Town impress but play-off tie remains in the balance

Ross Hannah shoots as Gateshead players dive in front to block.

Image taken from the Grimsby Telegraph.

There was talk of nerves ahead of Grimsby Town’s Conference play-off first leg match against Gateshead at Blundell Park last night, and they were evident in the first 10 minutes when the visitors took the lead. But once they settled, the Mariners equalised through Craig Disley and went on to dominate a match they fully deserved to win.

Gateshead arrived as the form team of the play-off quartet, finishing a point and a place above the Mariners and racking up an impressive 12-game unbeaten run.

And in the opening 10 minutes the Heed looked every part of the team that had earned a reputation for playing good football under manager Gary Mills, who led York City to play-off success two years ago. Crisp, precise passing and intelligent running up front kept Town on the back foot, which induced a foul and a yellow card for Shaun Pearson before they crafted an opening goal their early play deserved.

At this point, the Mariners looked like they were in for a tough evening.

But then something happened. The players – whether instructed by manager Paul Hurst or not – began to press and, urged on by the crowd, forced Gateshead to rush and misplace their passes. Led by John-Lewis, who was outstanding all evening, the Mariners squeezed play further up the pitch and gave one of the most committed performances of the season.

They totally nullified what Gateshead had previously shown. Signs of their emerging dominance were reflected in Disley’s equaliser, which I didn’t see very well at all from my seat in the Pontoon. But the ball ended up in the net and it felt good to be back on level terms.

Looking back on the match in the cold light of day, and not having watched any highlights yet, it still seems as dominant a performance as I’d remembered. While Gateshead always looked neat and tidy in possession, and remained a threat on the break, they never drew a save from McKeown. Meanwhile, at the other end, Heed’s stopper Bartlett was called into action again and again to keep the scores level.

Maybe it’s an exaggeration to say it was one way traffic, but the match stats back the performance up – 55% possession against a side that likes to keep the ball; 17 shots and eight on target compared to the visitors’ solitary shot on target (which, of course, was the one that rolled into the net).

Tactically, Hurst won the battle of the managers, forcing Mills to make two relatively early substitutions. All over the park the Mariners were winning individual battles and basically stopped Gateshead from playing. Under pressure, they looked creaky at the back.

Throughout the season I’ve made plenty of cases for playing Cook, but last night was possibly the best example yet of why John-Lewis has been leading the line all season. He unsettled Heed’s back line and was a constant pest throughout. Neilson was a menace on the left and Rodman, when he got into his stride, gave the sort of performance that had fans out of their seats.

In the middle we had Disley and Kerr dictating play in the sort of fashion we’d hoped for at the start of the season. The two centre backs were composed under pressure and diligent in possession (especially second half) and Aswad Thomas’s romps forward and crossing were providing plenty of ‘moments’ in and around the box.

Make no mistake – this is a team. We’ve known it for a long time, we just haven’t seen it come together all that often, and that’s been a major part of the frustration. But last night it clicked – the only downside is that we didn’t get the second goal. But I don’t think any fan could leave thinking they weren’t entertained or convinced by the players’ efforts.

And what a fantastic atmosphere too – the fans were great, from start to finish. I’m sure they’ll be just as vociferous when they travel up to the Gateshead International Stadium. It’s a case of having to, what with that massive gap between the pitch and the supporters.

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