A HARD fought 1-0 victory over Consett in difficult conditions took Whitley Bay to the top of the Northern League table as their championship rivals were all victims of frozen pitches.
The fact that the game went ahead was due largely to the efforts of groundsman Dave Styles, who produced a playing surface that passed a mid-morning inspection.
Apart from a narrow strip alongside the new stand, the pitch was frost free at kick-off.
A crowd of more than 500, including representatives of Saturday’s FA Vase opponents South Park, saw Whitley claim the points thanks to a rare Paul Robinson header in the second half.
Consett, despite their lowly position in the table, came into the game boosted by their surprise Durham Challenge Cup victory at West Auckland in midweek.
They started in much more confident fashion than when the sides met at Belle Vue Park in September, enjoying more of the possession and trying to test Whitley’s reserve team keeper Michael Hammond, deputising for the injured Kyle Hayes.
Despite good approach work their finishing was wayward and Hammond was rarely put under any pressure.
Whitley’s first attempt of note came after 11 minutes when Robinson cut in from the left and from 20 yards out drove the ball wide of goal.
Michael McMullen, operating on the right wing, was struggling on the hard surface and soon switched to the sunbathed left wing where he was more effective.
Just before the midway stage of the half, a clumsy challenge by a Consett defender on Robbie Dale some 25 yards from goal gave Whitley a free kick out on the left, but Dale wasted the opportunity, firing the ball over the bar.
At the other end, Consett’s Harrison Davies, who scored a hat-trick in midweek and was posing a threat on the visitors’ left flank, curled a free kick wide of goal.
For Whitley, Gareth Williams, returning from injury, did well to cut the ball back from near the right corner flag and Consett keeper Peter Jameson punched it away from goal when he should have held on to the ball.
The visitors failed to make the most of their remaining opportunity of the half when Gavin Ross headed over the bar from a right wing corner.
Just before the half-time whistle, LeePaul Scroggins went off injured and was replaced by Lee Kerr.
The second half began with Whitley looking much livelier and quickly creating openings.
Within two minutes Paul Chow had the ball in the net after chipping Jameson, but an offside flag came to the rescue of the Steelmen.
Chow then played an accurate crossfield ball to Robinson who turned a defender and chipped the ball just over the bar.
Kerr was prompting from midfield with accurate passes and was looking much more effective than in recent games.
It was he who began the move that led to the crucial goal, with a pinpoint accurate pass through to Robinson who played the ball out to Dale who in turn found McMullen on the right wing.
The youngster whipped a perfect cross to the back post where Robinson came in to head across Jameson into the net, a finish reminiscent of his stoppage time winner against Barwell that sent Whitley to Wembley two seasons ago.
With half an hour still to play, Bay fans were hoping for more goals to cement victory, but it was not to be.
Robinson burst through eight minutes later but fired just wide, then at the other end a goal line clearance by Callum Anderson denied opposing captain Jonjo Dickman.
A great ball from Kerr played McMullen through but Jameson did well to block the shot at the near post.
Kerr then had an opportunity himself when he broke clear with just Jameson to beat but his attempted lob lacked sufficient power and the keeper made a comfortable save.
Inevitably conditions deteriorated as the temperature dropped but players on both sides coped well and Consett pushed forward late on in search of an equaliser.
Davies twice failed to get attempts on target while David Malloy, who worked as hard as any of the team in red, forced a rare save from Hammond who kept the ball out with his feet.
Damon Robson, returning after injury, came off the bench for the last 15 minutes while Darren Timmons was also brought on in the closing stages as Whitley comfortably held onto their lead.
Michael Mackay, one of the league’s most prolific goal scorers in recent years, made little impression on a tight Bay defence and was off target with a late effort before David Pounder, playing against his former club, saw his header from Robinson’s cross plucked from under the bar by Jameson.
Whitley are now unbeaten in their last ten games and this win took them a point clear of both Sunderland RCA and West Auckland, although both teams have several games in hand.
Whitley Bay: Hammond, Anderson, Pounder, Dale (Robson 75 mins), Coulson, Williams, McMullen (Timmons 80 mins), Scroggins (Kerr 45 mins), Ormston, Chow, Robinson. Subs not used: Redfern, Rowe.