A hat-trick from Peter Watling was the centrepiece of a thoroughly impressive Whitley performance that saw them cruise past local rivals Bedlington and into the next round of the FA Vase.
The tie brought together the north east’s two most consistently successful teams in this national competition and it was four times winners Whitley who showed their pedigree with what manager Leon Ryan described as by far their best performance of the season.
Even the loss after 23 minutes of the unwell Callum Anderson failed to disrupt a disciplined Bay side who were captained for the first time by Craig Smith, deserved reward for a player who has been loyal squad member for several years. New signing Adam Reed was named in the starting 11 while the Terriers side included defender Mark Walmsley, a stalwart of Whitley’s first Vase-winning side back in 2002.
Another ex-Bay man in the Bedlington side, Scott Blandford provided the first chance of the game when his free kick from out on the left was headed over the bar after just six minutes. Five minutes later, Whitley almost took the lead when Paul Robinson’s header from a cross by Chris McDonald hit the post and was held on the rebound by a grateful Sean McCafferty in the home goal.
Jordan Nellis posed the main threat with his pace for the Terriers, but he struggled to find a way though a resolute Bay defence.
Brad Brooking replaced Anderson midway through the half, with Craig McFarlane moving seamlessly into Anderson’s central position. Whitley took the lead in the 25th minute following a flowing six-man move. Ellison’s determined challenge won the ball in centre field before he played it wide to McFarlane whose pass down the right found Paul Robinson. He cleverly back heeled the ball into the path of Robbie Bird who raced into the box and his precision pass saw Peter Watling slot the ball home from eight yards. Moments later, Watling broke through on goal again but was ruled offside. A cross shot from McFarlane almost caught out McCafferty.
In the 34th minute, Watling got another shot on target when he swivelled on the ball and fired in a first time effort that McCafferty was grateful to get his body behind and make the save.Bedlington kept trying to push forward with Nellis the focus of their attacks but they seldom looked like getting back on terms and Whitley deservedly retained their slender lead to the interval.
There was still everything to play for when the second half got underway but Whitley quickly took a stranglehold on proceedings.
Robbie Bird showed Marc Walmsley a clean pair of heels as he raced away down the right and when he crossed from the by-line, Reed headed the ball from beyond the far post back into the danger zone. Robinson raced into the box in an attempt to seize on the loose ball but was tripped by Blandford and referee Simon Clayton had no hesitation in awarding a penalty. In the absence of regular penalty taker Paul Chow, Robinson took the spot kick himself and on what was his 300th appearance for the club, beat McCafferty with consummate ease to double Whitley’s lead.
Bedlington briefly responded but a free kick 25 yards from goal was quickly cleared and Robinson won possession from Jordan Nellis well inside the Bay half before releasing Bird on the right. Using his pace to good effect he raced clear down the wing before cutting in and playing a cross field ball to Watling who drilled a superb first time shot low beyond McCafferty into the far corner of the net.
Stunned by the two quick goals, it was no surprise that Bedlington heads dropped while Whitley’s confidence surged. Playing the ball around comfortably, Whitley found increasing amounts of space in midfield and when Terriers’ substitute Stephen Young hit the post with a shot from wide on the right, it was a rare moment of danger for the visitors. Ryan and Smith were dealing comfortably with high balls into the box while McDonald and Brooking were able to instigate attacking moves with balls down both wings. Just past the midway point of the half, Godsmark replaced Reed, who did not look to be fully match fit following his move from Darlington.
Ten minutes from time, Bedlington pulled a goal back when Lee Scott turned inside the box after receiving from Blandford and fired an excellent shot beyond Dan Gladstone from 10 yards.
Within two minutes Whitley responded with arguably the best goal of the match. Both of Watling’s earlier strikes were top quality but this one that completed his hat trick was something really special. Breaking quickly from defence, Ellison played the ball wide to Bird whose high ball from just on the halfway line into space on the left was met on the half volley by Watling whose exquisite lob from fully 25 yards caught McCafferty off his line and dipped under the bar. The goal sparked joyous celebrations from the massed ranks of Bay fans, who had travelled in huge numbers to give Welfare Park its biggest attendance for some considerable time. It rounded off a vintage Bay performance, reminiscent of so many Vase games over the years and following the victory at Guisborough seven days earlier, suggested that Whitley’s season could really be turning for the better.
With Paul Chow and Michael Laws available for next Saturday’s game at Ashington, Leon Ryan may, for the first time this season, have the happy problem of having to decide who to leave out of the starting line-up.