The magic of the FA Vase was once again evident at Hillheads on Saturday as a rejuvenated Whitley Bay confidently overcame the challenge of North West Counties League leaders Runcorn Town.
Two goals in the first nine minutes set them on their way to a well deserved second round victory over their Cheshire visitors in an entertaining tie.
Bay’s success in this competition over the past ten years guarantees a special sense of anticipation and excitement among players and fans as a new campaign gets under way, and the outcome of Saturday’s game will have boosted hopes of yet another successful run in the competition.
The game began in bright autumn sunshine and with Paul Chow winning the toss, allowing Whitley to take full advantage of the low sun as they attacked the allotment end goal.
Urged on by a vociferous crowd well in excess of 400, it was immediately apparent how important this competition is to the players, with current captain Chow and former skipper Leon Ryan, who led the side to victory over Wroxham in the 2010 final both leading by example.
Within the first minute, Jarrett Rivers threatened a hesitant Runcorn defence with a ball that flew across the goalmouth with Daniel Toone making a crucial clearance.
Two minutes later, a throw-in near the right corner flag gave Whitley the perfect opportunity to capitalise on the dazzle of the low sun and when Brad Brooking sent a long throw into the six-yard box, Leon Ryan rose to glance the ball into the far corner with keeper Karl Wills stranded and no defender at the back post.
The early goal was just what Whitley needed and after a quick break downfield by Paul Shanley was ended when he was muscled off the ball, Runcorn were forced back on the defensive.
Whitley won a corner on the left and James Novak’s flag kick to the back of the six-yard box was met by Ryan, whose looping header beat Wills with the keeper again struggling to cope with the setting sun.
Two down after just nine minutes, the visitors looked shell-shocked and they almost conceded a third in the 16th minute, but Thomas Spearrit made a vital block to deny Chow after he had received an inch perfect through ball from Rivers.
The home side were firmly in the driving seat and a weak clearance from Wills gave Chris Reid a sight of goal, but his shot whistled just over the bar.
A few minutes later Runcorn wasted a glorious chance to pull a goal back when leading scorer Shanley was clear on goal but with only Tom Kindley to beat he fired wide.
Grant was then denied by Ryan at the expense of a corner.
The Merseyside club, backed by a good following of travelling fans, began to show their quality and came more into the game, and following a right wing corner Dalton’s header was saved by Kindley.
A cross from Chris Fawcett was sliced over his own bar by Spearrit while at the other end Kinsey drove a shot wide of goal.
The game continued at a rapid pace but there were few clear cut chances in the remainder of the half.
Brad Brooking, who had been suffering from a heavy cold was replaced by Alex Kempster shortly before the interval and at the break Whitley looked to be well in command of the game.
Caught cold at the beginning of the first half, Runcorn began the second period much better and enjoyed the greater share of possession but without seriously threatening the Bay goal.
Whitley looked solid at the back where Craig McFarlane, returning from injury, had a good comeback game alongside Ryan, Chris Reid and Callum Anderson, while Stephen Buzzeo had arguably his best game since arriving at Hillheads last month.
Rivers, who had proved influential, especially in the opening stages of the game, was replaced for the final 20 minutes by Robbie Nolan, who within three minutes of his arrival was played through on the left by Kempster and fired in a stunning shot that looked a goal all the way until Wills pulled off a tremendous one-handed save, pushing the ball onto the top of the bar and behind for a corner.
As Runcorn sacrificed defenders in a desperate bid to get back in the game, McFarlane found space on the right and raced away down the wing before playing the ball through to Nolan who was denied by a last ditch tackle.
At the other end, Kindley made an important block then minutes later produced an excellent diving save to push a shot from Grant away from goal, a crucial moment in the game as a goal at this stage would have set up a tense finale.
Toone then failed to make the most a free kick just outside the Bay penalty area as the Runcorn attacks became more desperate.
Nine minutes from time Whitley got the goal that ended any lingering hopes that Runcorn may have harboured, and it was constructed and finished by two of Whitley’s bright young hopes, both of whom started the game on the bench.
Nolan ran at a tiring Runcorn defence and after going past two men, the ball broke for Kempster who gleefully fired home from 18 yards.
It was his first goal for the club and one that sparked celebrations from the entire Bay team.
Two minutes from time, Kempster was given a free header from a corner but the ball flew over the bar, while in stoppage time, Runcorn’s attempts to get a consolation goal were denied as Grant’s shot was deflected wide and a free kick from Joshua Smith drifted a yard past the post.
After the game a happy Ian Chandler described the result as “overall, a good performance against a good team”.
While pleased to welcome back Reid, McFarlane and Rivers to the starting line-up, he acknowledged that it had been difficult to leave out three of the side that played so well to beat Spennymoor the previous weekend.
He said: “It’s becoming a healthy squad now.” A fact highlighted by the strength of the substitutes bench.
Whitley Bay: Kindley, Rivers (Nolan 69), Chow (Antony 80), Fawcett, Buzzeo, Novak, Reid, McFarlane, Brooking (Kempster 44), Ryan, Anderson. Subs not used: Smith, McMullen.