by Jeff King
Ebac Northern League Division 2 - Saturday 24th September 2022
Chester-le-Street United 1 v 0 Willington AFC
There was perhaps as much drama off the field as there was on it. With the news that United have been forced into a situation where they have to ground share for the rest of the season this was to all accounts the last home game of the season at The Riverside.
Their next and subsequent home games for the foreseeable future will be held at The Ford Quarry Football Hub with the real possibility that they might never return to The Riverside in The Northern League.
An incredible, frustrating and completely perplexing situation that has to be resolved one way or another in the bureaucratic chambers of officialdom which appear to have laws that defy description.
United had a record league attendance for the game of 271, the highest league crowd in The Northern League on the day and a figure that beat a lot of FA Vase games in the region as well.
With a great crowd in place and a pristine playing surface that United have worked so hard in providing at considerable expense to The Club it was an opportunity to showcase and promote what could and can still be done if only light could be shined in the right direction.
But the politics is for a different and testing time. What was important on the day was the destiny of the three points which both sides were anxious to grasp. United came into the game not having won at home this season and on the back of four defeats in a row.
Willington for their part were in an even worse predicament. Bottom of the table having lost five in a row and three of the four points they had accumulated taken from them due to an infringement of rules. The importance for both sides to get a result was clear to see.
United's squad did see returns from suspension of Josh Crews and Benji Shodeinde. The latter on the bench and the former to the starting XI. Crews was not restored as captain. The armband remained with Taylor Campbell, himself returning from injury to play alongside the also fit again Ryan Muldoon.
Evan Gray dropped down to the bench to make way alongside another two new fresh faces with 16-year-olds Brandon Young and Joe Walls, both first year students at Park View Academy earning their first callups to the senior squad.
The game got underway with the sun shining on the emerald, green pitch painting a beautiful external picture to counteract the turbulent internal storms that continue to brew.
The first chance of the game fell to the visitors, and it was one they perhaps should have taken. Inside the first two minutes they were awarded a free kick. Craig Ruddy delivered and captain Mason Burton up from the back headed narrowly over from 10 yards out whilst unmarked.
They continued to look the brighter in the early going and Jonathan Hope played Andrew Weston in on goal inside the box. The striker though was forced wide by Keallan Huddleston and could only fire narrowly wide from a tight angle.
United's first foray forward saw Thomas Cole, playing in an unaccustomed right wingback role fire in a near post cross that former Park View Academy goalkeeper Jack Halton did well to hold.
Halton showed a few minutes later that he was in the mood to deny United when Huddleston's dangerous cross looked destined for Sam Johnson, but the keeper came out well to claim in fine style.
Huddleston was showing up well for United early on bringing the ball out of defence well. The next time he did, the Willington defence backed off, so Huddleston tried his luck from distance. It was on target, but Halton held it easily.
Jay Gibson then picked up a ball in midfield and spotting Muldoon's run into the box played a ball through. Halton though was alert to the danger and came off his line quickly to clear his lines.
Johnson was next to set United in motion with a lovely bit of play on the right before slipping Gibson in on goal. The angle was against the United striker who could only hit his effort against Halton.
The ball came back to Johnson who laid it back to Muldoon who's first time effort deflected wide off Carl Cairns for a corner. From the resultant kick United took the lead on 27 minutes.
Campbell floated the ball beautifully into the six-yard box and Crews timed his run perfectly to meet the ball with a firm header that gave Halton no chance at all. United were now in control but once again the injury curse struck. Jack Oliver limping off after 33 minutes to be replaced by Shodeinde.
Some lovely flowing football by United exploiting the smooth surface almost brought them a second. Johnson, Muldoon and Campbell were all involved in opening up a chance for Campbell to fire in a dangerous cross.
Burton got his head to it, but his clearance fell to Muldoon who was well placed inside the box but could only fire wide from an excellent position. Muldoon and Campbell in particular were bossing the midfield and the United skipper was unlucky to see a well-struck 20-yarder flash just the wrong side of the post.
Campbell then turned provider with an exquisite reverse pass that threw the defence off balance and put Gibson in on goal only to be thwarted by another great block by Halton.
It was all United now although credit must go to the visitor's defence which kept getting bodies between the ball and their goal as decent efforts from Johnson, Shodeinde and Cole were all blocked by committed defending.
At the half United only had a single goal to show from their efforts which had gotten stronger as the 45 minutes ticked down following Willington's good start. It was certainly all to play for in the second half.
Chester opened the second 45 well and Jay Gibson hit a nice 20-yard effort, but it was at a nice height for Halton who saved well. Halton had to be smarter minutes later as Campbell floated a free kick given for a foul on Ethan Gray into the box. Crews flicked it on towards Gibson, but the Willington keeper got there first.
Campbell then played a ball over the top of the back line to Johnson who hooked it over his own head towards goal but once again Halton was there first to collect. Cole then walked a tightrope as he was booked for a foul and then from the free kick brought down Hope, but the referee deemed a free kick punishment enough.
Substitute Ryan Cummings took the kick and tried his luck from fully 25-yards out but saw Harwood step across his line to hold the effort comfortably. United then brought on debutant Young to replace Johnson.
The youngster was in the action immediately. Muldoon made a terrific break from midfield to the left side bursting past two defenders winning a corner off Liam Lawlor that Burton headed clear.
The loose ball was picked up by Young who steadied and then cleverly found Ethan Gray. His cross was diverted away from a well-positioned Gibson by the Willington defence but only to Campbell who hit a crisp 22-yarder that flew just wide.
Halton took a very quick goal-kick with United's defence pushed up and found substitute Lewis Martin in acres of space. He looked as if he had a free run-on goal but Crews and Huddleston did well to close down the space and Martin sliced his effort well wide in the end.
Campbell was certainly prepared to shoot on sight for United as they came back at Willington. He created a yard of space just outside the box and then whipped an effort at goal which Halton had to dive to save but did so with ease.
Willington were almost caught on the counter by Chester as Huddleston cleared a ball long out of defence, Shodeinde sprinted after the ball with the defence in his wake. Halton though was akin to the danger and came out of his box to clear before Shodeinde got to the ball.
Joe Walls came on for his Chester debut with six or so minutes to play. Cairns then fouled Muldoon in Campbell territory and the midfielder once again got the ball over the wall and on target but without the venom it needed to make Halton's save difficult.
Willington really pushed in the latter stages for an equaliser, and it should have come with the 90 minutes virtually up. Ben Campbell won a corner for the way side off Gibson who was back helping his defence.
Cummings took it and delivered a great ball finding Martin timing his run superbly, but his free, firm header went inches over. It was a great chance that should have been taken.
United then almost grabbed a second in bizarre style as the game went into injury time. With Willington pushing forward Halton sprinted across to his dugout only for Huddleston to play a ball out of defence to Shodeinde.
Halton had to sprint back to his goal but Shodeinde spotting him way out of position tried a long-range effort that unfortunately for United drifted just wide with Halton in no-man's land.
The referee certainly played a full allocation of added time, and it gave both side's one more chance and in Willington's case they were denied by a brilliant double save from Harwood.
The ball was bouncing around the United box and fell nicely to Martin who looked to be in on goal, but he was denied by a brilliant block by the United keeper. The ball broke free to Jack Evans, but his follow-up was superbly smothered by Harwood under pressure from Martin.
The last chance of the game almost sealed it for United Muldoon the provider for Gibson who was 1-on-1 with Halton and from an angle he, and many others thought Halton had done well to turn the ball away from the top corner.
The referee thought otherwise and awarded a goal kick and then signalled full-time as Halton launched the kick up the field and United took a hard-fought three points to say goodbye to The Riverside finally with a home win on the books.
On the balance of play and possession Chester just about deserved the spoils although Willington showed a lot of character and commitment for a team languishing at the bottom of the table.
They certainly had a few chances at the end of the game but 16-year-old Harwood in the Chester goal deserved his first ever clean sheet in Senior League Football with a fine display.
So, United will have the small satisfaction of taking a win in front of a record crowd on a great pitch to play football on with them as the head to The Ford Quarry Football Hub for the remainder of their home season.
It left many in the ground shaking their heads and running their own thoughts out loud and, in their heads, as to how anyone could really let a great facility for football not be improved to the required standard.
Chester-le-Street is big enough to accommodate two Northern League sides and wi.th a bit of foresight and cooperation could have a facility that could be used to help the community for years to come.
Sadly, that's a battle that will have to be taken up elsewhere whilst United can only hope that their last hurrah at their preferred home can give them a springboard to progress further and cement their Ebac Northern League position further.
TEAM : 1. Kieran Harwood 2. Keallan Huddleston 3. Dylan Wilkinson 4. Taylor Campbell (c) 5. Josh Crews 6. Ryan Muldoon 7. Thomas Cole 8. Jack Oliver 9. Jay Gibson 10. Sam Johnson 11. Ethan Gray
SUBS : 12. Benji Shodeinde (for Oliver - 33 mins) 14. Evan Gray (for Muldoon 95 mins) 15. Emanuel Igiehon (not used) 16. Brandon Young (for Johnson - 73 mins) 17. Joe Walls (for Ethan Gray - 84 mins)
SCORER : Josh Crews