IN the first of a series of crucial top of the table games, Whitley Bay FC beat league leaders Shildon on their own ground on Wednesday evening, the decisive goal coming from a controversial penalty midway through the second half.
Apart from the memorable FA Vase quarter-final victory last season, Whitley had not won at Dean Street for more than 20 years, and with the free-scoring Railwaymen flying high at the top of the table, this was always going to be a difficult game.
A strong and blustery wind together with frequent showers made playing conditions tricky, but Whitley started brightly in what was a lively opening period, with the game being played at a fast pace.
In the third minute, Shildon’s Steven Johnson tested Kyle Hayes with a shot that resulted in a corner for the home side.
But in the eighth minute, Paul Chow’s ball through to Lee Kerr left him with only Staples to beat, and from around 15 yards out he calmly lobbed the ball over the advancing keeper to put Whitley ahead.
Shaken by the goal, Shildon retaliated, but it was Whitley who nearly doubled their lead after 16 minutes when Chow’s header from 12 yards out flew inches wide of the far post.
The home side gained the upper hand from this point and Whitley were forced back in defence.
The equaliser, which had been looking inevitable, came after 33 minutes and was a tremendous 20-yard strike from Chris Hughes, the ball flying into the top corner of the net giving Hayes no chance.
Despite the difficult conditions, the game continued to be played at a rapid pace with Shildon continuing to have the majority of possession.
Johnson and Garvie were prominent in their attacks but crucially the league leaders could not press home their advantage with the Bay defence solid and Hayes making several confident saves.
Craig McFarlane replaced Glen Taylor at the start of the second period and a few minutes later play was held up when Callum Anderson picked up an injury and had to be replaced with Damon Robson coming off the bench.
Whitley suffered another blow just before the hour when Brian Rowe strained a neck muscle with Lee Mason replacing him.
Losing key members of the side did not seem to affect Whitley’s play, while Shildon, despite controlling the game for periods, failed to test Hayes, a typical example being when the speedy Sam Garvie cut in from the left but fired his shot over the bar when he should at least have forced a save.
It was well into the second period when Shildon brought on their top scorer Sonny Andrews, but his presence did little to alter the course of the game.
With just over 20 minutes left came the controversial moment that led to Whitley’s winning goal.
Robson whipped in a cross from the right wing to the back of the penalty area. Under a challenge from Craig Price, David Pounder fell to the ground.
From some parts of the ground it appeared an obvious trip and a clear penalty. Others were not convinced, including the Shildon players, some of whom were incensed at the decision.
When calm was eventually restored, Kerr comfortably beat Staples from the spot, although the keeper went the right way.
The goal seemed to destroy the composure of the home side and there was a sudden melee close to the home dugout involving a mass of players.
On the balance of play Whitley were fortunate to be ahead but they defended their lead admirably, getting players behind the ball and denying the home side any clear openings.
A long ball upfield briefly put pressure on the home defence and Mason did well to swivel and fire in a shot that was on target but was blocked by a packed defence.
Back down the other end Garvie tried a long range effort that flew well over the bar, and then with just two minutes remaining he looked as if he had created the equaliser with a mazy run down the right only for a perfectly timed challenge by Brian Smith, the last defender, robbing him of the ball and the danger was averted.
In stoppage time Fawcett was booked when drying the ball ahead of a throw-in, for what the referee deemed to be time wasting.
Shortly after, a determined and battling performance against the league leaders came to an end with Whitley snatching all three points, boosting their championship hopes while severely denting those of their opponents.
The game was a test of strength and resilience for Whitley’s squad after Saturday’s tough FA Vase encounter at Dunston.
hey were missing the unavailable Paul Robinson and Gary Ormston and had to re-adjust following the injuries to Rowe and Anderson.
How significant this victory will be in terms of the league title remains to be seen, but it extended Whitley’s remarkable winning run to 11 games.
The game also marked Chow’s 200th appearance, during which time he has scored 121 goals for the club.
Whitley Bay: Hayes, Fawcett, Anderson (Robson 53 mins), Gibson, Smith, Williams, Taylor (McFarlane 45 mins), Rowe (Mason 58 mins), Kerr, Chow, Pounder, Subs not used: Timmons, Coulson.