by Jeff King
Wearside League - Saturday 26th February 2022
West Auckland Tunns 0 v 1 Chester-Le-Street United
It's not always champagne football and gold-coloured moments that keep you on track and progressing. Sometimes you have to dig-in, grind out a result and win ugly when required. That was certainly the case for United at West Auckland.
The high-flying league leaders have been in red-hot form since the turn of the year and many would have expected a trip to second from bottom Tunns to not just add to their haul of points but also be a comfortable day out in the country.
That it proved otherwise was a test that the youngsters were presented with and whilst they might not have passed with flying colours they did manage to take all three points in a very attritional game.
Turning up at the home of Tunns in the world famous astronomer Jeremiah Dixon's home village of Cockfield it was apparant that this was going to be no stroll in the park.
A wide-open pitch with the wind swirling around greeted Chester to the warm-up and as they played the ball around to get their muscles functioning and legs pumping the roll of the ball showed conditions were going to be difficult for both teams.
To say the pitch was 'bobbly' was perhaps the biggest understatement of the day and it was clear that this was going to be a leveller and a tricky afternoon for the visitors who like to get the ball down and pass it around.
Team news centred around those that were missing from the previous week's demolition of Richmond Town. No Arthur Leblond in goal, George Riley at the back, Taylor Robinson in midfield and Abdullah Alawahdi up front.
Mauro Asikaogu coming in between the posts, Ebenezer Addo switching to the back three, Ryan Muldoon returning from injury and James Bakou coming into the midfield and Jay Gibson returning up front with Alawahdi dropping to the bench.
United were only able to name two other substitutes alongside Alawahdi with Alex Nicholson and Jack Mortimer taking their seats on the bench.
Right from the off confirmation was seen that the pitch was not going to be conducive to good football and that United were going to have to graft, compete and be patient on a very tricky surface.
It took them a full eight minutes to muster the first real effort on goal. Jaden Timmis once again anchoring the midfield surged forward into space and saw his first effort blocked by Thomas Iley.
The rebound spun up in the air and Timmis produced a spectacular overhead kick that flew just wide of the post. Chester were trying to spread the play and bring their wide men into the game.
Bakou produced a great cross from the right that Gibson only narrowly failed to get on the end of. The ball fell to Lewis Lembikisa on the left who returned it dangerously to see Kieran Linton turn it out for a corner. Cameron Brewis' kick was easily cleared by the Tunns defence.
Bakou was looking lively on the right and produced another bit of nice play and a great cross towards Gibson and Brewis but once again Linton did well to get there first and clear.
In a rare foray up at the other end a long ball say Elliot Day and home Centre Forward Simon Carney have a chase into the corner with the Tunns forward going flying through the air. It was deemed simulation by the referee and Carney was cautioned.
Bustling play and control from Timmis saw him burst into the box and despite looking well placed for a shot he tried to square the ball to Gibson but resolute defending from Andrew Burrows saw him snuff out the chance.
Both sides were finding it difficult to come to terms with the bounce and roll of the pitch but midway through the half Chester finally strung a decent move together. Muldoon instigated it moving the ball onto Josh Ward who in turn found Timmis.
Timmis picked out Brewis in the middle of the box in acres of space but United's top scorer snatched at the chance and blazed the ball well over from an excellent position.
Despite not carving out many opportunities, Chester did manage to take the lead on 27 minutes. Timmis was the provider as he created space to produce another very dangerous right-wing cross deep into the Tunns box.
Gibson peeled away from the defence and managed to guide a close range downward header past debutant keeper Ryan Eltringham who may well have done better. It was a precious goal and one that United had just about deserved.
Things took an even brighter turn for Chester moments later when Carney went in two-footed and dangerously on Muldoon on halfway. Carney knew what was coming and headed for the dressing room almost without acknowledging his second yellow card.
It led to an unsavoury incident between United skipper Josh Crews and Tunns Manager Dean Whitworth and after consulting with his Assistant the referee brandished yellows in both directions.
Jamie Whitworth was then shown another yellow for a bad lunge on Brewis as the game threatened to boil over with tempers on both sides flaring. But, the players did calm down somewhat and as the half-time whistle sounded it was United taking that slender lead into the changing rooms at the half.
Chester continued to try and force the pace as the second half opened. Ward did well in midfield to create space and found Lembikisa on the left. He cut in and hit a decent effort at goal that took a deflection off Matty Etherington and went behind.
Brewis' kick was cleared but came back to him and he showed great skill to get to the by-line and then chip a great ball into the middle. Muldoon got on the end of it and saw his point blank header superbly stopped by Eltringham on the line who did equally well to get the follow up to safety and keep side in the game.
Eltringham was called into action almost immediately afterwards as United went for the killer second against the staunch and committed ten-men home side. Lembikisa drifting inside produced a lovely touch from a Ward pass to find Brewis.
The attacker's shot was struck true but Eltringham dived spectacularly to his left to turn the effort away from danger. United were threatening but in truth Tunns' will to compete and defend was impressive and at times it was hard to believe they were a man short.
They were restricting Chester to scraps and in young Cobi Jones had a willing runner with a bit of ability to take balls hit up towards him well and keep the United defence on their toes.
When Chester did find some room they were unable to find a decisive ending. A good example of that came with a move started on the left by Day that saw play switched through midfield to Bakou on the right.
Once again he put in a dangerous cross which found Gibson but the striker could only guide his header wide of the target. Bakou then found Addo joining the attack and pass inside the area looked to be going to Ward. Brewis though took the ball off Ward's feet but could only slice his effort well wide.
If a second goal was to come it seemed as though it would be created from out wide with a cross into the box where Gibson was doing best to cause problems. Lembikisa did well on the left and lifted the ball towards Gibson who was unmarked at the back post.
However, Tunns skipper Iley who marshalled his defence with distinction throughout the game did brilliantly to get in a covering header to clear the danger. As the game wore on it was on a knife-edge as Chester held the slender advantage.
Mortimer came on for Bakou and Nicholson for Lembikisa to inject fresh legs into the Chester attack. Nicholson almost prised open the stubborn Tunns defence not long after joining the fray.
A great run on the left saw him manage to control the ball to the by-line and he cut it back invitingly towards the onrushing Gibson who looked to have an excellent chance until the pitch proved an effective defender. Gibson stumbling on the difficult surface and falling to the ground with the goal beckoning.
It was goal scorer Gibson, who's ninth of the season his first-half effort had been, last action of the game as he made way for Alawahdi to come on. As time ticked down the nerves seemed to be jangling in the Chester camp.
Suddenly from nowhere Tunns got a breakaway and the busy Jones got on the end of the ball in a good position. His well struck effort looked as if it had been well turned aside by Asikaogu. The officials though ruled otherwise saying the ball had bounced over his outstretched arm and give a goal-kick.
United were nearly caught undone late on when Thomas Horner looked to have played Jones in on goal with a great chance. But Crews who had been solid all afternoon managed to get across the Tunns youngster and shepherd the ball away from danger.
Muldoon had a late shooting effort for United when creating space 20 yards out. He struck the ball on target but straight at Eltringham who did well to field the bouncing bobbling ball.
Time was virtually up but there was one last opportunity for Tunns to grab a surprise draw deep into injury time. It came with a late corner on their left. Scott Hastie swung the ball in and it was headed clear by the Chester defence.
The ball falling to Etherington well outside the box and he couldn't keep his long-range effort down and it flew well over the bar as time subsided to give the league leaders a very hard earned three points to keep their run going.
All the usual clichés came out after the game. 'A wins' a win,' 'I'd have taken that before the game,' and 'sometimes you need to win ugly.' In truth they were all true as United battled just as hard as their determined opposition and did have the best of the chances without creating or finishing them in their usual clinical manner.
It will perhaps not be a game that lives long in the memory but it was another learning curve for Chester's youngsters and one that could prove to be very crucial when the final reckoning comes around.
TEAM : 1. Mauro Asikaogu 2. Ebenezer Addo 3. Elliot Day 4. Jaden Timmis 5. Josh Crews (c) 6. Ryan Muldoon 7. James Bakou 8. Josh Ward 9. Jay Gibson 10. Cameron Brewis 11. Lewis Lembikisa
SUBS : 12. Alex Nicholson for Lembikisa 14. Abdullah Alawahdi for Gibson 15. Jack Mortimer for Bakou.
SCORER : Jay Gibson