The Stuart Elliott era at Newcastle Benfield got off to a winning start, whereby The Lions completed their first league success of 2019 in a dreadfully disappointing game at Woodhorn Lane that was ruined as a spectacle by the rank ill-discipline of the hosts.
Last season, Benfield came away with a 2-0 win on a sunny April afternoon, when Scott McCarthy scored goal of the season and Sunderland were relegated after losing 2-1 at home to Burton Albion.
This season, neither the benched McCarthy nor Sunderland, who had rescued a heroic point against the mighty Accrington Stanley the night before, were playing, as Elliott relied on the same starting XI who had pummelled Chester le Street in the League Cup on the Tuesday prior.
It would be difficult to speculate whether a limited, one-dimensional Ashington side would have caused Benfield more problems than they did if they hadn’t been reduced to 9 men just after the half hour, but the facts are that despite the tireless running of impressive Colliers debutant target man Brandon Morrison, the home team did not have a single effort on target in the whole 90 minutes.
If Andy Grainger had a quiet afternoon, the opposite was true of Colliers keeper Conor Grant who, as ever, had a blinding game. Grant was the sole reason Ashington didn’t concede a bagful at Sam Smith’s earlier in the season and he produced half a dozen outstanding saves in this game to keep the score down. His first involvement was on 8 minutes, when he smothered Dale Pearson’s effort after the tall striker collected a bouncing ball that the Ashington defence had missed. Pearson and then Paul Brayson both went close with efforts that whistled past the upright in the next couple of minutes, before Grant distinguished himself with a superb save from Brayson who cut through the middle. Rhys Evans went close with a long-range effort that dipped just over, before the game turned in a 5-minute spell.
Benfield had clearly been on top from the off and their cause was made appreciably easier by the petulance of full-back Jake Turnbull who received a red card for a wild attempt at a kick on former collier Pearson, long after the ball had gone. Soon after another Turnbull made his mark on the game, albeit in a much more constructive way. Jake Orrell’s corner from the right was met powerfully by Lions skipper Mark Turnbull, only for Grant to make a blinding save. However, the Benfield centre back reacted to prod the rebound home and scored what was proved to be the winner on 32 minutes. Instead of channelling their frustration positively, Ashington pressed the self-destruct button immediately from the restart when former Benfield player, and hero of our title-winning season in 2008/2009, Paul Antony was dismissed for a vicious elbow right in the face of Dale Pearson. A large percentage of the home crowd reacted somewhat negatively to this decision, berating referee Mark Ryan, but from where I was sat, it was the only possible decision. While the supporters were in a state of frenzied anger, the home side tried to regroup. Twice Jake Orrell fizzed efforts just wide of the post, before Grant intervened yet again with another excellent save from Pearson.
Benfield began the second period on the front foot and Rhys Evans twice almost doubled the away team’s advantage; firstly, he flashed a drive just wide and secondly, he just failed to get enough power onto a back-post header to seriously trouble Grant. Sadly, the game declined as a contest thereafter, with sluggish play almost entirely in the Ashington half, where Benfield carved out and missed a succession of half chances, where weak shooting or a woeful final pass saw the danger disappear. Grant was still on his mettle, denying Pearson and then Turnbull in quick succession.
Dean Holmes was denied by a Grant’s best save of the match on 85 minutes, before Ashington broke to win a couple of late corners but didn’t threaten the Benfield goal. The last action of the game saw Grant tip a Brayson effort round the post, before the final whistle sounded on Benfield’s fourth successive victory at Woodhorn Lane.
Match Report Ian Cusack
Photos/website Steve Boyle