DURHAM CITY 1 WHITLEY BAY 3
The most dramatic and exciting Northern League season for many years reached its climax on Saturday and it was Whitley Bay who emerged as champions. They went into their last game of the season away to Durham City knowing that only a victory would be good enough and even then they would be pipped at the post if Sunderland Nissan won their game at home to Billingham Synthonia.
Manager Ian Chandler’s advice to players and fans to relax and enjoy the day paid off as Whitley looked much less nervous than in their previous three games.
The early stages on Durham’s artificial surface produced little excitement and it was 17 minutes into the game when Tommy English threatened the Bay goal only for Darren Timmons to knock the ball behind for a corner. A period of pressure from the home side produced little danger and when Whitley broke away, Lee Kerr’s shot was headed away by Leon Ryan after a surging run by Andy Dugdale. Whitley were coming more into the game now and Wayne Phillips had too much pace for his marker and fired in a low shot that hit the near post and went out for a goal kick.
After 22 minutes Whitley fans were celebrating when news came through that rivals Nissan had gone a goal down. Three minutes later things got even better when Whitley took the lead. Walton’s corner was headed goalwards by David Coulson and was cleared only as far as Andy Dugdale, some 20 yards from goal, who drove a tremendous low shot into the corner of the net to send the Bay fans wild with delight. At this stage, Whitley were heading for the title but there was still more than an hour to go.
Whitley were having the better of things and were adapting well to the conditions. Indeed, the smooth playing surface suited their passing game and when Robbie Livermore cut in from the left of midfield, he played the ball wide to Damon Robson whose low shot brought a good save from City keeper James Winter. Lee Kerr then set off on one of his typical long mazy runs and his shot from 20 yards was cut out by the foot of Calvin Smith.
With no further score in either game, it was Whitley who left the field at half time with their confidence high.
However, the title race took another twist within seven minutes of the restart. Firstly, Nissan equalised in their game and almost immediately, Durham scored in controversial circumstances when a shot from former Bay player Craig Price appeared to hit the base of a post before rebounding across the face of goal and just past the other post. The linesman signalled a goal but Bay keeper Terry Burke was convinced that the ball had not crossed the line and the referee was surrounded by players. The goal was allowed to stand and at this point of the game, it was Billingham Town, who had completed their fixtures on Wednesday evening, who were heading for the title.
If the tension was getting to the fans, it was not being transmitted to the players and just past the hour Whitley regained their lead when Mark Sheeran played a ball from the left into the path of Kevin Walton who was unmarked inside the penalty area. Perhaps fittingly on his final appearance before retirement, Walton fired the ball past Winter for a crucial goal that saw Whitley back in pole position and heading for the championship. With 16 minutes left, Burke made a good save from English’s header then seconds later at the other end, Phillips tested Winter with a shot that was too hot for him to hold but the ball was scrambled clear just as Kerr was about to pounce on the loose ball.
Ten minutes from time, Walton, a superb servant to Whitley Bay and for ever remembered as man of the match in the FA Vase final five years ago, was replaced by Woodhouse and he received a tremendous ovation from the large contingent of Bay fans as he left the field for the last time.
Within a minute, the visiting supporters were celebrating again when Mark Sheeran fired home a third goal to put Whitley into a comfortable 3-1 lead. Durham refused to give up however, and a great shot across goal by Smith brought a quite superb save by Burke diving full length and in mid air to cling on to the ball with both hands. With time running out, a Mexican wave style cheer circulated around the ground as news arrived that Nissan were losing 2-1. The players quickly realised why the fans were celebrating and the closing moments of the game were played out with Whitley confidently retaining possession. A late shot from the ever dangerous Phillips rattled the post and after four minutes of stoppage time, the referee blew the final whistle.
Whitley players and fans gathered on the pitch and they erupted into celebration when it was confirmed that Nissan had lost and that Whitley were therefore Northern League champions for the first time in 41 years.
WHITLEY BAY Burke, Dugdale, Phillips, Timmons, Coulson, Rowe, Livermore(Cook 63mins), Robson, Sheeran(Minto 90mins), Walton(Woodhouse 80mins), Kerr
In the end Whitley had won the title only on goal difference from Billingham Town, the two sides both finishing on 92 points, while Nissan ended two points behind in third place. Whitley, the only team in the league to top 100 goals, had a goal difference eight better than their Teesside rivals.
Delighted manager Ian Chandler, paid tribute not only to the team but to the fans and officials at the club for their tremendous support throughout the season.