AFTER several below par performances, Whitley Bay FC were back near to their best for the clash between the league champions and Vase holders at Spennymoor on Saturday.
Indeed, for much of the second half it looked as if Whitley would spoil the champions’ party after goals either side of half-time had given them a 2-0 lead.
But the Moors fought back strongly and in the end a draw was probably a fair result.
A boost to Whitley came with the inclusion of Paul Chow in the starting line-up, returning three weeks after suffering a sprained ankle against Ashington.
Spennymoor meanwhile were facing a goalkeeping crisis with young reserve keeper Sam Grieveson called in to make his league debut.
Whitley played up the slope in the first half and they had the better of the opening exchanges.
Brian Smith headed wide from Gary Ormston’s cross after nine minutes before Smith then headed over the bar from a David Pounder corner.
At the other end, Francis and Capper exchanged neat passes in a promising build up but could not penetrate the Bay defence.
Chow was making his presence felt, and when he went past the hesitant Michael Laws, Griffiths blocked his shot but the ball ran loose to Lee Kerr whose well struck shot beat the keeper but was headed off the line by defender Chris Mason.
Spennymoor replied with Laws heading the ball across the face of goal and beyond the far post, and minutes later Francis fired in a 20-yard effort that Kyle Hayes pushed round the post.
The Bay fans, who must have made up half of the bumper crowd of 626, were certainly making themselves heard with good natured singing in the warm sunshine.
Whitley nearly took the lead after 36 minutes when Pounder curled a great shot from the edge the penalty area past Grieveson. It looked to be heading for the far corner but crashed off the post.
Former Bay defender Leon Ryan, playing up front as an emergency striker, headed over the bar from a cross by Calvin Smith when well placed, but a minute later, just before half-time, Whitley deservedly took the lead.
A free kick played to the back of the penalty area was headed back across goal by Chow, and Pounder fired a tremendous volley past the helpless Grieveson from the edge of the box.
Three minutes into the second half Whitley doubled their lead.
Gareth Williams played a ball out of defence which beat Laws and Craig McFarlane seized his chance, escaping the attention of the home defence to run on to the ball and lob it neatly over Grieveson and into the net from ten yards out.
At this point, Spennymoor reorganised, putting Ryan back to his more familiar defensive role and bringing on another striker, Chris Lawther.
Stephen Capper was denied when Hayes saved with his feet and then Ryan sent another header over the bar as the champions fought back.
After a valuable 67 minutes on the pitch, Chow was substituted with Chris Fawcett taking his place.
Soon afterwards, Darren Timmons almost got a third for Whitley with a header from Damon Robson’s corner, but Ruddy headed the ball off the line.
Another substitution by Whitley saw Robson replaced by Paul Robinson.
Both Robson and Chow had made major contributions and their departure seemed to affect the control Whitley had been exerting on the game.
Even so, there seemed little threat to Whitley’s lead but all that changed in the space of two minutes.
Spennymoor pulled a goal back after 76 minutes when Steven Richardson fired home a spectacular overhead kick following a cross from the wing by Griffiths.
The goal lifted the home side and their fans and Hayes had to push an effort from Capper wide.
But moments later the Bay keeper failed to hold a powerful shot by Griffiths from the edge of the area and the ball rebounded to substitute Craig Hubbard who poked it home from close range.
Late on, Hayes made an excellent block to deny Lawther but in the end both sides seemed content with a share of the spoils before Spennymoor, who retained the title in midweek, received the championship trophy from Northern League chairman Mike Amos.
In a sporting gesture, the Whitley players remained on the pitch to congratulate the champions at the presentation, and many Bay fans also stayed for the ceremony.
Whitley’s hopes of achieving runners-up spot and possible promotion were ended when news came through that Consett had won their final game to take second place.
But with attention turning to the FA Vase final there was much to be pleased about, with a good, confidence boosting performance against top quality opposition, and Chow now firmly in the reckoning for a starting place at Wembley.
Whitley Bay: Hayes, Timmons, Pounder, Smith, Coulson (Rowe 90 mins), Williams, Ormston, Robson (Robinson 75 mins), Kerr, McFarlane, Chow (Fawcett 67 mins). Substitutes not used: Burke, Anderson.