CHESTER battled their way to a deserved point after belatedly getting their campaign underway against AFC Fylde.
Just three days after seeing their opening day trip to Solihull Moors postponed due to safety fears at Damson Park, Jon McCarthy’s side produced a lung-busting 90 minutes of football in an end-to-end tussle against Dave Challinor’s outfit.
Both goals arrived at the end of the first-half, Jack Muldoon firing Fylde ahead on 43 minutes before man-of-the-match Lucas Dawson equalised 90 seconds later with a low finish.
The Blues were later indebted to debutant goalkeeper Conor Mitchell – signed just two hours before kick-off from Burnley – as he produced a fantastic one-handed save to deny Sam Finley and preserve a point.
It brings to an end a tough week for Fylde, which began it with five of their players charged with misconduct by the FA in a betting probe and ended with a hard-earned point to take back up the M6.
There were some familiar faces in the Coasters line-up, with former Wrexham trio Rhys Taylor, Finley and Jonny Smith all starting along with ex-Blues midfielder Andy Bond.
Mitchell, 21, signed on-loan until January 1, was thrown straight into the team in place of Alex Lynch, who cut a frustrated figure in the warm-up.
The rest of the line-up almost picks itself, given the lack of depth in the squad, with the only minor surprise being James Akintunde’s inclusion ahead of in-form striker Nyal Bell.
After a minute’s applause for Chester fans who have passed away over recent months, it was time to finally get the season underway for the Blues and Fylde stopper Taylor had to be quick off his line to deny Akintunde who broke clear after a long punt forward.
On six minutes, ex-TNS man Finley nearly scored a goal of the season contender as his dipping volley from 25 yards was inches from beating a worried Mitchell.
Akintunde responded superbly at the other end, twisting past Lewis Montrose and producing a devilish cross that Harry White couldn’t quite reach. Encouraging signs for the Blues.
Finley tried another volley from range on 15 minutes but blazed over, before Craig Mahon tried his luck down the left wing but was stopped in his tracks by a crunching Boyd tackle.
Fine link-up play between Kingsley James and Dawson allowed Mahon to whip in a right-footed cross towards Paul Turnbull but the midfielder could only nod over from 10 yards.
Josh Langley was then booked for a reckless challenge on Akintunde 30 yards out, referee Daniel Middleton rightly cautioning the centre-half. Turnbull’s resulting delivery was taken off the toes of Ryan Astles as the Blues pressed for the opener.
Fylde really should have taken the lead on 23 minutes as Bond’s cross found an unmarked Henry Jones six yards out but he nodded wide when it looked easier to score.
Chester main concern appeared to be in defence, with Lathaniel Rowe-Turner being too easily beaten by Boyd and hesitant defending nearly allowed Danny Rowe in.
For all their frailties at the back, the Blues looked very lively on the counter-attack and a delightful lofted pass from Lucas Dawson enabled Mahon to cross for White, who headed over at the backpost. Akintunde latched onto Rowe-Turner’s 35th minute run and cross but his snap-shot skidded wide.
White was next to go close, threaded through by Dawson, keeping his feet through on goal and only denied by an outstretched Taylor.
Smith then really ought to have scored for Challinor’s side. Muldoon squared it to the winger on the six yard box and his trickling effort was nudged off the line by Rowe-Turner. A real let-off for the Blues.
The game sparked into life on the stroke of half-time. Muldoon was first to strike a blow, as Finley got free on the left-hand side of the box and crossed low for the forward to calmly finish.
Last season that would’ve been a sucker-punch for the Blues, but they responded in tremendous fashion as Dawson levelled up within 90 seconds.
James broke through midfield, got a cross in down the left flank and the ball fell to Dawson 12 yards out and he stroked the ball into the bottom corner to send the teams in all-square.
Just two minutes after the break and White was inches away from handing Chester the lead. Collecting Andy Halls pass, the 22-year-old span past Langley and curled a wonderful left-footed effort narrowly wide from 20 yards out, with Taylor well beaten.
The Coasters began to press once again, Rowe nipping in-front of McCombe and directing a low shot on goal but the Blues’ skipper managed to block the effort and clear.
Mahon’s jinking run to the byline earned the Blues a corner amidst penalty shouts from the Harry McNally Terrace, before Dawson’s whipped delivery was hooked clear by Jordan Tunnicliffe.
Akintunde made Taylor work on 62 minutes with a sharp turn and shot, but it was his final involvement as Ross Hannah was given a huge ovation by the 2,223 strong crowd on his return to the club having re-joined in the summer from Barrow.
Hannah was immediately involved but his deep cross was claimed by Taylor, before trying his luck from 40 yards – that one really would’ve been spectacular!
Mitchell had a worrying moment as he was slow to respond to Smith’s deep cross but eventually tipped it clear with Muldoon bearing down.
Langley headed Zaine Francis-Angol’s fine cross over from close range as both sides pushed for a winner, before Rowe fired narrowly wide from 25 yards out, with Challinor’s men now looking the likeliest scorers.
McCarthy attempted to roust his team along from the touchline as Montrose hit a fierce shot for the visitors that skimmed over Mitchell’s crossbar.
Finley thought he’d won it with a stunning 20-yard effort but Mitchell was equal to it, clawing clear, before Francis-Angol was booked for hauling down Hannah in a frantic 90 seconds.
Hannah had a golden chance to seal it late on, rounding Taylor but he couldn’t force the ball home from an acute angle as the points were shared.
Mitchell started his Chester career with a point and is pleased to join the Blues, explaining: “I’m really looking forward to getting that exposure to first-team football in a really competitive league and getting that experience, which is vital for a young goalkeeper.
“It was good to get in and meet the lads and get a feel for how they want to do things and it seems a good set-up.”
See full story in the Chester Leader