Despite hitting the woodwork and spurning a string of opportunities, West Allotment Celtic could not find the back of the net against Birtley Town, playing out a frustrating goalless draw at the Birtley Sports Complex on Saturday afternoon.
Facing off against a young but undoubtedly talented Town side – comprised of Gateshead College’s brightest prospects – Allotment looked to bounce back from their narrow midweek defeat against Heaton Stannington with a win. However, their fellow hoops applied the pressure from the opening whistle, rarely affording Allotment, kitted out in their red away strip, any time to craft an opening.
The first 30 minutes were largely forgettable in a scrappy but combative first half, two tussles involving Liam Hudson and Marc Dummett respectively the only incidents of note.
After half an hour without so much as a shot from either side, the game belatedly sparked into life.
Recent signing Rob Nolan raced onto a delightful ball over the top, but, forced onto his wrong foot by the covering defender, could only strike the ball straight down Jordan Harkness’s throat with the outside of his boot.
The visitors could well have been awarded a penalty soon after, Celtic’s players appealing vociferously after the ball struck a Birtley player in the area. The referee waved away the calls, and Celtic put it back into the mixer, where Ian Dunn’s header was nodded clear of danger yards from the line.
Down the field, Birtley almost caught Allotment cold on the counter, but Sean Reid pounded 60 yards across the pitch to head away Reece Noble’s inviting delivery.
As the game wore on, Allotment slowly but surely gained the upper hand. Liam Hudson saw an effort deflected up into the keeper’s hands, but the best chance of the half fell at the feet of centre forward Nolan. Another fine lofted pass, this time from captain Dunn, found its intended target, and the 24-year-old’s deft control and turn afforded him a clear sight of goal. Unfortunately, the finish was not as good as his first touch, tamely cushioning the ball into Harkness’s hands.
Another chance soon went begging for the away side, this time almost taking the lead from a set piece.
Deputising centre half Glenn Ford rose well to meet Chris Douglas’ deep corner, but his header back towards the far corner flew inches over the bar.
As the interval approached, Paul Bryson’s young charges almost drew first blood, re-emphasising their threat after Celtic’s slew of late chances
Out on the right, Leon Watson found a few yards of space in which to operate, cutting inside and drilling low towards goal. Chris Bannon, restored to the starting line-up, got down well to save, the ball squirming out for a corner kick.
Birtley fashioned the first chance of the second half, a superbly struck Curtis Coppen volley forcing Bannon into action once more.
It was the last attempt on goal from the hosts, as Allotment looked the more likely to lead thereafter. Nolan had already seen another effort blocked, whilst a trademark Reid free-kick slipped through the wall but not past the diligent Harkness.
Having spurned two chances of his own, wily attacker Nolan almost turned provider.
His flashed ball across goal found Hudson mere yards from goal, but with a defender and Harkness in close company, the wide man struggled to get a clear shot away, his two scrambled efforts saved and ultimately held by the goalkeeper.
The game’s defining moment came 12 minutes from time, and just about summed up the afternoon for Allotment.
A perfectly weighted pass from Dunn slipped in Nolan behind the defence, and this time, his finish was almost spot-on, flicking the ball over the diving Harkness and towards the bottom corner. The ball veered away from goal at the last moment, striking the far post and coming back out, before Reid’s thunderous follow-up was blocked by a tremendous last-ditch block.
It was as close as either side would come, and, aside from two lofted Birtley crosses that Bannon comfortably dealt with, neither of them threatened to grab that decisive goal.
Having come within inches of taking all three points, Allotment will be disappointed not to have stolen a march on their rivals, who also struggled on the day.
Some heart can be taken from a handful of performances, most notably those of Ford and the outstanding Stephen Little in the heart of defence, but West Allotment will need to show their teeth once more in attack if they are to break back into those all important promotion places.