League leaders Blyth Spartans edged past Ilkeston FC thanks to Robbie Dale’s first-half penalty at Croft Park on Tuesday night.
Dale, who crucially missed a spot-kick in the corresponding fixture last season that the Robins edged 1-0, this time netted the all-important goal a minute before the break to leave Ilkeston with just one league win in nine outings.
Ilkeston operated with Dan Udoh and Lee Ndlovu up top, Mike Williams was allowed the freedom to float around midfield and Eli Bako and Olly Luto were wingbacks.
In a cracking atmosphere at Croft Park, both sides starting quickly. The Robins were working hard to control the midfield with Blake and Doyle tracking runners and preventing interceptions.
Ndlovu mustered the first effort of the game, drilling a low shot which trickled straight to Adam McHugh in the Blyth goal. The league leaders responded with Dillon Morse curling straight at Jamie Hannis before Michael Richardson couldn’t head Arran Wearmouth’s cross goal-wards.
Ilkeston soon grew back into the game; Udoh did fantastically well to evade two challenges before forcing a sharp stop from McHugh. When Udoh then earned a free-kick in a central area, Blake stepped up and curled just over the bar.
The Robins soon began to frustrate the hosts with continuous attacks. Blake’s free-kick was directed towards Ndlovu but the striker couldn’t connect. Then Jordan Wheatley’s cross was just too long for Williams.
Blyth then came closest in the first-half when Dale evaded one tackle inside the box before firing a shot which hit the post.
This lifted the partisan Spartans faithful as Richardson hit a soft volley from outside the box which was well held by Hannis. Dale again was proving to be a spear in the side of the Robins as he charged into the box before squaring the ball at the back post where Wilson Kneeshaw could only side-foot wide.
But Blyth did take the lead just before the break. A huge scramble inside the Ilkeston box saw Hannis make two sharp saves but the young goalkeeper then appeared to catch Kneeshaw inside the box, although there looked to be very minimal contact. Dale stepped up and converted the penalty.
After the interval, chances became scarce. Blyth continued to press; Dale curled a free-kick towards the back post but Jordon Watson could only head over and wide.
Ilkeston struggled to re-find a rhythm and found themselves covering lots of ground against the table-toppers.
Morse then had another attempt for Blyt h ashe jinked past Luto in the box but skewed his shot over the bar. The introduction of Dexter Atkinson after 63 minutes gave the Robins the added spice and pace up top and he had an immediate impact; winning a corner and providing runs in behind.
Ilkeston’s final pass was lacking throughout the second-half. The Robins surged on the counter as Udoh found Atkinson but his pass for Williams hit Joe Doyle in mid-stride to add to the frustrations.
The Robins nearly found an equaliser after 78 minutes as Bako found Udoh inside the box but he mis-hit his effort and Williams was inches away from tapping home.
Blyth showed their quality in the final ten minutes, retaining the ball, switching the play and playing with a swagger which has seen them rise to the top. After completing at least a 15-pass sequence, Kneeshaw turned inside the box and curled an effort off the bar.
But Ilkeston can be relatively pleased with the performance which showed grit, effort and commitment at another tough side away from home.
Tuesday, February 9, 2016:
Blyth: 1 Adam McHugh 2 Dillon Morse 3 Jordan Watson 4 Nathan Buddle 5 Ryan Hutchinson 6 Neal Hooks 7 Aaron Wearmouth (Sean Reid 79) 8 Michael Richardson 9 Wilson Kneeshaw 10 Matthew Wade 11 Robbie Dale.
Subs not used: Danny Parker, Fabian Otte, Paul Robinson, Ashley Davis
Scorer: Dale 44pen
Ilkeston: 1 Jamie Hannis 2 Eli Bako 3 Olly Luto 4 Jordan Wheatley 5 Matt Baker 6 Joe Burgess (c) 7 Joe Doyle 8 JJ Blake 9 Dan Udoh 10 Lee Ndlovu (Dexter Atkinson 63) 11 Mike Williams.
Subs not used: Danny Gordon, Haydn Goddard, Luis Rose, Ryan Head
Ref: John Matthews