by Jeff King
Wearside League Division 1 - Wednesday 13th April 2022
Gateshead Leam Rangers 2 v 1 Chester-le-Street United
As his players sat in a circle in front of him, birthday boy and Chester's Head Coach John Gamble who didn't get the present he wanted, started his rallying call with one word, 'devastated.'
It was the honest way to start a speech that hopefully will lift his players as they sat disconsolately at the end of a highly competitive and combative 90 minutes that didn't go there way.
There had been so much talk and hype about a game that could have potentially huge implications on the Wearside Championship destination and at the end of the game the advantage now lies with Leam Rangers who earned it on the night.
Both teams though deserve credit for actually getting to the game which had been much anticipated with their records intact and in a position to benefit from a victory.
A league double over Chester is a marvellous achievement for Rangers and one that could set them up to take the ultimate glory and rewards. For United it was their third game in five days and perhaps a game too far for a weary looking set of youngsters that at times lacked their usual spark and energy.
Selection for the game had not been easy with several players carrying knocks and niggles but Ryan Muldoon and Elliott Day were recalled to the starting XI along with Jay Gibson who resumed his striking partnership with Dan Lanning.
The Rangers' side looked strong but also may have been affected by the hectic and brutal schedule both sides have had and will continue to have until the end of the season. But, both sides had to put those thoughts and feelings behind them as the game got underway.
Leam almost got off to a dream start. Jonny Hirst wide on the left fired a low cross into the area which Mauro Asikaogu failed to collect but saw George Riley come to his rescue to clear.
But, it was actually Chester that got the start they wanted with a goal on the five-minute mark and it was skipper Josh Crews leading from the front that claimed it in emphatic fashion.
Cameron Brewis was upended by Dean Kirtley about 30 yards out and floated the free-kick in dangerously seeing Leam skipper Robbie Houghton head out for a corner.
Brewis went across to take the flag-kick and swung in a brilliant delivery that Cres rose majestically to meet and bullet a header into the top corner giving Jordan Bolton in the Leam goal no chance whatsoever.
It was Crews' fifth goal in a season where he has led his side superbly playing more minutes and games than anyone else in the Chester squad and gave his side an energy and impetus they needed in such a big game.
From the restart Rangers who had already shown their intention to use their wide men to try and get in behind United's defence found Adam Byron on the right. His cross found new signing Carl Taylor but Muldoon got in front of the striker to block well.
Hirst on the opposite flank for Leam was also causing problems and when Dylan Wilkinson gave the ball away to him he looked to be in the clear. But, the young defender recovered superbly to clear for a corner which United dealt with easily.
United were though at this stage the better side and looking the more likely to add to their tally. Lanning and Gibson were stretching defence and Brewis and Taylor Robinson were prompting and probing in midfield.
Their next chance came from a lovely flowing move. Crews played the ball out wide left to Day who turned inside Ben Miller well and laid the ball off to the right to the advancing James Bakou.
He took a great touch to get himself inside the box but then fired his effort just over the bar from a really good position. Day himself then went even closer minutes later.
Found inside the box by an intelligent pass from Lanning he drifted inside and shot inches wide of the far post with Bolton well beaten. It was an unlucky moment for Day and United.
The battle between Crews and 40-goal Leam striker Aiden Rutledge was one perhaps worth the admission money alone as both players came together on so many occasions and slugged it out.
One of the clashes earned Leam a free-kick in a dangerous position but was wasted with an over struck delivery that drifted harmlessly wide.
On 27 minutes the best chance for a United second fell to the normally clinical Brewis. The lively Lanning once again the creator. The youngster's run took him into a postion where he freed Brewis who had only Bolton in front of him.
The keeper advanced off his line and Brewis chipped him beautifully only to see the ball drop agonisingly just over the bar. Lanning then running into a channel spotted Bolton off his line again.
But whilst the striker's intentions were good taking on the shot from way out the finish lacked power and precision and Bolton was able to recover to gather the ball comfortably.
Hirst was certainly proving the home side's biggest threat and a run on the left saw him cut the ball back to Taylor who saw his effort blocked by Riley. The ball fell to Kirtley outside of the box but he blazed his effort well over.
Both sides were strong and organised and restricting chances at both ends. United's defence was blocking everything thrown at them whilst Rangers defenders were often the first to the 50/50 ball.
The last action of a well-contested half saw Hirst clip a left-wing corner into the side-netting of the Chester goal when a deeper delivery may have been a better option.
As the side's left the field for their half-time instructions United had shaded the first 45 minutes but there was no doubting Leam were coming into the game and there was still a long way to go.
The second half opened in sensational style with the home side out of the blocks from the off and drawing level within two minutes of the restart. Inevitably it was that man Rutledge who got his side back in the game.
The outlet was the dangerous Hirst wide on the left again. This time his dangerous cross was not dealt with well by the Chester defence and in the confusion the ball fell to Rutledge inside six-yard area and he doesn't miss chances like that smashing it home for his 41st goal of a wonderful season.
Within three minutes the game had turned completely around. Hirst again probing on the left won a corner off Bakou which he took. His delivery into the near post saw Houghton make a determined run to get in front of the Chester defence and plant a firm header into the bottom corner to give his side the lead.
Leam were jubilant and celebrated wildly on and off the pitch as the shell-shocked Chester contingent looked on. It was a brilliant opening to the half for the home side and one that had transformed the picture.
Thomas Cole then broke from midfield and looked dangerous but Muldoon got across to sniff out the danger and this time the Chester defence dealt well with the corner.
The changes to line ups started with Lewis Lembikisa coming on for Bakou on the United right but it was Hirst once again that almost sealed the deal for Leam with the next chance. Cole played a neat ball wide to the winger who cut into the box before rifling his shot just over the top.
Back came Chester and it was Lembikisa who almost proved the inspired substitution. Brewis released him on the right hand side of the box but although his first touch was good his second wasn't as he smashed his effort over the bar.
United were showing character but Leam were very solid in defence clearing their lines on every occasion. Nice play from Brewis found Day on the left and his return ball saw Brewis' effort well blocked by Alan Thompson.
Chester were pushing but in truth Leam were holding them well and seemed to be getting to every loose ball first and snuffing out danger whenever it threatened. Louis Watts came on for the tiring Muldoon and Leam switched Kirtley for Joe Inness.
Day was then withdrawn for Evan Gray as Chester looked for a way to prise open the home defence. It almost came with fifteen minutes to play. Robinson created space in midfield and played the ball to the right for the ever willing Lanning.
The striker's cross was pinpoint and found Brewis free about 10 yards from goal. His headed connection was good but he couldn't get enough width on the effort and Bolton got down to make a smart save.
Cole then trotted off to be replaced by Matty Halliday as Leam showed presence to slow the game down and take the sting out of United's tail. Robinson again found space and time to find Lanning inside the Leam box. He turned well but the excellent Thompson was on hand to block the effort and clear.
Jack Mortimer replaced Gibson and then Leam replaced Hirst who had a fine, fine game with Mark Ruddock. Rangers continued the theme of making substitutions to cleverly wind down the clock.
Kain Reed replaced Byron and Joe RIley the highly charged and combative Miller who was clearly delighted with his and his side's position as he punched the air coming to the bench.
Time was almost up and one last chance came United's way with a free-kick deep into injury time. Robinson took it and Crews flicked it on finding Gray. His cross into the middle though was well claimed by Bolton who sent it long downfield as the final whistle blew.
Huge celebrations followed for the home side who had turned the game around in the early stages of the second half and in the end analysis controlled the game well after going in front. They stood strong, were well organised and showed great commitment to their cause.
For United it was bitter disappointment as they slumped to their knees at the end of a tough 90 minutes. They can be proud of their efforts and application but just a little bit of a spark and energy when it mattered.
However, the race to the title is not done yet. United have three games to go in the league and Leam have five. Both have tough opposition to face but the final stretch of the season will see Rangers having to play four games in seven days.
It's a tough run for a tough side and there's no doubting should they come through it they'll be worthy Champions. Especially after taking both league games against their nearest rivals.
For United they have to win out and hope others can do them a favour. But next up for a Chester side is Easter Monday's Monkwearmouth Charity Cup Final against FC Hartlepool at The Riverside with an 11:30am kick-off.
The Club and in particular the players need to dust themselves down, regroup and reenergise to be ready for the chance to lift their second piece of Wearside League silverware in their two seasons of activity.
TEAM : 1. Mauro Asikaogu 2. Dylan Wilkinson 3. George Riley 4. Taylor Robinson 5. Josh Crews (c) 6. Ryan Muldoon 7. James Bakou 8. Cameron Brewis 9. Jay Gibson 10. Dan Lanning 11. Elliott Day
SUBS : 12. Louis Watts for Muldoon 13. Arthur Leblond (unused) 14. Lewis Lembikisa for Bakou 15. Jack Mortimer for Gibson 16. Evan Gray for Day
SCORER : Crews