By Brian Bennett
A brilliant second half performance by Ashington saw them book a play off place and secure a second from top finish in their Ebac Northern League first division season after a tense and nervy 1-1 draw against Bishop Auckland at the AJS Joinery Stadium.
At this stage, the Colliers do not know who they will face this Saturday – only that the tie will be away – with a decision expected to be communicated to them by the Football Association on Wednesday.
In a prestigious game where the hosts had to win – whilst a draw would be enough for the Colliers – the Wansbeck outfit trailed to a disputed penalty in the first half but got back on terms on the hour after Andrew Cartwright had converted a spot kick.
However on a day where the result was the be all and end all, Ian Skinner’s outfit were the better footballing side in the second period and indeed would have been worthy winners had they added to their tally.
They missed opportunities – but as they valiantly tried to nudge ahead, were also thwarted by Bishops ‘keeper Ryan Catterick who pulled off four top drawer saves.
Heavy and incessant overnight rain had cast a doubt over the fixture but excellent work by the ground staff ensured that the much anticipated clash got the thumbs up from referee Kieran Graham.
Before kick-off, the players, officials and supporters observed a minute’s silence in memory of Bishops stalwart Dick Longstaff.
When the action started, the first incident of note saw home striker Louis Johnson replaced by Wayne Whitfield after he pulled up with a knee injury.
In the eighth minute, the two blues won a corner on the right and when Craig Gott found Dale Hopson on the edge of the box, he fired off target.
Ashington responded immediately with Cartwright slipping the ball through for Scott Heslop but his cross was intercepted then a free kick by Craig Spooner from 25 yards flew over the bar.
Just over the half way point, Paul Robinson and Heslop combined to set up Spooner who turned but saw his shot go wide.
Then on the half hour came a moment of controversy when Robbie Dale appeared to pull out of a challenge on Dean Thexton inside the area but the forward went to ground and the referee pointed to the spot.
Gott sent Karl Dryden the wrong way from the resultant penalty and to make matters worse, Cartwright spoke out of turn and was sent to the sin bin for ten minutes.
Robinson looked to be in a promising position inside the area but his shot was blocked then just before the break, Dane Burlace pulled the ball back where Marcus Giles lashed over.
The Colliers had 45 minutes left to address the deficit – and they were straight out of the blocks from the first whistle of the second period.
Ryan McKinnon replaced the injured Dale and two minutes in, Ashington carved out a glorious chance.
A ball down the line by Robinson found Jordan Summerly and from his cross Harmison directed a header straight at Catterick who fisted the ball away.
Robinson and Spooner exchanged a one-two which ended with the former’s shot being deflected wide then a pass by McKinnon found Spooner who fed Heslop but from his cross, Harmison dragged his shot wide from 12 yards.
Ben Sampson cleared from the danger area following a Bishops corner then Heslop had a deflected effort which spun into Catterick’s arms.
Just past the hour mark, Ashington got the equaliser they had been searching for.
Darren Lough’s ball into the area saw Heslop sent sprawling to the ground by a defender’s challenge and the referee awarded another penalty with Cartwright stepping forward and sending Catterick in the opposite direction.
Ashington continued to dominate, playing some fine constructive football into the bargain. Five minutes later, Summerly fed Heslop whose dipping 25 yarder was superbly tipped onto the bar by Catterick.
Ashington went at full throttle as they tried for a second and with 20 minutes remaining, substitute Dan Maguire tried his luck from distance but the effort went straight down Catterick’s throat.
As the clock ticked down, supporters on both sides felt the tension but the visitors defended superbly and then in the 89th minute, it was Catterick again, diving low to his right who kept out a 30 yards free kick by Cartwright which was sneaking inside the post.
There was a blow for Ashington in stoppage time when defender Darren Lough sustained a facial injury and was replaced by Damen Mullen.
Then came the final whistle …… which saw Ashington deservedly clinch their place in the play off.