The incentive of having the local bragging rights is normally enough to motivate the two sides ahead of a derby match. But this one held extra importance with Newcastle trailing the poly league leaders by only 3 points, meaning a win would move them level on points and in with a serious shot at the title.
As a result, the atmosphere before the game was understandably tense. Frantic chatter reverberated around the Newcastle warm up as the players were constantly reminded of the need to be up for the fight. Captain Charlie Carr led the inspirational talks as the hosts prepared to face the poly’s strong first team outfit.
The pre-match consultations seemed to work and with the first real attack of the match Navraj Johal’s ball forward deflected into the path of Pete Reilly, who had time to finish into an empty net, after the poly keeper had been wrong-footed. Advantage Newcastle and, as it stood, the two teams were now level at the top.
"Frantic chatter reverberated around the Newcastle warm up as the players were constantly reminded of the need to be up for the fight"
Newcastle then suffered a serious setback, losing Rory Peplow to an ankle injury after the midfielder was struck by the ball from close-range. Peplow was sidelined for the remainder of the match, having only recently returned from a long lay-off. Ice from a well-placed Red Bull stand (other energy drinks are available) was applied in a make-shift ice pack and the hopes are that the long-suffering star’s injury wasn’t too serious.
The early deadlock-breaker did nothing to lessen the intensity of the match and the visitors re-grouped and replied with a series of attacks. Defender Will O’Brien slipped on the greasy surface gifting Northumbria a short corner, but captain Carr was on hand to flick away the resulting danger.
The visitors continued to trouble the Geordies, not least their number 14 whose pace and power in midfield was the focal point for most of their threats. A long driving run from the danger man created another attack on 14 minutes and he looked to be in when the umpires called play back for an earlier infringement, much to the frustration of the poly players. The officials would continue to play a large role as the afternoon wore on.
Uni keeper Tom Dodds then made his first contribution, on what would be a busy afternoon for the man between the sticks. Another Northumbria short corner created havoc, but Dodds was on hand to produce a great double save with his feet to deny the away side an equaliser.
"The early deadlock-breaker did nothing to lessen the intensity of the match and the visitors re-grouped and replied with a series of attacks"
Frustrated at not being able to break down the Newcastle defence, Northumbria began to lose their heads. A green card was shown to their number 7 for hitting the ball away and the league leaders were temporarily reduced to ten men.
Newcastle were almost able to capitalise. Clever link up play from Simon Jones, George Allison and Hugo Clark resulted in Archie Blanchard winning a short corner for his side. The poly keeper was forced into a great save with his right forearm to deny the hosts a second and the follow up was fired just wide.
Ill-discipline again restricted Northumbria’s chances of levelling, this time losing their number 11 to a yellow card. The full back appeared to be channelling his inner Gary Neville as he went sliding in on his opponent, meaning a lengthy 5-minute spell in the bin.
Buoyed on by the extra man once more, Newcastle’s Hugo Clark collected the ball in space in the left hand corner. Looking up and seeing limited options nearby, the forward sprayed a low-driven ball across the face of goal, nearly picking out the oncoming Allison at the far post.
Inspired by the calming figure of the experienced O’Brien at the back, Newcastle began to assert themselves with calm and collected spells of possession. O’Brien made a rare burst forward before picking out Patrick Venn who fired an equally dangerous cross from the left which managed to evade all attackers.
"Ill-discipline again restricted Northumbria’s chances of levelling, this time losing their number 11 to a yellow card"
The poly, eventually restored their full compliment, managed one last attack before the break. A short corner, awarded almost on the whistle, saw all ten outfield players line up on the edge of the box, but Dodds was again on hand to deny the equaliser and send the home side into half time with a narrow lead.
Sensing that the next goal might completely turn the match on its head, Northumbria came out for the second half with all guns blazing. Nathan Claris sloppily gifted possession back to the visitors and from the next short corner they were level, courtesy of another fortunate deflection.
The equaliser seemed to have an immediate effect on the mentality of the Newcastle players and heads dropped as Northumbria mounted continued attacks. The away side somehow managed to work a 4 on 3 scenario but luck was this time on Newcastle’s side, as the ball ricocheted harmlessly wide.
Against the run of play, Newcastle regained the lead and in some style. Forward Hugo Clark had the confidence to take on his man and won his side a short corner, out of nothing. From the resulting play, the hosts worked the ball to Clark, positioned on the by-line inside the area. Despite an impossibly tight angle, Clark managed to squeeze the ball past the poly keeper and into the roof of the net.
Almost straight from the restart, Northumbria went up the other end and tried to equalise, but the low shot across goal sailed wide of Dodds’ right hand post. In the build up to that chance, Newcastle’s Archie Blanchard suffered a nasty blow to the mouth and for precautionary reasons was taken away to A&E.
Blanchard’s treatment allowed the rest of the team to take a breather and in the immediate minutes after the injury, the game entered a bit of a lull. Both teams lost a player to the bin as the umpires tired of dissent, as the significance of the match threatened to boil over.
"Newcastle’s Archie Blanchard suffered a nasty blow to the mouth and for precautionary reasons was taken away to A&E"
With 7 minutes remaining a Uni counter attack provided a rare chance to settle the match. Pete Reilly was picked out in acres of space and rounded the keeper, but fired agonisingly wide of the open goal with a reverse shot. In the closing moments, O’Brien and the remainder of the bench screamed for calm and instructed his forwards to take the ball to the corner.
Having failed to do so, the poly mounted a final charge and, with the very last play of the match, bundled the ball into the back of the net after Dodds had come within inches of cutting out the attack. Heartbreak for Newcastle and the hurt was clear to see on the faces of the home players.
NUMHC President and 2’s defender Will O’Brien spoke after the game of his anguish. “It’s pretty gutting, I think we all felt we deserved to win that game and to lose it with the last hit is pretty tough to take.”
Despite the disappointment, O’Brien was full of praise for his hard-working players, “I think we can all be pretty proud, we got ourselves into a position where we were the better team. If you compare that to last season, they beat us 3-1 and the season before they beat us 7-0 so that shows the progression of the team and the club.”
The draw means Northumbria maintain their 3-point gap to Newcastle at the top of the league, but O’Brien is confident that the poly can be caught. “I they’ll definitely slip up and we’re pretty confident we can win the rest of our games including the return fixture which is the last game of the season.”