WEST Allotment’s 11-match unbeaten streak came to a disappointing end on Saturday afternoon, as two second-half goals consigned Celtic to defeat at Birtley Town.
Having dispatched Whickham on their heavy pitch four days prior, player-manager Paul Stoneman injected fresh blood into the first team, with defender Simon Wilthew, centre midfielder Marc Allen and makeshift forward Michael Bell preferred to Stephen Little, David Henderson and David Dormand respectively.
The visitors started the brighter of the two sides, and their patient build-up around the area afforded Ian Dunn a sight at goal, but the captain, on his unfavoured left foot, shot straight at keeper Andrew Mullinson. Birtley’s own midfield general Daniel Smith responded in kind, curling an effort over Ryan Beal’s crossbar in the opening minutes.
The away side kept the pressure on, and it almost yielded Tony Lancaster an unlikely goal. The winger charged down Mullinson’s attempted clearance, but the ball spun agonisingly away from goal, and Lancaster’s clawed ball back across goal was smothered at the second attempt by the grateful goalie.
Allotment had the lion’s share of the chances, and, after more sustained pressure in Birtley’s own third, number nine Bell drove his shot straight into the arms of the keeper. Deeper forward Sean Reid almost went one better, but his fine curling strike from the edge of the area clipped the outside of the post. Lancaster went close again, but his prod at goal was turned away bravely by Mullinson.
The hosts carved out a couple of half-chances of their own. Birtley broke down the right and worked the ball into the box, but Luke Wilson could not control the cross, and the chance went begging. The Hoops looked dangerous on the counter, and split the defence on the break, only for wide man Matthew Hornsby to fire high and wide when in on goal.
The best football of the afternoon often came from Dean Lee and Sean Reid, and the two playmakers combined expertly in the best move of the game. After some impressive pass-and-move play, the former fed the latter from the left, but Mullinson tipped Reid’s goalbound strike over the bar.
Thereafter, Scott Oliver’s men stepped up a gear, and looked the more likely to score before the interval. Only Ryan Beal kept the scores level, as the keeper made two fantastic point blank saves down to his right to deny Birtley a seemingly inevitable opener. The visitors’ hero almost became the villain minutes later, needlessly picking up the ball after a touch from Marc Dummett. Fortunately, the hosts squandered the precariously-placed free-kick with an error of their own, and the game was goalless at half-time.
After a promising first half, the match became a gritty and turgid affair. Allotment shook things up, introducing Dormand and Kallum McGlen from the bench, and the former was presented with the opportunity to make a marked impact on the game. Lee sped past his marker down the left flank and squared the ball to the striker eight yards from goal.
However, Dormand’s flicked effort did not have enough conviction to beat Mullinson, who got a strong hand to the ball and pushed it beyond harm’s reach. Allotment were made to rue that miss as the game entered the closing stages. The away side gave away a free-kick near the edge of the area, and were duly punished, as Peter Henderson struck to put the hosts ahead.
With ten minutes remaining, the game remained finely poised – and was ultimately determined by a refereeing decision. Dummett conceded a free-kick and retreated to his post, only for the referee to beckon him back to caution him. With the left-back forcibly out of position, Birtley took a quick free-kick down the right, and the officials allowed play to continue. Hornsby stepped inside and fired low beyond Beal, sparking a wave of outcry on and off the pitch that saw two Celtic players booked for their protestations.
In the final moments, the frustrated Lee fired over the crossbar, and Birtley squandered two chances to extend their lead, but the damage was already done. Allotment may feel hard done by, having more than matched their opponents throughout the encounter. The defeat was Allotment’s first of 2013, but the team will be itching to make amends on Monday, when they play host to Horden Colliery Welfare at Whitley Park.