Following an impressive opening day brace of away wins for Newcastle Benfield at Sunderland RCA and Dunston UTS at title-favourites West Auckland Town, a large and expectant crowd gathered at Sam Smith’s Park for what turned out to be an absorbing rather than scintillating contest. One of the undoubted effects of Northern League Division 1 reducing from 22 clubs last season to 19 this year, is the number of crucial games between potential contenders for the league title. With approximately half a dozen teams, including this evening’s combatants, in with a realistic chance of topping the table next May, there is little margin for error and the intensely competitive nature of this fixture is a harbinger of what will unfold over the next 8 months. The disinterested neutral digesting the 0-0 result may wish to speculate that a game that ends without a goal scored has been a dull way to spend an evening; they would be wrong in that assumption. Undoubtedly this was not thrill a minute, end to end, total football, but neither was it a cautious, stultifying stalemate; thankfully catenaccio tactics are not in vogue at Step 6 just as yet.
For the first home game of the season, Benfield made one change to their starting XI, with Dylan McEvoy coming in for Joe Hailes who took his place on the bench, while Alex Nisbet replaced Josh Scott as another of the substitutes. The opening exchanges were distinctly cagey, with Benfield’s attempts at a short, passing game stifled by the tenacious interventions and tigerish tackling of a committed Dunston side. The away side sought a more direct route to goal but were comfortably held at arm’s length by further outstanding handling by the imperious Andrew Grainger and the aerial strength of Craig Scott and Joe Robson at the heart of the home defence. As a result, Dunston changed the emphasis of their attack and sought to get the ball wide and in behind the home full-back pairing of Rhys Evans and former Dunston man James MartinThis tactic almost paid off midway through the half when Liam Brooks cut inside and fired on target. Thankfully the reliable palms of Grainger deflected the ball to safety. From this, Benfield broke rapidly and a peach of a cross by Jake Orrell just eluded the on-rushing Brayson at the back post. The final chance of note came right at the end of the half when Rhys Evans delivered a superb ball to split the defence and allow Brayson a clear run on goal. He attempted to go around keeper Karl Dryden, but the Dunston man made a superbly timed intervention to sweep the ball away, with the whistle going a split second later for half time.
The second period followed the same tight pattern, though Benfield, as they had done at RCA in the previous game, began to get on top as time wore on. Just before the hour mark, Brayson was inches away from an opener, when his free kick clipped the top of the bar with Dryden beaten. Manager Mark Convery again rang the changes to try and find a way through the visiting defence; Jack Devlin, Scott McCarthy and Dale Pearson all came on to replace Dean Holmes, Dylan McEvoy and Jake Orrell. Pearson, as he had on Saturday, made an eye-catching contribution with his physical presence and determined running. On 74 minutes he swung in a perfect cross for Joe Robson to bullet a header at goal, only for Dryden to turn it behind at full stretch.
Paul Brayson also went close to opening the scoring, striking the cross bar from a free kick The nearest thing to a goal was the incredible melee on 84 minutes that saw Devlin, McCarthy, Brayson and seemingly every other Benfield outfield player denied by the inside of the post, Dryden’s acrobatics and the willingness of the Dunston defence to throw themselves at the loose ball to protect a point. This they did and a game that provided more and more entertainment as the night progressed ended with both sides claiming a point, to remain unbeaten and with back to back clean sheets in their opening fixtures.
Man of the Match: Craig Scott
Match report Ian Cusack
Photos Paul Mcfeeley
Website Steve Boyle