Impressive Whitby Town earned a deserved point at second-placed Ilkeston, the Evo-Stik League’s only full-time club, on Saturday.
Player-boss Darren Williams made three changes from the side that went down 3-0 at Workington, two weeks earlier, including picking himself to sit in front of a three-man defence.
Lee Mason began a three-match suspension, while Mattys Brown and Waters dropped to the bench. Ibby Hassan shrugged off a chest infection to come in at right wing-back, while James Brown returned up front after his back injury.
Williams’ men started strongly, keeping the ball well and spending much of their time in the home half.
On eight minutes, skipper Mark Robinson, pushed forward on the left opposite Hassan, delivered a free-kick to the back post where Kev Burgess’ firm header was tipped over point-blank by Jordan Smith.
Next to test the Robins’ keeper was Burgess’ fellow centre-half Richard Pell whose 12-yard side-volley brought an identical stop from the 20-year-old, on a season-long-loan from nearby Nottingham Forest.
At the other end, Shane Bland comfortably held Rai Simons’ tame 20-yard waist-high snapshot and 16-goal top scorer Rob Duffy curled across the face and wide of Bland’s right-hand post.
Duffy then fired a free-kick straight at Bland and chipped another set piece narrowly over the top, while Niall Doran raced onto a loose ball but smashed wide from 20 yards.
Two minutes into the second half, Duffy was again the threat as Ilkeston set off at a pace and the former Kings Lynn forward struck Bland’s left-hand post with another angled header.
However, it was the Seasiders who took the lead on 65 minutes when Dale Hopson’s 20-yard free-kick dropped nicely for Doran to tuck away his first Whitby goal, from close range.
Williams was delighted with the in-form 20-year-old, signed from Conference North Boston United, in November.
“He’s been brilliant, to be fair,” Town’s manager told the Whitby Gazette.
“He’s a good player, just took a bit of time to settle in, as players do.”
Unfortunately, it didn’t take much time for Ilkeston to reply, in fortunate fashion.
Six minutes later, Pell passed back to Bland, who was quickly closed down by Simons and the keeper’s attempted backpass struck the Bermudian international on the back, looped over Bland and rolled over the goal line.
David Morgan’s long range punt was comfortably clutched by Bland, before Williams withdrew himself from proceedings.
In an attacking move, he brought on striker Matty Waters, with winger Matty Brown on in another forward-minded swap, for Hassan.
Town’s third and final change came eight minutes from time as James Brown, who required treatment earlier in the second half, made way for Robert Nolan, an ex-Blyth marksman acquired at the turn of the year.
Ilkeston are well-known for finishing matches strongly, usually attributed to their full-time status and young side, boosted by a highly-rated academy.
So it proved as the East Midlands outfit, who began the day eight points behind leaders Skelmersdale, with seven games in hand, finally pushed the Blues back for the final ten minutes.
Morgan again drove over from deep and Duffy nodded a left-wing cross wide.
Deep into five minutes of added time, skipper Joe Maguire tried an audacious 40-yard drive that Bland pushed to his left, while Michael Williams saw his potshot deflected inches off target.
For Darren Williams, it was a job well done from his players:
“It was a fantastic display from us, we played really well and should have won the game really – we limited them to few chances,” he enthused.
Williams also revealed that opposite number Kevin Wilson, who saw his side go 15 games unbeaten, in a run that started at Town’s Turnbull Ground, last November, was impressed too.
“He did say to us that we’re the best team they’ve played home and away and that if we could get more investment and keep a bigger squad, we would be contenders easily.”
Whitby Town: Bland, Shepherd, Robinson (c), Burgess, Pell, Williams (Waters 75), Doran, Hopson, J Brown (Nolan 82), Snaith, Hassan (M Brown 78). Subs not used: Raby, Campbell (GK).
Ilkeston FC 1 Whitby Town 1