenged the ball broke kindly inside the box for Dom Griffin. His low shot saw Hughes get down well to push it away only for the ball to run free for Ryan Redford.
Hughes though was up quickly after the initial save and closed the angle down superbly to block Redford's follow-up effort. Long then made a break from the right before cutting inside and firing a left foot shot well over.
The pressure was building on Chester's goal and an equaliser arrived on 36 minutes. A long ball from defence was flicked on by Griffin. Wilkinson came across to cover but misjudged the bounce of the ball on the awkward surface.
Browne was first to the loose ball and found Griffin inside the box who turned and fired a low shot across Hughes that found the far corner of the net with Hughes looking disappointed with the outcome.
If that goal was meant to fire The Uni up and dampen Chester's fire it didn't as in virtually their next attack they forced a corner on their right. Laydon took the kick and delivered into the middle.
Fil got up well and nodded the ball down into the six-yard box and Shodeinde reacted the quickest as the ball bounced up to loop a close range header over Richardson and restore United's lead.
It was a reply within two minutes for United and also Shodeinde's 16th league goal of a very productive season. It was also the goal that enabled United to take their lead into the changing rooms at the half.
Despite a very difficult pitch that made it difficult for both sides it had still been an entertaining encounter as the teams had pushed for openings. A second 45 minutes was eagerly anticipated.
The Uni started the second half the brighter and a lovely move where Long did well to find Griffin who in turn laid it off to Noah Neill breaking into the box. He dinked a dangerous cross to the back post but Cole came across and made a great interception.
Wilkinson was the next Chester defender to show great commitment for his side doing well to get across Neill and block the home side midfielder's decent strike.
Mitchinson then tried to slide Neill through on goal only to see John Anderson block the pass. The ball though rebounded back to Mitchinson on the edge of the box who hit a good shot at goal but saw Hughes well placed to gather.
The home side were really pushing hard now for an equaliser. It nearly came when Long's through ball seemed to have got Griffin through on goal but Hughes came off his line quickly and bravely to sweep the ball off the striker's toes in fine style.
United had been penned back but almost got a real chance on the break. Cole's great long ball to the right released Robinson who fired in a superb cross to the back post where Fil was waiting .
Pennington though somehow got back well to brilliantly divert the ball away from the predatory Fil and keep his side in the game. Laydon played the corner short to John Anderson who hit a 25-yard shot that was always rising and cleared the bar.
Laydon was on set-piece duty with Campbell out of the side and he almost set-up a goal for Fil. His well floated 40-yard free-kick from the inside left channel saw Fil get a header on target from 8-yards out but Richardson got across well to claim.
On 62 minutes United were denied a third goal by great defensive play. Cole's ball over the top found Shodeinde who managed to control the bobbling ball but could only hit his effort against keeper Richardson.
Fil was on the loose ball first and guided his shot past the scrambling Richardson only to see Scorgie covering superbly for The Uni and hack the ball away off the line.
The sending off of Huddleston came when Pennington played a long hopeful ball over the top that saw United's centre back on the wrong side of Griffin. he appeared to regain his position and in doing so was nudged by Griffin accidentally by the centre forward.
As Huddleston went down Griffin had nowhere to go and fell over Huddleston's body. It was inches outside the box and the referee blew for a free-kick even though Griffin got a shot away that Hughes saved easily.
After talking to Huddleston the referee then decided the challenge had denied Griffin a clear goal scoring chance and produced a red card to dismiss Huddleston. it seemed harsh on the United player but with just over 20 minutes to go they were down to ten men.
The resultant free-kick saw substitute Ben Miller hit a thunderbolt of an effort that Hughes did superbly to flick over the bar with a strong parry. A great save from the United stopper.
Hughes was beaten from the cleverly constructed corner from the University. Mitchinson delivered it low into space and Pennington peeled off the United defence only to see his 14-yard effort cannon back into play off the underside of the bar.
With players tiring and Newcastle well on top, United manager John Gamble made a series of substitutions to break up the game and disrupt the opposition as his side held on.
Cole and Wilkinson in particular were marshalling the United defence superbly as the youngsters battled and scraped for every ball. Redford almost wriggling through only to be denied by Cole's block and it was a corner.
Mitchinson delivered. Pennington from 8-yards out headed goalwards and a combination of Hughes and Jack Ledger on the line denied The Uni skipper an equaliser.
As the game ticked through injury time there was one last chance for the home side. Substitute Keith Douglas found Scorgie who had pushed up into attack on the right hand side of United's box.
The centre half did well to open up the play and from just outside the box curled in a superb effort that looked destined for the top corner. But Hughes was equal to it and flew across his goal to make a brilliant full-length diving save to deny the equaliser.
The corner was taken by Mitchinson and the ball fell to a University player in the centre of the box who fired it on target only to see Hughes produce another wonderful block.
However, the assistant's flag went up for offside so perhaps had it gone in it wouldn't have counted although Hughes was not to know that.
The referee's whistle went as Hughes cleared his lines to signal a battling effort from an under siege United side that somehow had held on to their first half lead.
Perhaps Newcastle deserved a point but sometimes in football you don't always get what you deserve. Given the resolute defending, the controversial sending-off and Hughes' keeping, United could well claim they did deserve to hold out.
TEAM : 1. James Hughes 2. Thomas Cole 3. Dylan Wilkinson (c) 4. Harry Laydon 5. Keallan Huddleston 6. Brandon Young 7. Dan Robinson 8. Ryan O'Connor 9. Alex Fil 10. Benji Shodeinde 11. Ethan Gray
SUBS : 12. Elliot McClen (for Shodeinde 84 mins) 14. John Anderson (for Young 25 mins) 15. Sam Johnson (for Gray 72 mins) 16. Jude Anderson (for Fil 84 mins) 17. Jack Ledger (for Laydon 72 mins)
SCORERS : Fil, Shodeinde