Leek Town snatched a point from the jaws of defeat when talismanic striker Tim Grice levelled deep into added time to put the finishing touch to what had been a pulsating local derby.
When Jason Law opened the scoring, the Blues could have been forgiven for thinking that they were on their way to a comfortable victory but Castle forced their way into the game and equalised through Taylor Attrell.
A red card for Olly Harrison turned the game completely on its head and Newcastle turned the game around when Harvey Howell scored to give the home side the lead. But the Blues found the resilience to take the game to their hosts and take a share of the spoils through that late late leveller.
The visitors took the lead as early as the 10th minute. Newcastle’s defenders coped with the initial threat posed by a deep cross from Rob Stevenson but the ball was recycled by Chris Baker and he gave Harry Goode the chance to whip in a right-footed cross. The unchallenged Law was able to head home from eight yards.
The opener raised the visitors’ spirits and Castle were left grateful to keeper Raajan Gill that the game was not swiftly taken away from them. Gill was on top form as he denied Baker, Stevenson and James Kirby in quick succession.
The home side gradually rode out the storm and took the game to the visitors with some pacy counter-attacking and slick interplay. Leek had a particular problem defending the long throws from Nathan Morley and it was through this ploy that Newcastle tied the match five minutes before the break.
The Blues failed to cope with a throw into the heart of the penalty area and when the ball was only half-cleared to the edge of the area Attrell was able to hit a low left-footer through the crowd of players to beat Danny Roberts.
Worse was to come just before the break when Ryan McLean was put clear only to be upended by Harrison just outside the area. It was of little surprise that a red card was immediately brandished to reduce the Blues to a ten-man outfit.
It took just seven minutes after the restart for Castle to make their advantage pay. Goode lost the ball on the halfway line and, with Leek not making the transition from attack to defence quickly enough, Newcastle were able to work the ball to Howell who swept the ball home.
Leek almost made an immediate response when Stevenson outpaced his markers only to roll the ball wide of the target. That was almost the last chance for the visitors as Castle managed the game well. But there was still time for the game’s dramatic finale.
With the five minutes of added time already gone Adam Porter rode a strong challenge from Sam Bradbury to feed Louis Keenan on the left. A cross was fired in with pace and Leek’s get-out-of-jail card – substitute Grice- forced himself through the pack to power a header past Gill.
Only time will tell if this was a point gained or two lost for Leek but one thing is certain. This was a great advert for North Staffordshire football.
Following the match Leek Manager Neil Baker spoke exclusively to Moorlands Radio. He said “For the first twenty minutes I didn’t think there was any difference between this week and last week. We got the first goal and got into some great attacking positions but failed to deliver too often. Their goalkeeper made a couple of good saves.
We talked about complacency and I didn’t see any of that. I had said that Newcastle would play better and they did and our inability to defend the long throw cost us. I was disappointed with that. But we weren’t under pressure from anything else I don’t think.
The sending-off came and I wanted to have a go. I didn’t want to just try and soak it up in the second half so I kept two forwards and three in midfield. We did well at first but they got on top and the changes in personnel and formation brought life into us. I thought in the end we deserved a draw.”
Regarding the red card, Baker added “Did Harrison make the right choice? No. He was up against a quick lad and if he had just got his body in there and almost blocked the run, he would have got away with it. But he let the lad get outside of him and he fouled him. If you do that and you are the last man then you are going to get a red card. I had already told Jessy Bavanganga to get warmed up because I knew what was coming.”