In a game that wouldn’t decide who would win the league title, but was, along with West Auckland’s visit to North Shields, going to be a pivotal day in deciding the destination of the trophy, Marske manager Carl Jarrett opted for the formation that worked so well at North Shields the previous month. The 4-3-3 formation saw a central midfield trio of Craig Gott, Glen Butterworth and Austin Johnston with Reece Kelly and Josh Macdonald supporting Jamie Owens up front. At the back both David Hillerby and Adam Wheatley, rested in mdweek returned to the team with Stephen Gibson and Darren Hollingsworth dropping to a strong looking bench that also contained Sam Garvie, Jonathan Wright and Danny Brunskill.
Shildon were missing a number of players including influential skipper Mark Hudson, Liam Atkin, Darren Richardson and Adam Rundle, but could still name a strong, vastly experienced team that included Paul Connor, a veteran of over 350 league appearances.
In the 2nd minute a cross from Macdonald, following a raking cross field pass from Butterworth, just evaded Owens in the penalty area but other than that the first 10 minutes saw a large part of the game played in the middle third of the pitch as both teams sought to seek out the other’s weaknesses. Almost out of the blue it was the home side who took the lead in the 11th minute when an excellent, deep cross from Ben Wood was met by the head of Billy Gruelich-Smith who beat Robert Dean despite the keeper getting a hand to the ball he was unable to keep it out of the net. Marske showed the character that they have demonstrated in spades this season and equalised 4 minutes later. A corner from Macdonald was pushed away by Kyle Hayes and was met by Tom Bott who somehow saw his shot find its way through a crowd of players; Paul Connor was on hand to clear the ball but was stood over the goal-line and the assistant referee immediately signalled that the ball had crossed the line and Marske were level. On 21 minutes, referee McDonough harshly adjudged that Bott had fouled Connor despite the Shildon striker appearing to back into the Marske defender, an occurrence that would become a theme throughout the game. Lee Chapman stepped up to take the free kick but his effort sailed over the bar. From the ensuing goal kick, Owens did superbly to flick the ball on to Macdonald who raced away from the home defence but his shot with his unfavoured left foot was well saved by the feet of Hayes. On 25 minutes an effort from Micky Rae was blocked by a combination of David Hillerby and Dean though it appeared that the assistant referee missed a blatant handball right in front of him in the build-up. Just a minute later, the referee made another poor decision when Kelly won the ball from James Harwood but a free kick was awarded just outside the box. Chapman stepped up again and this time hit the target with Dean doing well to save as Gott tried to head clear and came across the keeper’s eye-line. The next effort on target came from Marske when Shildon could only clear a Macdonald corner as far as Butterworth who swung the ball to the back post but Johnston’s header from 12 yards was easily gathered by Hayes. The home side were forced into a change moments later when Rae was unable to continue and was replaced by former Newcastle United junior Mark Doninger. With half time approaching Chapman became the first player to be booked for bringing down Macdonald 5 yards outside of the box, adjacent to the 18 yard line. Gott stepped up to take the free kick but his delivery was unusually poor and Shildon cleared with ease. On the stroke of half time a shot from Connor was superbly blocked by Johnston but after a tight first half the teams entered the dressing room all square.
Half Time: Shildon 1 Marske 1
The first opportunity of the second half fell to Marske when Owens collected a short throw in from Liam O’Sullivan, turned superbly but Hayes was equal to his shot and saved well. Marske suffered a major blow on 51 minutes when O’Sullivan was injured and unable to continue and limped off to be replaced by centre half Hollingsworth who had to slot in at left back. On 53 minutes a header from Gruelich-Smith was easily collected by Dean before Marske were forced into another change when Brunskill replaced Owens who had injured his leg. As the game approached the hour mark Shildon were inches from re-taking the lead when a header at the back post from Connor following a deep cross was hooked just wide by Wood. The home side were starting to up the ante pushing Marske back and dominating possession. On 63 minutes Dean was called into action when Wood exploited a huge gap in the Marske midfield and skipped past Wheatley but the Marske keeper saved well. At the other end Hayes showed what a good keeper he is by diving full length to push away a well hit, low shot from 25 yards from Gott which came from neat midfield play involving Macdonald, a dummy from Butterworth, Gott and Kelly. After a spell of Marske pressure it was the home side who started to push Marske back though excellent defending from the Marske back four and midfield prevented Dean being tested. With 16 minutes left, Marske made their last change with Macdonald replaced by former Shildon player Garvie. On 78 minutes Dean proved that whatever Hayes could do he could at least match, making arguably a better save to push away a bullet header from Gruelich-Smith. Shildon had another chance 3 minutes later when Doninger should have done better volleying wide a cross from Harwood from 8 yards under no pressure. A minute later it was Marske who came close to taking the lead when Garvie set up Butterworth who saw his shot from the edge of the box deflected agonisingly wide. The referee was the only person in the ground who didn’t see the deflection and inexplicably awarded a goal kick. Butterworth then tried his luck from distance following a Gott interception but his effort sailed harmlessly over the bar as it was the away side who looked to finish the game the stronger. On 86 minutes a shot from Butterworth was well defended by the home side and was deflected for a corner which came to nothing. With the game entering the 90th minute the man in the middle took centre stage awarding Shildon a penalty for handball after Wheatley tried to block a shot with his chest but it appeared to hit his arm which was down by his side. Referee McDonough thought about it for a few seconds and then pointed to the spot. Marske were unhappy with the award of a free kick to Shildon just before the penalty award when Hillerby and Connor came together, the Shildon striker showing his experience to win a free kick. Wheatley was booked by the referee and in the absence of Hudson, Lee Paul Scroggins stepped up and sent Dean the wrong way to give the home side the lead. With the game in injury time Shildon replaced Connor with Marc Ellison as Marske attempted to get back into the game with just minutes remaining. Garvie was fouled on the right touchline and Butterworth’s delivery was well defended by the Shildon backline. In the 5th minute of injury time, the referee missed a clear foul on Garvie by Darren Moore which led to a mass brawl which involved all 22 players with pushing and shoving that seemed to centre on Johnston and Moore but involved a number of other players. The referee pulled over Johnston and Moore but seemed unsure of what had happened and after lecturing them for nearly a minute decided to take no action against any player in what was an unseemly end to an enthralling game.
Full Time: Shildon 2 Marske 1
Shildon: Hayes, Harwood, Chapman, Scroggins, Craddock, Moore, Gruelich-Smith, Hodgson, Connor (Taylor), Wood, Rae (Doninger)
Subs (not used): Ellison, Emms, Brackstone
Marske: Dean, Hillerby, O’Sullivan (Hollingsworth), Johnston, Bott, Wheatley, Macdonald (Garvie), Gott, Butterworth, Owens (Brunskill), Kelly
Subs (not used): Gibson, Wright
This was a fantastic advert for Northern League football between two fully committed sides, both of whom tried to play football. Unfortunately, it was slightly overshadowed by a referee who upset both sides. Shildon probably just edged the game on possession and will argue that they deserved to win. From a Marske point of view, the Seasiders defended superbly and will argue that they deserved a share of the spoils, only to be cruelly denied by a last minute penalty. For the home side, Billy Gruelich-Smith was outstanding on the wing, scoring and being denied a second goal by a fantastic save by Robert Dean. Ben Wood also had an excellent game and was a constant thorn in the side of the Marske defence. For Marske, Butterworth and Gott excelled in midfield and Hillerby had an excellent game at right back, always looking to support Macdonald on the right. Having seen all of the top teams in the division it is clear that the standard is very high with very little between the top 6 teams. However, Shildon are the best team I’ve seen and whoever finishes above them is highly likely to win the league. One thing is for certain, the next 2 months are going to be very entertaining.