After three months wait, the 23/24 Wearside First Division finally got underway yesterday, with Durham City AFC opening up their season with a local derby against New Durham AFC at Bowburn Park. The Citizens had a productive pre-season, with players coming and going, playing nine games, winning four and losing five, scoring 29 and conceding 28. But it was time for the lads to put those lessons learned and fitness into the first game of the season.
New Durham AFC 2-2 Durham City AFC
With it being the first game of the season and the club doing a lot of business over the pre-season in terms of in-goings and outgoings, it was hard to predict how the gaffer Wayne Gredziak and his coaching staff would decide to lineup the squad. They went for the fairly tried and tested lineup of: Ethan Lyons (GK), Preston Gredziak (RB), Ross Hutchinson (CB), Yusuf Kareem (CB), Brad Galloway (LB), Byron Dagnall (LW), Josh Thompson (CM), JT (CM), Toby Sparrow (RW), Junior Masandi (ST) and Daniel Reily (ST)
As for subs, City had: Craig Megson, Karan Jotangia, Ben Newton, Isam Mohamad and Mikey Weston on the bench.
The game got underway at Bowburn Park in glorious sunshine, although dark clouds loomed over in the distance, perhaps foreshadowing what was later to come for Durham City AFC. Straight from the off, the Citizens looked dangerous, particularly through Byron Dagnall on the left wing. It was the aforementioned player who would get the first chance of the game, just three minutes in, when he received through the New Durham back line and was through on goal with only the keeper to beat. But with just enough time to overthink his decision, the summer signing put his shot wide of the post. It was a chance that had to be put away. Following on from this, the game became more even, with both sides attempting to have their lion's share of possession and get forward. New Durham looked to exploit City's high-line and at times wasteful passing by attacking them quick on the counter, but failed to materialise anything which would trouble Ethan Lyons at that moment. After 15 minutes, City were starting to attack with more impetuous and looked to have made it 1-0 when Byron Dagnall volleyed his shot into the New Durham goal.
However, the referee ruled out for offside in the build to the goal. Brad Galloway was the next Durham City player to have a try at goal, when several minutes later he received the ball outside the box from a throw-in, but his shot was straight at the keeper and comfortable to deal with. Momentum was on Durham City's side and they were growing more and more into the game as time passed on. Another big chance went missing, when JT made a brilliant run down the right wing and sent in a wonderful cross for Junior Masandi to head. It was a brilliant diving header which looked certain to nestle in the bottom right corner, but New Durham's keeper who would become a pantomime villain for City for his excellent performance, pulled off a fantastic point blank save. He was tested once again a few minutes later from a Josh Thompson free kick, but his shot was comfortably caught by the opposition keeper.
The game was 30 minutes in and Durham City continued to have chance after chance, not without a few worrying moments at the back as New Durham looked to exploit the left wing. After a goalmouth scramble, JT looked certain to have finally put the Citizens 1-0 up, but credit once again to the New Durham back-line as they threw their bodies into every shot and made a brilliant goal-line clearance to keep the score level. The Citizens upped the ante, Daniel Reily's shot being expertly saved before the rebound fell to Junior Masandi, yet again and again there was a New Durham player there to block and clear it off the line. Whilst it was fantastic to see City have so many chances in on goal, it was frustrating to see them not put them away. And that continued, as moments later another shot was blocked by some stalwart defending. That annoyance at not scoring seemed to effect City, as for the final 10 minutes of the half, it was New Durham AFC who were having the better chances. A dangerous free kick was whipped into the box and headed towards the top left corner, but Ethan Lyons managed to just get a hand to it and pull it down safely into his arms. City had the chance once again to go ahead through Byron Dagnall who beat the offside trap and ran onto the end of a brilliant through ball to be one on one with the keeper, but yet again he came up big when it mattered and saved the shot.
Then catastrophe struck. Despite the dominance in front of goal and the clock nearing half-time, a moment of madness took over midfielder Yusuf Kareem as he wildly lashed out at New Durham AFC player. Hitting them over the back of the head and rightfully being sent off. Just when City seemed to be edging closer to a goal, the entire mood shifted. Yet somehow, the Citizens finally finally got that elusive goal, when a Josh Thompson freekick sailed into the box. Toby Sparrow lined up his shot and struck towards goal, but Byron Dagnall got his foot in and changed the trajectory of the shot, leaving the impressive New Durham keeper unable to keep it out. The half time whistle blew just shortly after and allowed everyone a moment to catch their breaths from a very crazy final few minutes. Changes were made by the City management team with Preston Gredziak and Byron Dagnall coming off for Ben Newton and Isam Mohamad as City looked to try and hold onto their 1-0 lead for the remainder of the game with being a man down. However, New Durham quickly used their one man advantage and put City under pressure.
It took ten minutes, but New Durham got the equaliser. Ethan Lyons made a great intital save, but the rebound fell to an opposition player who ensured he wasn't going to miss from a few yards out. City were getting more and more frustrated and being well out played by New Durham at times, who were having a great time of it down the right wing, with silly fouls and possession being easily seceded. The gaffer made another change, bringing off Brad Galloway for Karan Jotangia. Which they eventually succumbed to in the 63rd minute, when Ben Newton brought down an opposition player in the box, with New Durham duly dispatching the penalty into the opposite corner of Ethan Lyons dive. It was now 2-1.
Things were slowly starting to improve for City, despite being a player down. With the game running away from them, the gaffer and his management team decided to throw caution to the win and get players forward in an attempt of obtaining a point. Reverting to a 3-5-2 in an attempt to overload the midfield. The tactical change paid dividends, as in the final 10 minutes City were starting to dominate on the wings, particularly on the right hand side with Isam Mohamad and JT linking up well. The Citizens had a few opportunities to level the scoring, but their shots were either dealt with expertly by the New Durham keeper or went just inches wide of the post. It became a case of when and not if City would score. Unfortunately and fortuantley for those of us who are faint of heart, it would come the final minute of the game.
An in-swinging corner by JT was met with the head of captain Josh Thompson to send the City players and fans into bursts of joy and disbelief. The game thankfully being brought to a close by the referee only moments later. Cue a sigh of relief.
First game of the season, derby game and being down to 10 men for 60 minutes of it, was always going to make a tough match, but credit has to be given to Wayne Gredziak and his management team for making brilliant substitutions and tactical changes following New Durham going ahead in the second half. On the balance of things, a draw was probably a fair result given that City dominated the first half and New Durham commanding the second. Lessons learned, match fitness in the legs and first game of the 23/24 season done. Plenty of time for Durham City to show their meddle.