FANS of Whitley Bay FC are used to seeing their side stage dramatic come backs in big games, but Saturday’s 2-1 win at Poole in the FA Vase semi-final first leg just about beat them all – even the finale at Barwell at the same stage of last season’s competition.
One down and second best for much of the game, this was a situation where most Bay fans were quite prepared to sacrifice their side’s long unbeaten run in the FA Vase and take a single goal deficit back to Hillheads for Saturday’s second leg.
Not so their heroes on the pitch. With barely a minute of normal time remaining came the equaliser, from the unlikely source of Damon Robson.
If that was not good enough, a superb free kick from Lee Kerr two minutes into stoppage time won the game and left the home players and their fans stunned in disbelief.
The celebrations at the final whistle were tempered by the knowledge that the tie is far from over, and although Poole must have been psychologically damaged by the dramatic turn of events in those final minutes, they are a good side and will undoubtedly pose a real threat in the second leg.
Whitley will certainly need to play much better if they are to make a record breaking third successive trip to Wembley in May, but with a near 3,000 crowd behind them at Hillheads, they have an excellent chance of creating another bit of history.
On Saturday, Kyle Hayes got the nod as keeper ahead of Terry Burke, while Brian Smith was preferred in defence ahead of David Coulson, who has only played two full games since his return from injury.
On a warm and sunny afternoon, and on a wide pitch, Whitley started the better and both Paul Robinson and Paul Chow should at least have tested keeper Nic Hutchings but put shots over the bar in the first ten minutes as Poole looked nervous in front of their biggest crowd of the season, officially confirmed as 1,652.
Home captain Carl Poore headed clear when Robinson crossed before Poole gradually gained a foothold in the game with Dan Cann and striker Carl Preston in particular looking dangerous.
Hayes made a comfortable save when Poole were awarded a free kick shortly before the quarter hour and was in action again a short time later, collecting a cross from Preston above his head.
The Wessex League champions were getting on top and following a cross from the right, Richardson headed only narrowly wide of goal.
Poore then drove a 20-yard shot into the side netting following good build up play.
The pressure told with 23 minutes on the clock when Richardson’s cross-field ball was won by Preston when it should have been intercepted by the Bay defence. He raced away down the right and cut in, firing a low shot from just inside the penalty area that found the bottom corner of the net.
The goal was no more than they deserved and the home side kept up the pressure as their confidence visibly grew.
Their next attack was rebuffed at the cost of a corner asas Hayes did well to push the ball behind.
Whitley were not getting any success with the high balls they played forward, with the tall home defenders in control.
Right on half-time Whitley’s below par showing was highlighted in a rare attack when Brian Smith’s downward header inside the penalty area saw Chow swing a boot but completely miss right in front of goal. The ball then fell for Craig McFarlane, clearly surprised by Chow’s miss, and he fired wide.
After the interval, Whitley were attacking the goal where their fans had been segregated, although the barriers had been partially removed.
Preston continued to create problems for Whitley down the left and Darren Timmons was cautioned for tripping the striker on the edge of the area.
At the other end, Poole’s Lamin Dibba was also booked for a trip on Kerr.
When McFarlane eventually broke down the right wing, Chow got to his cross ahead of the defence but his low header failed to trouble Hutchings.
On the hour, Robinson, who had made little impression, was replaced by Coulson.
McFarlane was proving more effective down the right and his ball to Robson was cut back across goal but was easily dealt with by the defence.
Whitley continued to ring the changes and Craig Fawcett was brought on in place of David Pounder with 25 minutes to go.
Still the Dorset side held the upper hand and after Hayes had pushed away an effort from Sturgess, Robson was in the right place to head clear a goalbound effort from the same player, then Hubbard brought a fine reaction save from Hayes low down near his right post.
It was not just Hayes who was keeping the home side out, Timmons, Smith and Gareth Williams all defended bravely.
With just over ten minutes left, Brian Rowe replaced Timmons as Whitley sought to keep the home side out.
Whitley briefly gave their fans hope when Fawcett started to test the Poole defence with his pace.
When he was tripped on the left wing, Kerr’s free kick into the goalmouth was gathered by Hutchings just inches ahead of Chow.
Back at the other end Sturgess fired over the bar before man of the match Preston was substituted, a move that seemed to ease the pressure and help Whitley get more into the game.
Cann and Sturgess still tried to find a way past Hayes, but the youngster parried, blocked and denied them the second goal that would have strengthened their grip on the tie.
Many of the 200 Bay fans must have been hoping for the final whistle, feeling they would be grateful to escape with just a single goal defeat, but then came the events that turned the game and may prove decisive in terms of the tie.
Chow, who had made little impact on the game, finally found space down the right and when he crossed into the goalmouth, none other than captain Robson raced in to poke the ball home ahead of Hutchings.
The hard-working Robson, who rarely gets on the score sheet but has now bagged four goals this season, ran towards the barriers to celebrate and was engulfed by fans behind the goal, including chairman Paul McIlduff and former Whitley women captain Kirsty Hunter.
With just one minute left of the 90, it looked as if Whitley would, as they did last season, come back to Hillheads for the second leg all square, but suddenly the balance of the game had changed.
Deflated by conceding so late, Poole heads seemed to drop and Whitley, having come from behind so many times in the past, saw their chance of victory.
Forward they surged and in the second of the four minutes of added time, Poore was penalised for a handball some 25 yards from goal, level with the left edge of the penalty area.
The free kick was ideally placed for Kerr, always a man for the big occasion, and he curled the ball superbly around the defensive wall and beyond the despairing arms of Hutchings to send the travelling fans ecstatic with delight.
The final whistle was not long delayed and while the home side trooped off in disbelief after controlling the great majority of the game, the Whitley players ran to celebrate the moment with their wheelchair-bound former team mate Mark Taylor by the touchline, before thanking the fans who had made the 350-mile journey to the south coast.
There is still much to do in the return leg at Hillheads, but the late, late show, or smash and grab raid as some were describing it, left Whitley much the happier of the two sides at the halfway stage of the tie.
Whitley Bay: Hayes, McFarlane, Pounder (Fawcett 65 mins), Timmons (Rowe 78 mins), Smith, Williams, Ormston, Robson, Kerr, Chow, Robinson (Coulson 59 mins). Subs not used: Burke, Gibson.