Pontefract Collieries followed an insipid weekend display against Grimsby Borough with an inspired one three days later as they overcame the loss of half a squad to win a terrific Baris NCE Division One game at Shirebrook Town, thanks to goals by Andy Catton and youngster Mark Simpson.
With no fewer than five central midfielders missing through injury and illness, joint managers Nick Handley and Duncan Bray were forced into radical thinking in their approach to the game. Their approach was to pack the team with strikers and then base their game-plan on tigerish defence. Despite the seeming contradiction, it worked a treat: despite allowing the hosts the bulk of possession, the team rarely looked threatened; by contrast, Ponte’s own counter-attacks were swift and dangerous. With so much pace in the side, it was a masterstroke.
The game was a cracker. Shirebrook laid out their credentials from the off, moving the ball around quickly and effectively, and creating an opening for right-back Jordan Lemon within the opening minutes. However, the talented full back pulled his left-footed effort wide of Sam Andrew’s upright. Ponte fired back, with Kingsley Wetherald – operating in an unfamiliar central midfield role in conjunction with fellow converted striker, Steve Lyon – fired over the bar from 25 yards, after some good work by Luke Durham and Liam Radford had created an opening.
With Shirebrook pressing, Ponte pounced on a misplaced pass. Gary Lumley read the trajectory of the ball to perfection, intercepting on the edge of his own box before striding forward purposefully. Lumley fired a diagonal ball into the path of young Mark Simpson, who turned it around the corner into the feet of his striker partner Radford, who then clipped a delightful ball between the centre-halves, freeing Simpson who drove forward before pulling the ball back into the path of Andy Catton, who had timed his run to perfection.
Catton struck a fierce first-time shot, which found the back of the net off the inside of the post.
As the hosts pressed for an equaliser, Lumley showed his defensive qualities to the full. The centre-half, who hardly missed a header all game and typified Ponte’s determination throughout, completed a superb block to prevent an equaliser from six yards out.
The stretched Colls resources were further depleted after 28 minutes when Catton was forced to leave the field with an injury sustained early in the game. It was a shame for Catton, who had played through the pain and discomfort for almost half an hour, putting in a magnificent, high energy performance, both when his team had the ball and when they were trying to retrieve it.
Such was the paucity of Ponte’s resources that, following the substitution, Duncan Bray cut a lonely figure in the Pontefract dug-out, adding the role of only remaining substitute to his managerial duties.
If Ponte were worried by the loss of a star performer, they need not have been. Enter another striker – young Nathan Perks, asked to perform as a holding midfielder for the remaining hour. The youngster, while lacking the energy of Catton, did not disappoint, putting in a remarkably mature and determined performance for his team.
Under pressure from Perks, Shirebrook lost possession. Lyon pounced on another loose pass in the midfield area, picking up the loose ball before finding Simpson down the left channel. The youngster, who worried the Town defence all evening with his skill and pace, raced clear, but his shot curled into a grateful keeper’s arms.
After the interval, Ponte missed another chance to double their lead, when Simpson cushioned a ball with his back to goal, turned his marker and fired a left-footed volley inches wide.
Lumley thought he had doubled Ponte’s lead when he got onto the end of a deep Lyon corner to head goalwards only for a Shirebrook defender to head clear off the line.
With Shirebrook pressing, the Ponte game plan reaped further reward just after the hour. The ball was won on the edge of the Colls area and a long ball sent towards Simpson. The youngster pressurised the Town central defender into making a mistake before racing clear and stroking home from 25 yards to double the advantage.
It was no more than the 17 year old deserved, for a fine performance that asked questions of the home defence throughout 90 minutes.
Alongside Simpson was the excellent Liam Radford, whose energy appeared to match that of the departed Catton. Radford hassled and harried, ran and ran. The two combined like an established partnership, and should have added to the tally when Radford chased a ball down the right channel, making up five yards to win the race to the ball before sliding an inch-perfect pass across the face of goal and into the path of the advancing Simpson.
The youngster clipped the ball towards goal only to see it blocked by a sliding Town defender.
With Ponte having spent much of the game soaking up Shirebrook pressure and taking a two-goal lead through counter-attacks, it was ironic that they should concede when they were dominant. In the 86th minute a cross deep into the box resulted in Durham heading the ball out of the grasp of Andrew and into the path of Mark Wall, who hooked it home to halve the deficit for the hosts.
Radford almost settled the game as injury-time loomed, but his powerful shot from the edge of the box was deflected wide for a corner. In the dying seconds, Town came close to an equaliser following a last-gasp corner, but the final effort was volleyed over the bar.
This performance underlined the quality within the Pontefract squad, both with and without the ball, and across all areas of the team. However, more than anything it demonstrated the incredible spirit and force of will in the Bray-Handley dressing room.