by Jeff King
Ebac Northern League Division 2 - Saturday 25th February 2023
Chester-le-Street United 3 v 1 Billingham Synthonia
Has the penny dropped? Possibly. Are United acclimated? Probably. An excellent all round team performance despite missing two players from their starting XI saw Chester move further away from the relegation zone.
Are they now safe? Not quite although after four wins in their last five games they're certainly heading in the right direction at the moment. However there are still enough games left for most teams for the situation to turn round again.
But, Billingham Town aside, the rich vein of form has certainly cemented United's place in Division 2 and actually moved them all the way up to tenth position in the table. They cannot though rest on their laurels.
They have set standards for themselves which they need to maintain or even better as they continue in their rookie Ebac NL Division 2 season.
Saturday was all about the neat possession football that United play and the commitment and desire all the players are beginning to show right across the pitch. An almost coming of age from a group of young players looking the part.
From the off United pushed the visitors back. A long ball over the top from Thomas Cole setting up the first of many attacks of the afternoon. Benji Shodeinde and James Morley tried to get on the end of Cole's pass but Ben Fairless came off his line and out of the box to get to the ball first and clear to safety.
Alex Fil returning to the side from injury looked sharp and found the breaking Brandon Young on the left. Young turned the ball inside to Sam Johnson who took it into the box but as the space opened up he shot weakly at Fairless who saved easily.
Dan Robinson then played a lovely ball up to Johnson who won a corner off Leeton Sutton. Taylor Campbell took it as always and it was headed clear by Harvey Rudd straight back to Campbell.
His second ball into the box was whipped in dangerously but Fairless came out well to claim in front of the Chester attackers. Campbell was prompting and pushing his team forward and a ball down the right saw Synners concede a throw-in.
Cue Cole with his normal long delivery into the box which saw Alfie Simpson just beat Johnson to the ball inside the six-yard box and head to safety. United were really exerting some great pressure in the early stages.
Another raid down the left gave Johnson and Robinson a chance to find Fil who was linking up with the attack. He cut inside the box and curled a good effort towards the far post that Fairless got too but fumbled it wide for a corner. Synners once again dealing well with Campbell's kick into the box.
A goal or at least a clear cut United chance seemed only a matter of time and the former arrived on 19 minutes as Chester swept into the lead. The goal came right from the back and was well worked.
Kieran Harwood rolled a ball out to Fil who made good ground on the left before finding Robinson breaking forward. Young was also involved and a combination of the two found Johnson in the inside left channel just inside the box.
Johnson's low shot was well-struck but perhaps Fairless should have kept it out as he dived across got two hands to the ball but could only divert it into the corner for the opening goal of the afternoon.
Sometimes a goal initiates a response from the side falling behind. In this case all it did was increase United's possession and desire to get forward and they were denied what looks like a stonewall penalty on 25 minutes.
Dylan Wilkinson played a superb ball over the top and Johnson burst past two defenders and in on goal. Fairless slid out to meet him with Johnson attempting to go around him. It seemed that Fairless took Johnson's legs from under him.
Everyone, including the away side who had several players with hands on their heads, expected the referee to point to the spot but he waved the United claims away much to everybody's surprise.
It almost cost United as Ryan Gooch looked to have put Steven Johnson clean through on goal but Campbell came from nowhere to make a superb covering tackle as Johnson was about to pull the trigger.
Campbell seemed to be everywhere and popped up in midfield to set-up the next attack by sending Shodeinde away on the right with a terrific pass. Shodeinde did well to outpace the defence and cross low where Johnson looked free but the youngster swung his boot at the chance but only hit fresh air.
Shodeinde was the next one to test the Synners defence getting past into the box to meet Campbell's ball over the top but Fairless got down to make a superb block to deny United a second.
Fil set the next Chester attack up on the left with a ball to the marauding Young. He did brilliantly on the left to make space to cross to the back post where Morley came onto the ball but his cutback attempting to find a free attacker was poor and Synners cleared their lines.
It lead to a rare counter attack from the visitors led by Jack Caygill's run from midfield. but Campbell got back well and conceded a corner. Leo Kirkbride's delivery was poor and United cleared easily.
The first half ended with Chester just in front and having had the bulk of the possession. They had though given the ball away at times cheaply when well placed and hadn't turned their possession and dominance into chances.
United started the second half where they had left the first. On the attack. Morley crossing deep from the right to find Robinson at the back post and his 10-yard volley was well struck but went inches wide of the opposite post.
Synners then won a free-kick forty yards from goal that was floated into the Chester box by Kirkbride. Both sets of players went for the ball which fell to Sutton 10-yards out on an angle. Hit it an instant half-volley that Harwood saved well at his near post.
The Cole effect saw the defender launch another throw-in missile into the Billingham defence where Simpson headed it clear but only to Young 16-yards from goal. His instant volley was well hit but straight at Fairless who held it comfortably.
Johnson then began to really show for his side and was involved heavily as they pushed for a second. He was found inside the box by O'Connor and adjust his feet superbly create an opening.
He perhaps could have squared the ball to Robinson but took on the shot himself getting it on target but seeing Fairless make a good smothering save. Then Johnson turning well in midfield was fouled by Simpson giving United a free-kick.
It was fully 30-yards out but Campbell took on the wall His effort went over the human obstacle but lacked enough venom to seriously trouble Fairless who collected it comfortably.
Campbell went closer minutes later when after combining well with Johnson he had a shooting opportunity from the edge of the box and this time his shot was stronger but still not enough to beat Fairless who got down to make a smart save.
United continued to press. Young played a neat ball to Shodeinde on the left. The striker showed good pace to get to the by-line and his attempted pull back to Johnson saw the busy Fairless do well to cut out the danger.
Robinson then made a dart into the box but was blocked by a defender the ball falling to O'Connor who just hesitate long enough to enable Fairless to come off his line and smother the ball.
It seemed as if United were attempting to create the perfect opening before shooting as several times when they worked a good position they hesitated when thinking about pulling the trigger.
O'Connor and Morley both had chances inside the box but tried to lay it off when well placed. Then Johnson stood up a cross to the far post where Shodeinde got in a header from six-yards that deflected inches wide off Simpson.
Campbell took the resultant corner and delivered a great ball to the back post to Fil who looked a certain scorer from close range but his effort was blocked by a Billingham defender on the line.
A second goal seemed inevitable but when it came it was a shock to all in the ground as it came from the visitors on 65 minutes with a lightening break from their own pressurised defensive position.
A clearance found Johnson on the left and he did well to control it. Looking up he spotted Josh Shilam in acres of space toward the inside right channel. Johnson picked him out with a great cross field pass.
The Chester defence was nowhere to be seen as Shilam had time to control, pick his spot and from 14-yards smash his effort past the helpless Harwood brining Synners level against the run of play.
Billingham's joy was very short-lived though as United restored their lead with their very next attack and showed their character after conceding against the run of play.
Fil found Johnson with a great pass and he did brilliantly on the right evading a couple of Synners defenders before delivering a cross to the back post and the alert Robinson darted forward got on the end of the chance and volleyed it past Fairless from about 10-yards.
A great response from United who immediately went looking for more. Fil moving forward from the back found Campbell who hit a sweet left-foot effort from 20 yards that looked destined for the net until Fairless got up and across to turn it away in fine style.
Then Shodeinde missed a great chance when put through by Young's fine accurate pass. With only Fairless to beat United's top scorer showed a lack of composure and smashed his effort wide.
The fragility of a one-goal lead almost struck true for United as Billingham produced their best move of the match. Caygill advancing from midfield to find Shilam in space. He swept it on to Sutton who looked as if he was in on goal.
However, Emanuel Igiehon who had come on for Wilkinson had other ideas and came across brilliantly to slide in on Sutton and take the ball cleanly away from him to avert the danger.
Quite how United didn't take a two-goal lead with ten minutes to go no-one knows. Another Campbell free-kick delivered into the box caused utter confusion in the Synners defence.
Igiehon got on the end of it and smashed it goal wards only to see Fairless make a great stop. He couldn't gather the ball though and Fil looked a certain scorer with no Synners defender on him but his on-target effort was actually blocked by Igiehon from going in.
The third goal did though arrive on 83 minutes and what a wonderful goal it was. Robinson crossed from the left and the ball was headed out by Josh Hatton where Campbell just outside the D trapped it brilliantly with a sublime first touch.
He then proceeded to waltz past three Synners defenders with footwork that could have BBC's Strictly Come Dancing scouts come running before caressing the ball from about 10-yards into the bottom corner past the despairing Fairless.
It was a magnificent piece of play and finishing from a player that just seems to get better and more influential by the game and one that United are proud to have as their skipper.
The two-goal gap created and inside the last seven or so minutes United could have been forgiven for shutting up shop. Not a bit of it. They went searching for a fourth and on a couple of occasions almost got it.
There was no doubting who Billingham's man of the match was as keeper Fairless came to his side's rescue twice in the closing stages. First of all he did well to get his hands to O'Connor's 20-yard effort that flicked over the top off the cross bar.
The resultant corner was cleared but back came United and this time Fairless had to be really alert as he tipped Young's edge of the box piledriver over the bar. United really finished the game strong and were perhaps a shade disappointed when the final whistle blew.
3 - 1 sounded a lot closer than it actually was. This was without doubt one of United's best performances of the season as they dominated from the first whistle to the last.
It's now four wins in their last five games as Chester continue to collect points and move away from the possible threat of relegation. They really have found their feet in this tough league in recent weeks and continue to grow and make progress.
TEAM : 1. Kieran Harwood 2. Thomas Cole 3.Alex Fil 4. Taylor Campbell (c) 5. Dylan Wilkinson 6. Brandon Young 7. James Morley 8. Ryan O'Connor 9. Benji Shodeinde 10. Sam Johnson 11. Dan Robinson
SUBS : 12. Emanuel Igiehon (for Wilkinson 60 mins) 14. John Anderson (for Young 87 mins) 15. Elliot McClen (for Morley 77 mins) 16. Jude Anderson (for Shodeinde 74 mins) 17. Mackenzie Stores (for Robinson 87 mins)
SCORERS : Johnson, Robinson, Campbell