Derby matches often fall into one of two categories: dour draw or end-to-end entertainment. Fortunately for the near-400 spectators who paid in to witness this encounter, it turned out to be one of the latter.
Shildon travelled the short distance to Heritage Park on the back of a successful first Friday night football (successful in the result at least, if not in the financial experiment – but it’s early days for that yet) and looked to top off a long weekend of games with a Monday night win to continue their climb toward the top end of the table.
The signs were positive even before kick off as an almost full strength squad warmed up on the Two Blues turf. With Paul Connor back to full fitness and Lee Scroggins adding brawn to the midfield, the side had the combination of grit, skill and balance that the fans have been looking forward to seeing since the beginning of the season.
In typical derby fashion the game ebbed and flowed in the opening quarter and while both sides probed, neither created an opportunity of note until Ben Wood was released by an incisive Sam Garvie pass. Howarth in the Bishop goal did well to quickly close the angle and force the striker to slide the ball wide of the upright.
It was a sign of what was to come. The final ball was now slicing through the Two Blues defence with regularity and in the 22nd minute, Paul Connor’s razor sharp reverse ball found Garvie racing through on goal. The forward keep his cool to sweep the ball past Howarth and put the Railwaymen into a deserved lead.
Shildon had continued where they left off against Bedlington the previous Friday, but rather than keep their foot on the neck of their opponent, they eased off and allowed the home side into the game. It seemed as if they were content that, having created a number of chances as well as taking the lead, the game was already in their grasp. But they would soon be taught the harsh lesson that no games are a gimme at this level.
Bishop pressed forward and their hard work was rewarded just after the half hour when a through ball found Dean Douglas bearing down on goal. Lewis Graham rushed from his line but succeeded only in toppling the forward and conceding a penalty.
Shildon hearts were in mouths as the home side appealed for a red while the visitors pointed out that a number of defenders were between the incident and the goal line. The referee allowed himself pause for thought before brandishing a yellow card. It was a decision Graham and the Shildon fans would prove grateful for in the game’s closing moments.
In the meantime, Kieran Moncur made no mistake from the spot, firing an unstoppable shot high and wide for the equaliser.
Bishop had stolen the initiative and the momentum, and while Shildon struggled to shift back up a gear, the home side poured forward relentlessly. It took until the stroke of half time for their energy to reap further reward. Another quick break down the left was followed by a floating cross to the back post, where Daniel Brunskill need only nod at the ball from under the bar to guide the home side into a merited lead at the break.
A goal immediately before the interval is one of those often considered advantageous to the scoring side, but one couldn’t help but wonder whether, on this occasion, it may have had less than the desired effect, adding as it must have a sense of urgency and focus to the half time talk in the visitors’ dressing room.
It certainly seemed so as Shildon took control of the game in the second half. The scoreline could have unsettled the Railwaymen, but rather than attempt to force the game, the side showed a mature patience that might be expected of a group that now contains several highly experienced individuals.
Before long, another of those important times to score arrived, duly accompanied by the goal that drew the sides level.
Just five minutes after the restart, Shildon won a throw midway in the opposing half. It was a moment tinged with some controversy as Mark Wood collapsed to the floor clutching his ankle after a challenge by Scroggins. The linesman could easily have signalled for the foul but instead allowed Shildon the throw. The ball found its way across to Connor, whose glancing header deflected into the path of the other Wood – Ben – who fired home from 12 yards past a helpless Howarth. The injured Wood – Mark – could only berate the linesman as Ben celebrated gleefully alongside the lame defender.
The goal knocked the wind from the home side’s gusto and like the proverbial boiling of a frog, the visitors steadily raised the temperature, pressing almost inexorably towards the home goal. Although it only seemed a matter of time before Shildon would regain the lead, it took until the 78th minute before the inevitable arrived.
The always busy, always tricky Sam Garvie collected the ball on the left wing before cutting inside and feeding Ben Wood who, with what is becoming a trademark pass with the outside of his boot, moved the ball across to the opposite wing. In a microcosm of the patience with which Shildon played the ball throughout the second half, there followed half a dozen focussed passes before Mark Hudson fed Paul Connor on the edge of the box.
The tall striker is proving unplayable with his back to goal and it is imperative that Shildon keep this vital player fit throughout the season. The ball sticks to his boots and his close control, vision and speed of thought allow him to manipulate it as he sees fit. On this occasion, rather than lay it off, he made the space to turn and fire a low, left-footed shot out of the reach and inside the left hand post of the despairing keeper.
Even as the sides left the field at the interval, there was a hint that the game was not yet up for Shildon and this excellent comeback will surely signal to the squad and the rest of the league that, excepting some early season hiccups, this is a team capable of reaching great heights this season. The watchword, as ever, is injury-free.
The final word in this match went to the vocal Lewis Graham in the Shildon goal. The side which had performed so coolly and patiently under the pressure of a half-time deficit, were afflicted by a mild case of the jitters in the dying moments of the game. As they attempted to see the match out they conceded possession and, with the clock running down, a free kick in a dangerous area when the diminutive Douglas was once again flattened – this time just outside the 18 yard box.
The cross was headed powerfully towards goal, but there was Graham – a young keeper who is proving himself as much of a game winner as the goalscorers up the other end of the field – launching himself to palm the ball to safety. He was called on one more time to block a goalbound effort before the referee brought relief to the fans and all three points – for the third derby in a row between the sides – to the reinvigorated Railwaymen.