by Jeff King
Ebac Northern League Division 2 - Tuesday 14th February 2023
Billingham Town 4 v 1 Chester-le-Street United
After two great wins with 14 goals recorded and none conceded Chester travelled to Billingham Town in good heart and confidence. Their opponents though were in an even better run of form with their last three games all resulting in wins.
United's mini-revival had seen them climb out of the bottom three whilst Town's run had seen them move up to 5th place and still in the promotion hunt. It was always going to be a tough test for this young United side and so it proved.
From the first whistle Town went about their business in a highly effective and measured manner and forced United onto the back foot almost immediately. The pitch looked good and the ball zipped around quickly particularly in the United half.
Town signalled their intentions very early indeed and inside the first 3 minutes took the lead through their prolific centre forward Jack Pounder. Dan Robinson allowed Dave Gordon to turn inside easily and he delivered a superb left wing cross.
Pounder timed his run perfectly getting in between Jack Ledger and Reyhan Grimaud and beating James Hughes to the ball his header coming off Hughes' body and crashing into the net.
It almost got worse for United when Gordon combined with Andy Nelson to release Luke Spalding into the box. The speedy wide-man pulled the ball back to Pounder who's first effort saw Hughes make a brave excellent save.
The ball though rebounded not once but twice to the Billy Town centre forward. His first recovery effort being blocked by Ledger before he steered the second one wide of the target with the goal gaping.
United were struggling to respond but got forward eventually with Ryan O'Connor winning a corner off Oliver James. Taylor Campbell whipped the ball in and the Town defence cleared it straight back to him.
Campbell crossed low towards his forwards but saw James Winter in the Town goal make an impressive diving claim at his near post. It was only a temporary foray for United who were soon back on defence.
Town perhaps should have doubled their lead when a great cross by Paul Braithwaite was met unchallenged in the middle by Chris Wallace but he could only guide his header over from 10-yards.
The second goal that Billingham had been threatening did arrive on 13 minutes and came from a corner won by Kyle Bell off Ledger.
Gordon took it an swung it inside the six-yard where that man Pounder lost his marker Thomas Cole and bulleted a close-range header past the helpless Hughes.
Billingham were completely dominant and United were struggling to stay in the game and hold them back. Wallace held the ball up well in midfield and then slipped it through superbly to the rampaging James who with only Hughes to beat fired wide.
Then the influential Robbie Bird found Bell well who turned inside Ledger before hitting a fierce angled drive that Hughes did well to parry. A third home goal looked inevitable and came on 36 minutes.
O'Connor fouled Braithwaite in the inside left channel. Gordon was once again the provider and he struck the kick into the United box. Chester decided to come out of their box in a bid to catch Town offside but Brandon Young missed the call.
He was late coming out playing Braithwaite onside and the midfielder had little trouble in planting his free header into the top corner past the stranded Hughes. United were reeling and struggling to get out of their half.
However almost from nowhere they pulled a goal back on 40 minutes. Jay Gibson trying to hold the ball up just inside the Town half was fouled centrally by Tom Price giving United a free kick for Campbell to take.
United's skipper struck the ball deep into the centre of the Town box where it took a bounce that caused confusion and Keallan Huddleston nipped in to net his fifth goal of the season from close range.
If United harboured thoughts of a comeback they were firmly buried three minutes after their goal as Town restored their three-goal lead. Once again Gordon being involved on the left.
Given time and space he picked out Spalding inside the United area who had run off his marker. Spalding found Pounder who held off Huddleston before slipping the ball onto Bird who had gone past Campbell and Bird finished coolly to make it 4 - 1.
United did almost snatch an first-half injury time goal that might have got them back in the game when Campbell from fully 35-yards drove in a great free-kick on target that Winter initially fumbled but then did well to grab the loose ball before Gibson pounced.
The teams left the field with Billingham well in the ascendency and deservedly so and laving United with a lot of work to do in the second 45 minutes.
To their credit United showed good spirit and character on the resumption and tried to push forward. A long trademark throw-in by Cole was only cleared to Campbell just outside the box and although United's skipper hit his effort well it flew wide of the target.
Grimaud then did well on the right working space to find O'Connor who in turn found Campbell breaking into the box but a good chance went begging as Young actually blocked his skipper's goal bound effort.
United made two changes with Emanuel Igiehon coming on for Ledger and Charlie Loveday replacing Young. The latter showed real energy and tried to install a spark into his side with a neat cameo for the rest of the game.
But in truth Town were comfortable with their lead and very compact and solid at the back breaking forward and still looking the most likely to score again. Spalding in particular looking dangerous.
First of all in a Town attack he saw a shot from the edge of the box deflect off Cole and bounce inches wide. Then with United trying to press he showed lightening pace to speed away from the half-way line to get to a clearance.
Bearing down on goal he looked a certain scorer and was only thwarted by a combination of Hughes' fingertip touch and the cross bar from giving his side a fifth goal.
Town substitute Jude Harrison then made good ground on the right before winning a corner of Igiehon. The ball was delivered and an incredible goalmouth scramble ensued.
Price seeing his close range effort blocked by Huddleston with the ball falling to Bell who somehow managed to smash his point-blank effort off the post when it seemed easier to score.
The final action of a game where United were glad to hear the final whistle almost resulted in another Town goal. This time it was another substitute, Mitchell Noble who looked as if he had a great chance inside the box.
Igiehon did well though to force him just wide enough so that when Noble pulled the trigger his angle was tight and the ball flashed just wide of the far post.
Perhaps a fifth goal would have been harsh on United after a battling effort in the second half but there was no denying who had been the better team on the night, a fact that John Gamble commented on in his post-game assessment.
"I thought right from the off they were up for it and right at us. They are definitely one of the best sides we've played all season and their front three caused us huge problems in that first half."
"Having said that I did think all their goals were avoidable and we didn't defend well enough individually and as a team. We have to be better and more focused especially when the ball comes into our box."
"Our decision to come out for the third goal was made on the pitch and not an instruction from the bench. If we're going to use that tactic we need to work on it in training as well as looking to tighten up defensively overall."
"We came into the game in good heart and with confidence after our last two games but we didn't deserve nothing out of the game. We looked well off the pace and maybe a little jaded."
"We need to analyse the game with the players before training and look to see if any changes are needed both to personal and methods before an important game at Easington on Saturday."
TEAM : 1. James Hughes 2. Thomas Cole 3. Jack Ledger 4. Taylor Campbell 5. Keallan Huddleston 6. Brandon Young 7.Dan Robinson 8. Ryan O'Connor 9. Jay Gibson 10. Benji Shodeinde 11. Reyhan Grimaud
SUBS : 12. Charlie Loveday (for Young 62 mins) 14. Mackenzie Stores (for Shodeinde 69 mins) 15. James Morley (for O'Connor 69 mins) 16. Elliot McClen (for Robinson 77 mins) 17. Emanuel Igiehon (for Ledger 56 mins)
SCORER : Huddleston