by Jeff King
Ebac Northern League Division 2 - Saturday 16th September 2023
Chester-le-Street United 2 v 3 Billingham Town
This was a game that United had targeted as a chance to move further away from the bottom of the table against a team on the same points but just below them in the league on goal difference.
In the end it was Chester that slipped further down the standings as their opposition produced a performance that deservedly netted them all three points in a close encounter.
For United it's two defeats in a row and a situation they need to change quickly to avoid further struggle as the season progresses. At times during this campaign it's felt like more step backwards than forwards and that needs addressing.
Certainly after the previous week's mauling at the hands of league leaders Blyth Town the youngsters plus 1 had hoped to bounce back to form and winning ways. But a Billingham Town side that had dismissed their management team in midweek had other ideas.
United made five changes from the previous week. Michael Nelson and debutant Harvey Rudd coming into the defence in place of Sam Bajrami and Joe Sykes with Sykes dropping to the bench and Bajrami not making the squad.
Kieran Harwood returned in goal to replace James Hughes and with Dan Robinson injured and Reyhan Grimaud recovering from injury the two swapped positions. There was also a return from injury of Charlie Loveday who was also on the bench.
Michael Mallaburn after a run of starting games also dropped down to the bench meaning Jude Anderson was restored to the starting XI to play alongside top scorer Dan Walton in attack.
The rain that had fallen in the previous day and was still drizzling slightly made the pitch both heavy and slippery and in the early going neither side was able to find enough footing to create a dominant position.
However Billingham would have been disappointed not to have taken the lead on 7 minutes when they missed a glorious chance. Skipper Connor Rennison played a great long diagonal ball from the left to the feet of Reece McMann.
The wide man skipped past Jack Ledger and into the United box near the byline. He pulled the ball across to find find Connor Dunlavey who's first time lay-off to Josh Elcoate gave the breaking midfielder a clear sight of goal.
Elcoate though lacked composure and from barely eight yards out and with only Harwood to beat he blazed his effort well wide. Elcoate actually went closer with the next effort from further out.
Town won a corner and Keaton Sturdy played it short to Elcoate just outside the box and he measured a low right foot drive through a crowd of players that flashed just wide of Harwood's right-hand post.
United did eventually get the ball down and around the Billingham area and started playing some good passing football particularly the midfield central trio of Harry Laydon, Harry Marr and Ethan Gray.
Ledger and Grimaud were also pushing high on the flanks trying to pull defenders wide and create space as Dylan Wilkinson, Rudd and Nelson played intelligent balls into channels for them to create opportunities.
Twice in a short space of time Gray was presented with decent shooting chances on and around the edge of the box and although he hit both efforts well the Town defence were alert to the danger and got important blocks on the shots.
United looked to turn defence into attack on 30 minutes with Wilkinson powering from the back and then picking out Ledger in space on the left. Ledger's cross was a good one and Walton got in-between two defenders but flashed his six-yard header just wide.
Harry Close then found himself in space 22-yards from the United goal and hit a firm low drive that had Harwood diving to his left on his six-yard box to save and hold well.
The opening goal when it came was almost something out of nothing. Elcoate played a great ball down the inside left channel to find Cross who was faced by the covering Nelson. Unfortunately as Close controlled it Nelson slipped on the surface.
This gave the Town Centre Forward a yard and he took the ball inside the Chester box. In his attempt to recover from his slip and regain the position Nelson could only tangle with Close and bring him down giving the referee an easy decision.
Cross got up dusted himself down and drove the spot-kick more less straight but Harwood decided to dive right meaning the ball smacked into the back of the net to give Billingham the lead on 37 minutes.
United responded to the setback well. Anderson on the left driving forward before cutting the ball back to Laydon on the edge of the box but the midfielder's effort flew well over the top of the Town bar.
Then a piece of Marr magic saw him spin through two challenges in the middle of the park before he found Ledger on the left with an incisive pass. Ledger put in another decent cross that Gray rose well to nod down towards Anderson but the Town defence scrambled the ball clear.
Another slip this time by Rudd almost cost United as Close took the ball deep into the Chester box. Grimaud though got across to concede a corner. Elcoate whipped in the kick that Nelson headed clear. The ball falling to Sturdy about 25-yards out and he flashed his long range effort not far wide.
It proved to be the last action of a half that Billingham had just about edged and had the goal as proof and something to hang onto.
The second 45 minutes opened really quietly with United trying to force Billingham back and the Town defence coping well with whatever Chester tried. At times it felt Walton and Anderson were a bit isolated when United went forward but United continued to probe.
Loveday replaced Marr just before the hour mark as John Gamble tried to change the formation and give his front two a bit more of a link between them and the midfield but it was Billingham that almost doubled their lead.
Lennox Barry's long ball out of defence was well held up on the right hand side by Close who then turned well to get a shot away that deflected off Wilkinson and Harwood had to fling himself full-length to his right to palm the ball away in superb style.
A beautiful free-flowing move from United almost brought them a great reward. Loveday and Gray combining superbly to find Anderson who slid a great ball inside the Billingham defence that just evaded Walton's outstretched boot.
United did grab an equaliser on 72 minutes with a well worked goal. Ledger played a diagonal ball to Anderson on the right. There seemed little on but the striker controlled the ball well and then lofted a great cross to the back paost.
Laydon anticipating the deep ball into the box timed his run perfectly and from inside the six-yard box planted an angled header inside Oliver Swan's right-hand near post. It was game on or so Chester thought.
Their joy though was short-lived and they fell back behind within two minutes with as unfortunate a goal as they could concede. It came from a Elcoate corner that was cleared out of the box at the right hand side.
Matthew Frazer who had come up for the corner was still well placed and as he controlled it there was another slip by Rudd that gave the centre back a crossing opportunity. He fizzed the ball across the six-yard dangerously.
Nelson stretched to try and clear the danger but couldn't get a full connection on it and only managed to deflect it off his studs past a helpless Harwood for an unlucky own goal.
United replaced Walton with Mallaburn shortly afterwards as they went in search of another equaliser and almost got it with ten minutes to play. A long Harwood clearance caused problems at the back for Billingham.
Anderson was alert to the confusion and darted in beating Swan to the ball and taking it around him. The angle though was tight and although Anderson got his effort on target Barry did well to block the effort.
The ball rebounding to Mallaburn just outside the box and with Swan still out of position and a chance to hit the target the United substitute hit his effort well over the bar.
The killer goal that virtually sealed all three points for Billingham came shortly afterwards on 84 minutes. This time it was another goal that United could have probably avoided. Laydon losing possession in midfield with his defence stretched.
McMann it was that took advantage and played a lovely ball to substitute Thomas Lowe who advanced into the United box on the right hand side and then drove a great right-foot finish across Harwood from 14 yards into the bottom corner.
United made their three remaining substitutions and as a team showed character and resilience in once again trying to throw everything forward. They got a consolation reward five minutes into injury time.
Wilkinson once again impressively bringing the ball out of defence was fouled by substitute Ryan Kazadi on the left. Substitute Ben Glendinning whipped in the free-kick and it was turned into the net by Wilkinson from six yards with his left foot.
Unfortunately for United it was too little too late as the ball was centred, kicked off by Close and then the referee blew his whistle to bring the game to a conclusion without Chester having time to launch one last attack.
So, a disappointing day for United and another home defeat. On the day they just came up short in crucial areas and situations. All three goals they conceded came from individual errors.
The pitch certainly played it's part in that but then it was the same for both side's and the surer feet belonged to Billingham who celebrated a great win that moved them above United in the league table.
TEAM : 1. Kieran Harwood 2. Micky Nelson 3. Jack Ledger 4. Harry Laydon 5. Dylan Wilkinson (c) 6. Harvey Rudd 7. Reyhan Grimaud 8. Harry Marr 9. Dan Walton 10. Jude Anderson 11. Ethan Gray
SUBS : 12. Michael Mallaburn (for Walton 76 mins) 14. Joe Sykes (for Grimaud 85 mins) 15. Ben Glendinning (for Laydon 85 mins) 16. Joe Walls (for Ledger 85 mins) 17. Charlie Loveday (for Marr 57 mins)
SCORERS : Laydon 72 mins, Wilkinson 90 + 5 mins.