Can we play you every week? Or if not you exactly, then at least any other member of the top ten. Give Benfield an occasion and they’ll rise to it. You know how it goes, the bigger they come and all that. Shildon arrived on the back of an eight match winning run, and with games in hand might justifiably be regarded as title favourites, but like several others with lofty aspirations this season they found Sam Smith’s Park to be a graveyard for any such hubris. I guess it’s little consolation that this was a fine advert for the Northern League.
An impromptu winter break – this Wednesday assignment being their first fixture for two and a half weeks – might have freshened up the home side. They were quickly into their rhythm, anxious not to allow the Railwaymen to impose themselves. Riley had an early effort pushed aside by Hayes. A glance at the opposition team sheet revealed a formidably experienced defensive unit, but this was disrupted when Atkin was forced off in the opening quarter hour. Brayson sought to exploit any resulting uncertainty, turning Taylor’s cross netbound but finding the goalkeeper in the way again.
The right flank was proving productive territory, especially when Riley had the ball at his feet, but all too often there was an unnecessary extra touch. Gradually the visitors began to spray the passes, and the chances were becoming more numerous at the other end. A free kick slung into the box caused problems, dropping for Moore who connected well but Grainger saved. He then needed to be alert at his near post to prevent Wood from breaking the deadlock.
Several times Riley had been stopped in his tracks illegally, and when he tumbled under another challenge just inside the area the referee pointed to the spot. Brayson stepped up, but the crisp evening calm was broken by a hollow thud as the right hand upright bore the brunt of his strike, the fingertips of Hayes making a crucial contribution. It was a wonderful stop, though Brayson was undaunted. Three minutes later Chapim fed Riley who assisted as the goal machine cranked back into gear. Shildon knew they were in a battle.
There was renewed purpose to the men in red after the break. Their approach work promised more than it delivered however and it became a frustrating catalogue of hurried efforts and speculative attempts. Grainger was busy but made saves you would expect him to complete, the best possibly when he got an arm to Wood’s shot after Hodgson’s knock down. Indeed the keeper’s own wayward kicking often looked as though it might provide the best route back for Gary Forrest’s team, Wood again the agitated party as he redeemed a potentially damaging error.
Tobin was assertive at the back and it rarely felt uncomfortable. The languid Greulich-Smith searched for the right pass, Emms scuttled around industriously, yet it was Benfield, with Brayson stationed on the halfway line eager to take advantage of the turnovers, who created the clearer opportunities. Harwood, a player I remember fondly from his Gateshead days, had a torrid time. As Brayson broke and jinked past him, he left a leg hanging. It looked a trifle soft, down near to where the Shildon faithful had tethered their flags. The travelling support was vociferous in its reaction too, the assistant looking to have the decisive call as a second spot kick was awarded.
So who would win the battle of wills this time? Simple, Brayson stuck with the same side, Hayes crumpled the other way. He turned the tables again soon after though, as the two continued their thrilling personal duel. The Lions’ number nine robbed a dithering Harwood and powered towards goal, sending a shot arrowing towards the top corner. The former Whitley Bay and Spennymoor custodian threw himself airborne, stretching out to claw the ball over the crossbar. No hat-trick this time, despite Brayson having another go late on, Hayes was there to effect the block.
As time ticked away, Shildon won a disputed free kick on the right edge of the box. If they were to mount a grandstand comeback something special was needed. Emms looked confident but got horribly underneath it, and as the ball disappeared into the clear night sky so too did those last remaining hopes.
Shildon are a tidy outfit, with a squad containing little excess fat, and in an extraordinarily close race will have as good a chance as any of claiming that elusive crown for the first time since their glory days just before the war. Questions might legitimately be asked as to why Benfield are not up there in the mix with them. After shooting down another of the high-fliers, we left pondering that very conundrum once more.
Newcastle Benfield: Grainger, Turnbull, Hoganson, Slaughter, Tobin, Paterson, Riley, Chapim, Brayson, D.Taylor, Youldon (Scorgie) Subs Not Used: Cook, Leeson, Bowey, McAlindon
Shildon: Hayes, Harwood, Richardson, Hudson, Atkin (Craddock), Moore, Doninger (Emms), Hodgson, Rae (Connor), Wood, Greulich-Smith Subs Not Used: Chapman, J.Taylor