Horden CW 2 Birtley Town 2 (4-5 after penalty shoot-out) – Division Two play-off semi-final

As the two teams prepared for kick off, Birtley No. 9 Aidan Rutledge shouted to his team mates:  “It’s rock and roll time.”  By the end of the match, the place was bouncing.

It turned into a thriller, but it took its time to get going, with the teams cancelling each other out for much of the first half.

Then Rutledge started to impose himself on the game.  He attacked through the middle, Horden defender Ross Kidson did his best to halt his progress; the No. 9 could easily have gone down to win a free kick but kept on going, allowing Kidson to stop him with a tackle close to the edge of the box.  A minute later Rutledge turned two defenders before hitting a shot that came back off the post.

Horden came closest to scoring in the first half when Jack Maskell hit a shot into the side netting, but it was Rutledge who broke the deadlock in the 39th minute, thumping a powerful volley into the Horden net.  And it looked as though they’d got one foot in the final when he doubled their lead just before the hour, Liam Wotherspoon delivering a ball from the left that Rutledge converted with a header.  It wasn’t one-way traffic but Horden looked as though they were lacking a cutting edge, with their efforts either off target or not putting Birtley keeper Connor Grant under pressure.

They started to turn the game round seven minutes after Birtley’s second goal.  Maskell had a shot blocked just as he was pulling the trigger and then Martin Fowler had a shot that only missed the target by a couple of feet.  Already on the way back into the semi-final, they were given a massive lift when Birtley No. 10 Callum Smith was shown a straight red for what appeared to be foul and abusive language.

It changed the impetus and momentum of the game and encouraged Horden to launch a period of sustained pressure and they converted that pressure in the 76th minute when sub Josh Home-Jackson scored with a volley to make it game on.

Birtley weren’t completely pinned back.  Rutledge weaved through a couple of defenders before being brought down close to the edge of the box.  Wotherspoon stepped up to take sweetly struck free kick which came back off the post.

In the closing 10 minutes Horden went in search of an equaliser, pushing Birtley back, forcing them to defend deep and in numbers; clearing the ball only to see Horden launch another attack.  They were level when a long ball was sent up to Maskell who managed to take it past Grant and slide it into the net.  High drama at 2-2.  And with only minutes to go, the ball bobbled precariously around the Birtley six-yard area, with a gaggle of players trying to knock it over the line and clear it.  The last shot fell to Marc Ellison, with his effort charged down by Birtley defender Callum Turnbull.

Birtley brought sub keeper Isaac Robinson with only seconds to go before the final whistle and a penalty shoot-out to decide the tie.  The decisive spot kick came third, as Liam Wright hit his penalty off the underside of the bar, with Turnbull scoring Birtley’s fifth to seal victory.

Birtley players piled on to each other in celebration, while it was despair for Horden who had contributed to a terrific game.

Birtley march on to the play-off final against either Bedlington Terriers or Billingham Town on Monday afternoon as they strive for promotion.  Meanwhile, a season that promised so much, has ended with bitter disappointment for Horden, with two defeats in less than a week.  It’ll now be about re-grouping and launching a new drive for promotion next season.

Mike Snowdon