WHITLEY Bay’s 3-2 midweek home defeat to Spennymoor was a remarkable game, with twists and turns that gave the fans value for their money.
Predictably, with Newcastle at home to Benfica in a televised Europa League quarter-final, the attendance was well down on what might otherwise have been expected for the visit of the Ebac Northern League champions and FA Vase finalists.
Less predictably, teenagers Lewis Burns and Dillon Blake, who had previously made just a handful of substitute appearances between them, were both handed their full debuts while another teenager Kyle Downey was also in the starting line-up.
Spennymoor meanwhile fielded an experienced team including all but three of the side that won their FA Vase semi-final against Guernsey.
It was not surprising therefore that many Bay fans were fearing a heavy defeat; but it said much for the performances of the players that at the final whistle there was real disappointment at going down by the odd goal in five.
Spennymoor dominated possession in the first half and Whitley were forced to defend, rarely getting into their opponents’ penalty area.
But with some excellent defending and with keeper Kyle Hayes outstanding, Whitley kept Spennymoor out and the sides went in level at the interval.
After a low key opening period, the first incident of note came after 15 minutes when Stephen Capper forced Hayes to push the ball over the bar, then moments later Hayes made another fine save from a close range effort.
Shortly before the half hour, Walton saw his attempt pushed over the bar and it was not until the 37th minute that Whitley threatened the visitors, James Novak firing a free kick too high after Dillon Blake had been fouled.
Steven Richardson saw his header crash off the bar in the 42nd minute but Spennymoor could not break down a stubborn Bay defence and it was all square at half-time.
The second half started off in the same fashion and it needed a goal line clearance by Craig McFarlane to prevent the Moors from taking the lead.
However, it all changed four minutes into the half when Whitley, taking a much more positive approach, won possession through Blake in midfield. Excellent play involving Novak, Lee Kerr and LeePaul Scroggins then resulted in the ball being played wide on the left to Novak, whose cross into the goalmouth saw Scroggins slide the ball into the net ahead of Moors defender and captain Daniel Moore.
The goal really lifted Whitley and three minutes later, Kerr brought a save from Knight.
On 56 minutes Whitley should have doubled their lead in a move involving the two youngest players on the park.
With Spennymoor pushing forward for an equaliser, Blake was played through from midfield and with only one defender to beat, he played the ball right to the unmarked Burns whose shot across keeper Knight went barely a foot wide of the far post.
Blake had played well but shortly before the hour he made way for James Fairley, who almost immediately made a dramatic impact.
Winning the ball just inside his own half, he raced forward virtually unchallenged and finally went past former Bay captain Leon Ryan before side footing the ball just inside the right hand post from 12 yards.
It was a tremendous solo effort and suddenly at 2-0 it looked as if Whitley would cause a major shock and effectively end Spennymoor’s hopes of retaining the league title.
However, there was still nearly half an hour remaining and the visitors stepped up a gear while Whitley faced the decision of whether to continue pushing forward or pull players back and try to hold onto their lead.
For ten minutes they retained their two-goal advantage, and when Ryan’s close range header rebounded off the bar, it began to look as if it might be Whitley’s day.
Unfortunately that was not to be as the champions showed their class with three goals in six minutes, punishing what at times was some weak defending.
They reduced the arrears after 73 minutes when a shot from Kallum Griffiths took a deflection leaving Hayes wrong footed.
Just a minute later, Whitley might have restored their advantage when Burns had a great chance but Knight parried his shot, and although Bay youngster went for the loose ball, it was eventually cleared.
Two minutes later, the scores were level when Davison leapt above Brian Smith to head the ball across goal. Moore’s flick into the far corner of the net beat Hayes and it was now a completely different game.
Bay manager Ian Chandler turned to experience as Paul Chow and Paul Robinson were brought on for the final quarter of an hour and Robinson was quickly into the action, firing in an angled shot that Knight saved close to his near post.
The Spennymoor comeback was not long delayed and 11 minutes from time, Lewis Dodds met a cross form the left and unmarked inside the 18-yard box, he fired an excellent volley past Hayes.
Whitley created two late opportunities to grab an equaliser, both involving Craig McFarlane, firstly when his shot was only held at the second attempt by Knight, and then moments later when he crossed from the right and Chow, in front of goal, stooped to head the ball but it flew agonisingly wide of a gaping goal.
Injuries, availability and inevitable squad rotation with the three games a week schedule means that throughout the league, squads are tested to the limit.
Among the positives for Whitley from this game were the performances of Hayes and McFarlane, while the three teenagers all did well against tough opponents.
However, key defenders Chris Reid and Callum Anderson were particularly missed in the latter stages of the game.
Whitley Bay: Hayes, Brooking, Novak, C Smith, B Smith, Scroggins, Blake (Fairley 58 mins), Downey (Robinson 76 mins), Kerr, Burns (Chow 76 mins), McFarlane.