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Anthony Gardner's stoppage time penalty earns Witton Albion maximum points against Blyth Spartans
Witton Albion striker Shaun Tuck was a scorer on his debut against Blyth Spartans. Picture: Matt Sayle Photography.
Evo-Stik NPL Premier Division
Witton Albion 2 Blyth Spartans 1
WITTON were back in the Premier Division after three years away but wasted no time making themselves at home again.
There was a dash of drama too, for Anthony Gardner’s emphatic final kick from the penalty spot sent Spartans to a defeat they likely felt had been avoided.
After sending three shots against the woodwork and calling on the visitors’ goalkeeper to save smartly more than once in the second half, Albion can argue otherwise.
That is not to say this match was a monologue.
Blyth’s coherence was clearer in the first half while Witton were strangely subdued, at times nervous, and perhaps also surprised by a side sent out with only four survivors from the team that started their final league match last season.
That said, it was Gardner’s scooped shot that hit an upright when custodian Conor Grant gave him a glimpse of goal in the early stages.
Seconds later, Witton debutant Shaun Tuck speared in an opening goal.
Drifting inside from the right touchline, his low shot had stealth and speed enough to reach the bottom corner before Grant mustered a reaction.
Albion’s advantage was fleeting though.
The visitors restored parity four minutes later, Robbie Dale reaching a goals landmark for Blyth when he clipped in a cute finish off a post after reaching first Craig Farrell’s assist.
Arriving before Matt Cooper, his accuracy from an acute angle was flawless to take his tally to a century.
Spartans should have led soon afterwards when newcomer Phil Airey found the net after Steve Connors’ heavy touch had gifted him a shooting chance.
A linesman’s flag – erroneously according to Witton boss Brian Pritchard afterwards – ended early his celebration.
When Cooper stretched fully to divert Airey’s next attempt to safety, Spartans looked more likely scorers.
Witton were not without attacking intent though; Josh Hancock’s burst from halfway line sapped strength he needed when finishing feebly, then Anthony Sheehan’s speculative shot from distance clipped the crossbar.
They proved pointers for a second half that belonged to the hosts.
Hancock’s pass into space invited Mathew Wood to raid from the left soon after the restart, but Ashley Stott’s connection with his cross was too weak to cause concern for Grant.
Blyth’s net-minder was brilliant to block Stott’s instinctive effort at close range on 55 minutes, referee David O’Rourke doing him a disservice by awarding a goal kick.
Witton, rediscovering a rhythm that swept aside sides at a lower level last term, were insistent.
Tuck spotted an opening, hammering a shot so hard against a post that it squirted across the goalmouth before Grant had hit the turf.
But Dale delivered a warning at the other end when his volley veered to safety via Cooper’s palm with time running out.
Ben Harrison’s header scraped the bar, then Grant parried Danny Andrews’ free kick as Witton refused to relent.
Reward arrived three minutes into stoppage time, Sam Hodgson’s trip sending Gardner sprawling inside the penalty area.
The defender’s next touch was a winning one.
Witton (4-4-2) Cooper (GK), Gardner, Harrison, Booth, Wood, Andrews, Sheehan, Connors (Fallon 45), Hancock (Glover 87) Stott (Buchan 84), Tuck. Subs not used Schofield, Woolley. Goals Tuck 10, Gardner 90 (+3) (penalty). Booked Fallon (foul).
Blyth Spartans (4-4-2) Grant (GK), Utterson, Buchanan, Jones, Kendrick, Mason (King 37), Hodgson, Berj, Dale (Vipond 87), Farrell, Airey (Blandford 65). Subs not used Mellish, Hunter. Goal Dale 14.
Referee David O’Rourke (Liverpool)