by Jeff King
Wearside League - Saturday 23rd April 2022
Chester-le-Street United 0 v 3 Darlington Town
There were certainly more questions than answers after a torrid 90 minutes at The Riverside saw United's title challenge receive another dent with a second successive league defeat at the hands of a very efficient Darlington side.
Have United's youngsters run out of steam? Is the effects of a long-hard season in the Wearside League and midweek Academy Leagues taking it's toll? Can they recover for their final two matches? All questions of course that can be interpreted and considered in different ways.
What was clear virtually from the off in Saturday's game was that Town were well up to the challenge and dominated the game throughout and definitely after they opened the scoring.
Significantly as well, Darlington's victory came on the back of an impressive 4 - 2 midweek win over Gateshead Leam Rangers meaning all of a sudden they've put themselves back into the title race. It's now a three-team mix-up as the teams go into the final knockings of the league season.
Darlington have three games to go and have momentum. If they take those three games they close on 80 points. It means in reality that United and/or Leam Rangers have to win both of their remaining fixtures to keep Darlington from coming up on the rails.
If both Chester and Leam win their last two then United would be Champions. A slip from either can let in the other and a slip-up from both can let in Town who could snatch the Championship away from the likely two in dramatic style.
But, those are considerations for another day and once again conjectures and speculations. What is fact that Darlington completed a superb week for themselves with this well deserved away win at United.
United perhaps shaded a game that in truth didn't have a lot of gilt-edged chances early on. Louis Watts hit the cross bar with a corner that the Town defence scrambled clear and Mauro Asikaogu was called upon to make a couple of smart but regulation saves in the Chester goal.
The game turned on 24 minutes and it was a disaster for Chester and young defender Dylan Wilkinson. Wilkinson has been magnificent since coming in for Jaden Timmis who had suffered a season-ending injury. It was perhaps cruel on the youngster to play such a significant part in his side's downfall.
There seemed little danger when he collected the ball inside his own box. But as he went to clear his lines he miskicked completely and presented the ball to Ryu Williamson in a dangerous position.
Williamson got his head-up spotted Sam England in space unselfishly square the ball to England who swept it past Asikaogu from about eight yards out. It was a huge moment for both sides and one that gave Town an undoubted edge.
Not just in the score line but also in general play as they controlled the game for long periods thereafter. Chester did try and press but when they did, Darlington were usually in the right places to cover.
There was one tackle on Elliott Day by Jacob Wood as he burst into the box that looked as if it was inside the area. The referee in a good position deemed the initial contact to be outside the box and the resultant free-kick came to naught.
Town with their front line busy and well supported by a solid midfield though could have gone further ahead forcing openings and chances which were either squandered or saved by Asikaogu.
Right on the stroke of half-time Chester did miss a glorious opportunity to level the game. Cameron Brewis who was clearly struggling with an injury did conjure up a superb chipped ball into the path of Ryan Muldoon.
The midfielder did well to step inside his marker and was suddenly 1-on-1 with Town keeper Cameron Hall. Unfortunately for United, Muldoon could only hit his shot straight at Hall from 10 yards out and the keeper saved well to keep his side in front.
One-Nil at the half was deserved for Town who perhaps felt they could have had more and put the game beyond doubt. Their thoughts though were probably focused on a second-half response from Chester.
In the end it never really came. United's efforts to come back were not helped when a clearly distraught Brewis was forced off. Perhaps one of those times when the mind was willing but the body wasn't in agreement.
They were also to lose keeper Asikaogu during the second period but in fairness to his replacement, Arthur Leblond, he wasn't missed as much as he might have been, Leblond also making saves to keep his side in the game.
United just couldn't get going against a well-organised, well-drilled Town side that looked both fresher and hungrier and when a second goal came it was not a surprise. What was a surprise was it took 76 minutes for it to arrive and was perhaps slightly controversial.
A Town attack was ended when they gave away what the referee deemed as a goal kick. Both teams seemed to settle for the decision but the man in the middle changed his mind and awarded a corner.
Lewis Henry who had been delivering dangerous dead-balls all game finally had one converted as his corner deep into the heart of the Chester defence where Dec Brown met it with a great header that flew into the back of the United net.
The only real chance United had created in retaliation was when Josh Crews played a neat ball into midfield to Watts who side-stepped his marker and found Lewis Lembikisa on the left with a sweet pass.
The left winger showed a clean pair of heels to full back Alex Nelson as he drove to the by-line and crossed to the far post. There was a case for a late foul on Lembikisa by the Town defender as he released the ball but the officials couldn't be faulted for following the flight of the ball and missing the tackle.
The ball arrived at the head of Jay Gibson but he could not get a good enough connection and headed tamely over the top. It was perhaps a sign of United's lack of a cutting edge to truly worry a resolute and tough Town defence.
The third goal which well and truly killed off any distance hopes Chester had of a dramatic comeback came in injury time. The excellent Brown winning the ball well in midfield and played it in to James Beauchamp inside the box. He squared the ball across, Henry dummied it and allowed it to run on to Ben Wood who rifled it into the top corner.
Game, set and match to Darlington Town who have blown the Championship race wide open and even given themselves a chance of glory especially as the news came in that Leam Rangers had also lost on the day to Wolviston at home 3 - 2.
For United the task on paper is easy. Win their last two games and they win the league. On grass or plastic its a much harder read. Out of form, looking very tired and lacking experience in such a run-in those last two games will be like Cup Finals.
They have the heart and desire but have they the legs and physicality to dredge up two further wins to complete the job? Another question with several possible answers.
Speaking after the game Head Coach John Gamble had this to say.
"I thought we were showing good control in the first half but a disastrous mistake by Wilkinson gave them the lead. Maybe we could have had a penalty for the challenge on Day and then Muldoon misses our best chance before half-time when he's 1-v-1 on the keeper."
"Brewis is unable to run from the start resulting with him coming off early 2nd half and we had no strength on the bench. I didn't think Darlington were great but they were easily good enough on the day and experienced and knowledgeable enough to know how to take advantage on the day and deserved their win."
"I think we got away with it in the Cup Final but against the stronger sides like Darlington it shows. We now need to use who we have signed on to have a stronger squad for the last two games."
"Today was a massive disappointment but we're still in pole position although Darlington are the team in form. Crews and Day were the only players for me that came out with any credit but overall the lads have done us proud. I just think today the season looked to have taken its toll."
"Not making excuses but we have a depleted squad and in fairness these lads have done great. However we've also played over 55 games and the season can't come quick enough."
"They have National Cup Final on Tuesday night which is another big occasion for them against Sudbury at Doncaster's Keepmoat Stadium. Brewis was in tears coming off as his mind wants to do it but his body can't."
"I was gutted to see him struggle around the park and he may well be done for the season now along with Timmis and Ward who won't play again. It may just have been a few too many games in too few many days."
"But, it's not all over. If we can pull together, draw a breath, use the off time to rest and recuperate we can go again. We're 180 minutes from glory and that's what has to drive us forward."
TEAM : 1. Mauro Asikaogu 2. Dylan Wilkinson 3. Elliott Day 4. Ryan Muldoon 5. Josh Crews (c) 6. Louis Watts 7. James Bakou 8. Cameron Brewis 9. Jay Gibson 10. Dan Lanning 11. Lewis Lembikisa
SUBS : 12. George Riley (Unused) 13. Arthur Leblond for Asikaogu 14. Evan Gray for Bakou 15. Jack Mortimer for Brewis 16. Abdullah Alawahdi for Lanning