Whitley Bay were beaten but far from disgraced in the annual Cleator Cup curtain raiser to the Northern League season.
Their form in pre-season games had been less than encouraging, but for an hour they matched Spennymoor Town, the current FA Vase holders and firm favourites to win the Northern League in the coming season.
While there were no arguments that the visitors deserved their 4-1 win, it was a much closer contest than the final score would suggest, with the game only being settled in the last seven minutes when two late goals gave Town a somewhat flattering margin of victory.
This is traditionally a game between the league champions and League Cup winners, but with champions Darlington 1883, now promoted to the Evo-Stik League opting not to take part, Whitley’s third place finish last season earned them the right to host the fixture.
Ryan McGorrigan, signed in midweek, was named in the starting 11 while summer additions Josh Carmichael and Paul Antony were also included in the side.
Kyle Hayes, who left Whitley for the Moors during the summer, was in goal for the visitors, but their other Bay acquisition Lee Kerr missed out.
Whitley’s first attempt on target came after five minutes when McGorrigan’s shot was saved by Hayes.
Spennymoor, as expected, posed a constant threat with slick, accurate passing, and it took a timely tackle by Craig McFarlane to deny Gavin Cogdon a shot as the Spennymoor livewire cut in from the right.
After 16 minutes, a free kick from James Novak rebounded off the chest of Hayes and from a corner that followed, Paul Antony fired a shot over the bar.
A minute later Spennymoor took the lead when Cogdon’s shot proved too powerful for Carmichael, despite the Bay keeper getting a hand to the ball.
The visitors were getting on top and seven minutes later they might have taken a decisive two-goal lead when a cross from the left was pushed out by Carmichael but only into the path of Cogdon who blazed the ball high over the bar with the goal at his mercy.
Having withstood considerable pressure, Whitley began to assert themselves and two minutes before the half hour they equalised.
And it was new signing McGorrigan who got the goal following good build up play from midfield. His shot from the edge of the area beat the dive of Hayes as he tried to get his feet to the ball, which nestled in the bottom corner of the net.
The goal certainly lifted Whitley’s spirits and they enjoyed the better of the game for the remainder of the first half, with Hayes becoming the busier of the two keepers.
Half-time arrived with the scores level and everything still to play for.
Six minutes after the restart Whitley came close to taking the lead when McGorrigan’s cross was flicked just over the bar by Chris Fawcett.
Spennymoor made a double substitution a few minutes later while Ash Davis replaced Ian Watson for Whitley not long after.
With half an hour to play there was little to choose between the sides, but in the 64th minute, having just headed Henderson’s cross wide of goal, Cogdon’s effort into the roof of the net swung the game the way of the Vase holders.
Sub Chay Liddle saw an effort to double the lead cleared off the line but with 20 minutes to go, a surging run from Davis put Paul Chow through on goal but Hayes raced out to block his shot.
Despite forcing three corners in rapid succession, Whitley could not find a way past their former keeper, and in pushing forward for an equaliser they were becoming increasingly stretched at the back.
A free kick conceded on the edge of the Whitley penalty area produced a yellow card, but Lewis Dodds fired his shot wide of Carmichael’s goal.
Ten minutes from time an overhead kick from James Fairley only just cleared the Spennymoor bar, but three minutes later, a top quality finish ended Whitley’s hopes when Andrew Stephenson’s perfectly struck half volley from the best part of 25 yards caught Carmichael off his line and flew over the keeper into the net.
Cogdon, a thorn in Whitley’s side so often in the past, demonstrated his lethal finishing ability once again as he completed his hat-trick with just two minutes remaining with a shot that took a deflection off McFarlane as it flew into the net.
The final margin of defeat was harsh on the Whitley side, all of whom worked hard, with McFarlane perhaps the stand out player.
The season proper begins next weekend with a league opener against former Vase winners Dunston, and Whitley should go into that tough encounter in optimistic mood after this encouraging performance.
Whitley Bay: Carmichael, Brooking (McBryde 82 mins), Novak, Anderson, McFarlane, Antony, Fawcett, Fairley, McGorrigan (Convery 75 mins), Chow, Watson (Davis 60 mins). Subs not used: Perry, C Smith.