There was an important game involving a North East team last night and Pete Sixsmith was there. Much as he likes the Lancashire town of Burnley however, he did not go across the Pennines in the hope of seeing a home side victory. He has his priorities and of much more significance and of greater importance was the reappearance of a player who has had no luck with injuries and yet can still provide Jack Ross and the first team with an added dimension in the push for promotion.

MIDDLESBROUGH UNDER 23s

It was a foggy night at Hetton as 444 hardy souls turned out to watch the Premier League 2 Division Two game against Middlesbrough. Not only was it foggy, it was damp. Not only was it foggy and damp, it was cold. It wasn’t a great night for football.

It was for Duncan Watmore. He made his return 12 months after a second cruciate injury and it was that rather than the attraction of Middlesbrough that encouraged people to put on their thick jumpers and winter coats and join the throng of scouts looking at players from both participants.

The fog was so thick at 6.50 that the referee was having grave doubts about starting the game. Like most fogs, it swirled around and came and went and although not quite a London Particular or a “Real Pea-Souper, Guv” it made for difficult watching conditions at times.

Could have been Hetton

As well as Watmore’s return, we welcomed back Andrew Nelson from injury and said hello to Sam Smart, a trialist from Basingstoke Town. There was also a smattering of players who had been seen at Morecambe two weeks ago in Jack Diamond, Jake Hackett, Jack Cartwright and Jordan Hunter plus first team squad members Balli Mumba and Benjamin Mbunga-Kimpioka, so it was a strong Under 19 side that turned out.

The first half was competitive with both sides showing a desire to play proper football rather than the dreary pass forward, pass sideways, pass backwards stuff that we have seen for the last few years. That does not prepare players for the higher levels of physicality in the professional game, particularly in the Championship and Division One  and it is noticeable that Cartwright and Hunter, recruited from Swansea City and Liverpool respectively, are tall, well-built players.

The Ginger Messi aka Billy Whizz aka Roadrunner

We should have scored in the 22nd minute when the impressive Smart was brought down in the box and Watmore stepped up to take the penalty. He didn’t hit it particularly well and it struck keeper Brad James on the leg and bounced out to safety. Nevertheless, Watmore had a couple of promising runs and looked confident as he took on the visiting defenders.

Jake Hackett, a possible loan target for at least one National League (North) club, did open the scoring a few minutes later with an excellent free kick that looped over James and we went into the break a goal to the good.

There was a bright opening to the second half with James making two good saves but the visitors’ strength told as they scored three times within 20 minutes. By this time, Watmore and Smart had departed to be replaced by Nelson and Diamond and Boro had also missed from the spot after Hunter had brought down Brahimi. Ben Liddle put his shot against the post.

The equaliser came when Sam Johnstone, who had done well in the first half, remained rooted to his line, leaving an unmarked Connor Malley to head in. Coaches must wonder what they can do when errors of this magnitude take place. Maybe they could make the defenders write out 100 times: “I must be more aware from corners.” Ok, maybe not.

More sloppy defending allowed Daniel Ward to make it 2-1 and when the powerful Stephen Ward made it 3 with a few minutes left, the crowd started to dwindle away, hoping to hear news of a resounding Burnley win. Disappointment number two  loomed.

Despite the weather, it was an enjoyable evening catching up with old friends and yarning about football in general and SAFC in particular.

We now move onto the league game with Barnsley and the return of Max Power.

Peer through the gloom to watch highlights of the game here

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Born in Hetton le Hole, deputy editor Malcolm Dawson's first game at Roker Park was the three all draw with Leicester City at the beginning of the 64-65 season. Having spent more than thirty years living in the East Midlands, he was Chairman and Information Officer of the Heart of England Branch of the Supporters' Association but has now returned to live in County Durham.

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