by Jeff King
Wearside League - Saturday 11th December 2021
Chester-le-Street United 2 v 1 Coxhoe Athletic
If ever a game showed how tough the Wearside League is and how you can't take anything for granted this was it. Coxhoe came into the game rock-bottom of the league not having won in any of their eighteen games and with only two draws to their name.
United on the other hand are on a run in the league that has seen them win five in a row scoring twenty-nine goals and only conceding two. It seemed it would be a straightforward task for league leading United. It proved anything but.
Shorn of the talents of Michael Spellman, Josh Ward, Taylor Robinson, George Riley and Jak McKinley through injury. Louis Watts through illness and Captain Josh Crews through suspension, the Coaching staff had to go deep into their squad to find an XI for the game.
It included a fourth goalkeeper of the campaign for United in Mauro Asikaogu, Ebenezer Addo switching to central defence and Ryan Muldoon talking over the captaincy.
The one thing it did do was give some of the fringe players a chance to stake a claim for a more regular place in the side and also gave United a chance to see what strength in depth they have.
Amazingly they should have gone one-up inside the first thirty seconds. Elliott Day's precision ball over the Athletic defence saw Gianny Bacto race clear with only Dan Scott to beat.
But Bacto's finish was weak and the Coxhoe keeper and skipper was able to save easily. It was a taste of things to come as United dominated possesion from the off. Cameron Brewis was the next to be denied by Scott who did brilliantly to parry Chester's top scorer's left-foot effort.
The ball fell to Lewis Lembikisa who's first-time effort deflected narrowly wide of a Coxhoe defender for a corner. Brewis took the kick and Day got up well to meet it with a good header that came back off the bar and was scrambled to safety.
It was only a temporary reprieve for the League's basement side as United swept into the lead on fourteen minutes. A nice flowing move saw Jay Gibson find Muldoon who picked out Brewis breaking into the box.
The forward showed great composure to rifle the ball low and hard past Scott into the bottom corner for his seventeenth league goal of the season and his twenty-fourth overall.
With the gates open the question was would Chester flood through them. James Bakou stepped up from thirty yards and curled a lovely effort from fully thirty yards wide of the target as United searched for a second.
However, despite much possession and forcing their opponents back, they were stunned to find themselves level on twenty-three minutes. Sam Nugent fed a ball through towards Dan Johnson but Jaden Timmis got across well to deny him an opportunity at the expense of a corner.
Nugent took the kick and floated a great ball into the centre where the visitor's Peter Brown rose superbly to bullet a header past the helpless Asikaogu to equalise. Chester's weak defending at a set-piece haunting them once again.
Chester immediately went hard to restore their advantage but began to show signs that might have cost them on another day as they couldn't convert some well created chances.
Lembikisa's right-wing cross finding it's target in Bacto inside the box who got up well but directed his header well wide. Good work from Alex Nicholson and Bacto on the left earned a corner. Gibson took it and saw Scott palm it away under his own bar with Timmis closing in.
Chester did restore their lead on the half-hour mark and what a strike it was. Brewis brilliantly set-up Gibson who's effort was well blocked. The ball came out of the box and Muldoon latched onto it to crash a stunning left-foot volley into the top corner of the net.
Once again Chester were on top but unfortunately Bacto seemed to have left his shooting boots at home. Muldoon played him in one-on-one with Scott and although this time the striker did beat the keeper he also dragged his effort wide.
Another glorious chance came United's way on thirty-eight minutes. Brewis the provider to Gibson who only had Scott to beat. Beat him he did but like his strike partner his effort was just wide of the far post.
Even the normally reliable Brewis was off target when presented with another opportunity supplied off the left in great style by Nicholson. Brewis hit his effort well but saw it rise sharply to clear the crossbar.
The last chance of an open forty-five minutes fell to Bakou who did at least test Scott from twenty-five yards but the Coxhoe keeper got down well to the shot and made a nice neat save.
At the half it was United who went in a goal to the good but there was no denying Coxhoe had done well to keep the score down and in Brown and Johnson up front had a duo that were stretching the home defence.
At the break Director of Football and acting First-team Head Coach John Gamble made two changes. Seventeen-year-old Ethan Gray coming on for Lewis Lembikisa to play down the left with Nicholson switching wide right and Jack Mortimer replacing Bacto up front.
The changes did not alter the flow of the game with Gray in particular looking lively and the switch to the right seeming to suit Nicholson who from that position set-up Brewis for the first chance of the second half but Brewis fired narrowly over with Scott beaten.
The two substitutes Mortimer and Gray then combined really well down the left with the youngster picking out Gibson with a pinpoint cross. Gibson's header though lacked power and Scott made an easy save.
Scott was forced into action again shortly afterwards when Muldoon tried his luck from long-range. The shot was well struck but unfortunately for United straight at Scott who held it comfortably.
Muldoon then thought he'd turned provider with a clever ball over the top that sent Gibson free but before the striker could get his shot away, Jacob English slid into to deny him and concede a corner.
Brewis whipped the ball in. Mortimer flicked it on and found Gibson who's very close-range first-time effort flew over the bar with the goal gaping. Abdullah Alawahdi had joined the fray replacing a limping Brewis and he drew a free-kick from the Coxhoe defence in a dangerous postion.
Mortimer stepped up and from a central position just outside the box drove his effort past the wall but also past the post. Gibson had dropped back into midfield to accommodate Alawahdi up front and he was very creative in doing so.
He picked out the onrushing Nicholson coming inside the box and his well hit angled drive saw Scott get down smartly at his near post to turn the ball aside in great style.
Gibson's next assist should have been better rewarded. His diagonal ross found Mortimer unmarked eight yards out but the substitute couldn't direct his free header on target and the chance was gone.
Gibson was certainly pulling the strings now in the midfield but the puppet master's teammates were not dancing to the right tune although Mortimer was slightly unlucky when receiving Gibson's pass just inside the box turning neatly and seeing Scott get down to make a smart save.
Gray then did brilliantly on the left twisting and turning the defence before cutting across the pitch from the left and playing in Gibson breaking into the box from midfield. His shot this time was well-struck and on target but Scott again denied united with a fine save.
Coxhoe had managed to battle gamely throughout the second half and showed great resilience. As the minutes ticked down their confidence visibly grew and they forced Chester into ensuring their defence stayed alert.
It was almost breached when Johnson got to a through ball first but Asikaogu showed great anticipation to get across the striker and block his effort. Coxhoe went even closer very late on and nearly stole a point.
This time Johnson volleyed a cross in the direction of Brown. The centre forward did brilliantly to adjust his position and sent a superbly acrobatic volley towards goal. It look as if it was going to find the top corner but at the last minute drifted wide scraping the outside of the post.
It was a let-off for Chester who's profligacy in front of goal almost cost them two points they could barely afford to drop. For Coxhoe it was a really gutsy effort against a side at the opposite end of the table.
After the game Gamble was relieved to get off the pitch with his side's position at the top of the table intact.
"It was one of those game where you take the three points and move on. We missed some great chances but credit Coxhoe who stuck at their task and almost shocked us late on."
"What our players have to realise is that at a higher level they'll not get that many chances and they need to be more clinical. But at the end of the day I'd be more worried if we weren't creating chances. I just felt we lacked a bit of composure at key moments."
TEAM : 1. Mauro Asikaogu 2. Ebenezer Addo 3. Elliott Day 4. Ryan Muldoon (c) 5. Jaden Timmis 6. James Bakou 7. Lewis Lembikisa 8. Cameron Brewis 9. Jay Gibson 10. Gianny Bacto 11. Alex Nicholson
SUBS : 12. Jack Mortimer for Bacto 14. Abdullah Alawahdi for Brewis 15. Ethan Gray for Lembikisa 16. Jackson Ward for Nicholson
SCORERS : Brewis, Muldoon