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The Nearly Men
By: Andrew Doherty
TODAY'S opponents Gateshead were last season's nearly men, losing in the play-off final after putting paid to our hopes in the semis. We gained a sort of revenge with a spectacular away victory in August, but that's a long time ago.
It looks like Gateshead have too much ground to make up this year but this is a well organised team which is capable of putting a spanner in anyone's work. It could be argued that they did us a massive favour by knocking us out of the FA Trophy, allowing us to avoid the hugely impressive North Ferriby United and more importantly enabling us to concentrate on the league. Automatic promotion is in sight. With Bristol Rovers and Barnet hitting form, we need to maintain our momentum, adopt the North Ferriby spirit and grind out results. Today's game against Gateshead was always going to be a stern test.
It was a bit fresh but a bright and pleasant Easter Saturday. The tide was out but the holidaymakers were in town, some arriving with suitcases, and others riding along the sea front on the tourist train. Some ate trays of chips and even “real dairy ice cream – made on the farm in the heart of Yorkshire”. Meanwhile, back in Lincolnshire, crazy golf was proving a hit with families, while the putting green was empty and nothing more than a sad bit of grass. But Cleethorpes was a happy place today. It remained to be seen whether events at Blundell Park would perpetuate the feel good factor.
A healthy 5,958 spectators were at Blundell Park for the game with precious few from Gateshead. Town's side was:
McKeown – Magnay, Nsiala, Pearson, Robertson – Mackreth, Disley, Brown, Arnold – John-Lewis, Palmer.
Town's tactic was to attack from the off. Brown surged up the middle in the first minute and tested the goalkeeper, who fumbled. Palmer was unable to get there first. Kanda then slipped through but McKeown made the save. Both sides were trying to move the ball quickly. Arnold won a corner on 9 minutes after tenaciously robbing a defender. Pearson's header went just wide from Arnold's cross. Arnold in particular was lively, grappling at one point with Curtis. Palmer then almost pounced on a defensive mix-up but the ball was scrambled clear. The plan involved quick and direct movement with Town harassing Gateshead. John-Lewis then stole the ball on 18 minutes and crossed to Mackreth whose shot was high. John-Lewis then got booked for a vigorous tackle on ex Mariner Rodman. Brown then was penalised for a tackle. The referee demonstrated that he didn't like any form of tackling as the game progressed. Town were relying on long measured passes, which sometimes were going astray on a bobbly pitch but on the positive side Gateshead weren't being allowed into the game. A smoke bomb went off in the Gateshead supporters' end – with not many of them, it should have been too hard for the stewards to locate the offender. The game was starting to lose momentum and go stale. Each team was hassling the other and running around for nothing. Possession was being lost. Gateshead's plan was to pack the midfield, play deep and leave one man up front. On 31 minutes Town free kick led to a flicked header from Pearson to Palmer who couldn't get there. Town attacked again on 33 minutes but instead of choosing the obvious option of crossing, Magnay put in a poor pass and conceded possession, then failed to tackle the defender as Gateshead broke out in numbers. The race was on as Gateshead surged forward, and the ball was crossed to St Luce inside Town's box. St Luce cut inside as the defence backed off and fired an unstoppable stop into the left corner, celebrating his wonder goal with a somersault. From the restart Town looked hesitant. The plan wasn't working. On 38 minutes Mackreth broke out and crossed to Arnold whose low and accurate shot clipped the heel of Palmer who, to add insult to injury, was judged offside. Town were caught offside again on 40 minutes following a Disley cross, then John-Lewis was penalised for a foul. Just on half-time Gateshead's Rankine flattened Pearson who retaliated. A scuffle took place. Both players were booked. The resultant free-kick led to a chase up field but Brown shot wide. So it was Town 0, Gateshead 1 at half-time.
Gateshead were tactically superior. Town insisted on playing up the middle as if there was an identified weakness. Once or twice there was confusion in the Gateshead defence but they were always getting to the ball first and playing the offside trap well. Town looked tense and even desperate, and were not ready when the counter attack came. Gateshead were well prepared and packed their midfield. Town's play lacked fluidity and wasn't helped by a pedantic referee who unlike most at this level wasn't prepared to tolerate tackles.
The second half started in the same vein, as Town attacked but were unable to find each other. Arnold tried to cut inside towards the middle but found a packed defence. John-Lewis was then foiled and Pearson out in a weak header. On 52 minutes Disley made a diagonal run and was chopped down, resulting in a booking for the Gateshead player. A short free-kick was taken from 30 yards out but Arnold's cross was too high for John-Lewis. Town were looking to be short of ideas but on 53 minutes Magnay found Mackreth and went on the overlap on the right, drawing out the Gateshead defender. Mackreth saw the gap and cut inside. In spite of striking the ball with his supposedly weaker foot, Mackreth's adventurous shot from 25 yards was sublime and flew into the top left corner. Town 1, Gateshead 1. The players and the crowd were uplifted. Town went on the rampage. Mackreth laid the ball off to Magnay but Palmer headed over from the resultant cross. On 59 minutes John-Lewis had a shot blocked, then Arnold put in a weak effort from distance. Great work to foil a Gateshead attack led to an attack from the half way line on 61 minutes. Disley ghosted through the defence and set up John-Lewis who skied his shot. This was a good chance. John-Lewis's next effort was on target after a Mackreth shot. It was all Town at this stage. On 67 minutes Brown swivelled and ran clear but instead of working into the box, misplaced his pass to Mackreth. Robertson then had a shot from the edge of the box but the defender put him off at the last second and the Gateshead goalkeeper saved it easily. Gateshead had a rare attack on 72 minutes, when the referee awarded a free-kick from 35 yards after a Gateshead player ran into two Town defenders. A simple pass forward was taken Town's players were regrouping. The ball found the unmarked St Luce who fired a shot from inside the box, which McKeown was unable to keep out. Town 1, Gateshead 2. This was completely against the run of play but as happened against Eastleigh two weeks earlier, Town's defence were guilty of a lack of concentration. Town almost responded immediately as Palmer had a chance close to goal but the goalkeeper picked up the ball after a scramble. On 78 minutes, Jolley and Pittman replaced Arnold and John-Lewis. Change was needed as Gateshead were packing their defence and stopping the flow, assisted still by a referee who seemed to think the object of the game was to award free-kicks. Town won a corner on 80 minutes but Brown crossed to an unchallenged goalkeeper. This pattern continued as Town continued to send in ineffective crosses and encounter a resolute defence. Gateshead had a couple of chances, first when Rodman just missed after cutting across and beating McKeown, then Rankine sent a speculative shot way over from 35 yards out. But it was Town who pressed. It appeared that Gateshead had taken the wind out of Town's sails as Town worked forward but to no avail. Chapell replaced Pearson in an attacking move on 87 minutes. Palmer had a chance from close range but with his back to goal had no chance. Crosses poured in to Gateshead's goalkeeper. Town were floundering. On 90 minutes Gateshead's Gjokaj kicked Magnay and received a second yellow card. With eleven against ten, Town pressed forward but Jolley's cross fell once again into the goalkeeper's arms. Town continued to try and on 93 minutes Mackreth ran up the right and sent in a high cross to the advancing Town hordes. The cross found Disley whose perfect header from the left edge of the box looped into the top right corner. Town 2, Gateshead 2. Before the restart, Gateshead's Kanda went down clutching his face, claiming to be pushed by Nsiala who was angry at the accusation. The referee took no action and the game kicked off. But there was now only time for a speculative Gateshead shot from the half way line, before the final whistle blew. It ended: Town 2, Gateshead 2.
This result did neither side any good. Town are further away from automatic promotion while the prospect of the play-offs seems to have eluded Gateshead. Gateshead went about this business professionally and a times cynically, but they scored two good goals and had the tactical edge. Town tried hard but seemed nervous. There were far too many misplaced passes and crosses. The finishing was poor. This is all cause for concern for what seems now to be likely participation in the play-offs. At least a combination of endeavour and individual brilliance saved the day. Work is needed on the training ground to get our players and working together so that we are not the nearly men this year.
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