by Jeff King
Wearside League - Saturday 8th January 2022
Darlington Town 2 Chester-le-Street United 3
It was top v second in the game of the day in the Wearside League as leaders Chester travelled to the Eastbourne Sports Complex to take on closest challengers Darlington Town.
It was expected to be a tough, tight, feisty game between two sides that had met in the Durham Trophy on December 4th with United putting Town to the sword to the tune of 6 - 1.
Unfortunately Gianny Bacto's registration was not confirmed by the Durham FA and allowed Darlington to lodge a protest which was upheld meaning they went through to the next round with Chester being disqualified from the competition.
Given the respected league positions of the two teams before Saturday that Cup ruling added extra spice to what was always going to be a very tough game with Town only two points behind Chester with two games in hand.
Darlington included all three recent new signings in their line-up but were without top scorer Axel Turner through injury. Chester's settled side was back close to full availability and fitness with Josh Ward coming into midfield in place of Taylor Robinson.
However United were short of a few players meaning they had a shortened bench available should they need to change things. One of those was the now fully registered Gianny Bacto.
On a good surface but tight pitch the early going was very cagy as both sides looked to forge an advantage in the game. It took a full eleven minutes for the first decent chance of the game and it fell to the home side.
New signing Ben Wood found himself free just inside the United box but his fine strike was well kept out in great style by the athletic diving Arthur Leblond in the Chester goal.
Cameron Brewis and Michael Spellman then combined well on the left to give Spellman half an opening at the other end but his effort was deflected away for a corner.
Spellman took the kick himself and his great delivery was met by a great header towards goal from Elliot Day that produced an even better save from Cameron Hall in the home goal.
It was still pretty even as the half progressed. Ryan Muldoon after being fed by Louis Watts had a long-range shot well held by Hall and then Jay Gibson managed to get on the end of Day's long diagonal ball but didn't connect clinically with his first time volley.
Neat interplay from Town almost saw them create a real opportunity. Sam England found Wood with a precise ball on the right. His neat cross was controlled well by Aidan Cattermole who turned only to see Jaden Timmis nip in and block his way to goal.
From the resulting corner the ball fell dangerously inside Chester box where Lee Hastie swivelled on the loose ball but smashed it over the top from a reasonable position.
Chester switched wide men with Ebenezer Addo going out to the left and Spellman switching right. The United front man showed his versatility by taking Ward's neat pass in his stride, cut in and send a firm shot towards goal but it was straight at Hall who saved comfortably.
However, the switch did pay dividends on 39 minutes as United swept into the lead. Ward's neat pass found Spellman in space and his movement inside once again gave him a shooting chance.
This time his low drive was spilled by Hall and Muldoon was alert to the chance.
He got their first and guided the ball through Hall's legs for his tenth goal of the season and his seventh in the league.
Muldoon was involved again in the next opening when excellent interchange play between Day and Addo gave him the ball wide on the left but his cross was just too far in front of the waiting Gibson.
Right on half-time United were indebted to Leblond once again for keeping their goal in tact. This time Day fouled Wood right on the edge of the box. Town skipper Jim Wilson stepped up and curled the free-kick over the wall but Leblond got across well to push the effort aside.
It was the last meaningful action of the first-half as United eventually went into their dress room a goal in front. Gibson had picked up a knock in that first forty-five minutes and was replaced by Alex Nicholson as the second half got underway.
Both sides were pushing for another opening but the tightness of the pitch made it difficult for either to carve out any clear cut chances and both defences looked largely untroubled until the 58th minute.
Brewis played a short ball to Spellman who was tight on the right touchline level with the 18-yard box. Spellman turned inside sped past two defenders and then as he entered the box unleashed a superb left foot drive that flew past the helpless Hall and doubled United's lead.
It was a fine individual effort from the Chester star netting him his fifteenth league goal of an excellent season in front of an impressed Sunderland AFC scout.
At this point Chester were looking comfortable and well in control of the game but sat back a little too much and invited Town to come on to them. Town began to go more direct and cause problems for United.
On 68 minutes they got a foothold back into the game. Cattermole and Josh Crews chased a long ball deep into Chester territory with Crews unable to clear his lines affording Wood a cross-shot at goal.
Once again Leblond did well in the United goal to turn away the initial effort but Cattermole had peeled off the attack and found himself free at the back post stooping to head the ball into the empty net.
Town's tails were now up and Chester lost their way as five minutes later an equaliser arrived. It came from a free-kick conceded by Day who fouled Hastie on just outside of the penalty area on the right.
Wilson swung the free-kick to the back post where left-back Dale Johnston stole in unmarked and planted a firm header past the helpless Leblond into the Chester net.
Now it was really game on with Chester making a switch that saw Bacto come on for Watts and a slightly more attacking set-up adopted by United who wanted all three points desperately.
The substitution paid off in fine style on 81 minutes. Bacto who had looked full of running and purpose after he came on showed real commitment to win a ball wide on the right touchline.
He then showed great strength and pace to burst past the defence and as Hall came off his line to cut down the angle, Bacto curled a superb left-foot finish beyond him into the roof of the net to put Chester back in front again.
It seemed almost poetic and inevitable that it was Bacto who came up with the goal, his first for United, that would ultimately give all three points to his side after the issue last month in the Durham Trophy.
The final ten minutes were keenly contested with both sides not taking a backward step but unfortunately for the home side England took a step many in trying to stop Spellman. It was a second yellow card of the game for the limping full back who was dismissed from the field.
Despite being down to ten men Darlington almost grabbed a point late on with the ball falling to the dangerous Wood close in but Leblond saved his side spreading himself superbly to keep the point-blank effort out.
At the final whistle tempers threatened to spill over as Darlington's frustrations boiled over and players from both sides came together. Fortunately though there were no real incidents and United were able to celebrate an excellent away win.
The result kept Chester at the top of the table but they've now widened the gap to five points although Darlington still have two games in hand.
On a good day for the league leaders they were also boosted by the news of another Championship challenger slipping to defeat as FC Hartlepool beat Gateshead Leam Rangers 3 - 0 away handing Gateshead only third league defeat.
TEAM : 1. Arthur Leblond 2. Jaden Timmis 3. Elliot Day 4. Louis Watts 5. Josh Crews (c) 6. Ryan Muldoon 7. Ebenezer Addo 8. Josh Ward 9. Jay Gibson 10. Cameron Brewis 11. Michael Spellman
SUBS : 12. Alex Nicholson for Gibson 13. Mauro Asikaogu not used 14. Lewis Lembikisa not used 15. Gianny Bacto for Louis Watts
SCORERS : Muldoon, Spellman, Bacto.