Chester rode their luck as they clung on for a point against a dominant Hartlepool United at Victoria Park.
Jon McCarthy’s side were indebted to goalkeeper Conor Mitchell for several excellent saves on a night where Craig Harrison’s Pools’ outfit threw everything they had at the Blues, after James Akintunde had given Chester a shock lead after just 51 seconds.
Hartlepool struck the bar on three occasions and were full value for their second-half equaliser via Jake Cassidy, although it did appear that Mitchell was fouled by the striker as they jumped for the loose ball.
Given the way Harrison’s men relentlessly attacked Chester throughout the evening, this has to be seen as a decent point for McCarthy, who has now seen his side draw each of their three National League matches this term.
There was one change to the Blues line-up, Akintunde brought into the side ahead of Harry White, who struggled in the goalless draw with Halifax Town last weekend.
Harrison, who left TNS in the summer after a hugely successful spell with the Welsh Premier League champions, knew he needed a result here after a poor start to the campaign which had yielded just a solitary point from three games.
But there was pressure mounting on McCarthy also in the build-up, with the boss accepting his side’s performance against Halifax wasn’t up to scratch.
On a balmy evening in the north-east, Chester got the dream start with a goal within the first minute from Akintunde.
Scott Harrison’s dreadful backpass was collected by Ross Hannah with the striker bearing down on goal and squeezing a shot off which Scott Loach could only parry into the path of Akintunde, who drilled the ball hard into the net.
It’s fair to say the natives were unimpressed as the jeers rang out around the ground, although the Monkey Hangers were straight back at the Blues with Ryan Donaldson’s low cross close to finding Conor Newton.
Nicky Deverdics was booked for a late tackle on Paul Turnbull, before Mitchell got down smartly to save from Donaldson and hold onto the shot.
Craig Mahon picked up a loose ball on 13 minutes, drove at the defence and launced a right-footed drive just wide of goal, before Hannah had the ball in the net with a left-footed volley on the spin but he was flagged offside following Turnbull’s flick-on.
On 19 minutes, Padraig Amond broke the offside trap and bore down on goal but was denied by a tremendous stop by Mitchell, before a combination of John McCombe and Lathaniel Rowe-Turner slid in to keep out Donaldson.
Pools were in the ascendancy but in Akintunde, the Blues had a terrific outlet who was a willing runner throughout and held the ball up superbly.
Derverdics nearly equalised on 25 minutes as his header crashed back against the crossbar from Carl Magnay’s back post cross, before Cassidy’s 25-yard drive skimmed over Mitchell’s frame.
Akintunde almost got on the end of Andy Halls’ teasing cross, with Dawson then working his socks off to track Donaldson and prevent another dangerous Pools’ cross.
McCombe produced a fantastic block in the penalty area on 35 minutes to repel a powerful Nicky Featherstone shot, as the hosts continued to threaten the Blues’ goal.
Hartlepool were desperately unlucky not to be level at half-time as Deverdics hit the bar for a second time in the space of 12 minutes, connecting with Magnay’s pullback and slamming his shot from 12 yards which rattled the goalframe and bounced down onto the line.
Cassidy’s 41st minute header looped wide of goal, before Magnay blazed over from distance in added time.
Amond’s left-foot curler was comfortably held by Mitchell as the second-half began in much the same vain, before Hannah hit an ambitious shot from range which deflected behind.
Good work from Deverdics earned Pools a corner which resulted in a low drive from Donaldson which Halls blocked. It felt like the break had come at the wrong time for the hosts, who had lost some of their momentum from the first period.
The Blues were happy to counter and Dawson’s delightful through-ball found Hannah 35 yards out, who dribbled into the area and played it back to Dawson, but he couldn’t connect. At the other end, Newton spurned another opening for Harrison’s side, scuffing his shot well wide.
Chester’s ball retention was much improved in the second-half, with Dawson, Turnbull and James keeping possession to stave off any further pressure, as White replaced Hannah to inject some fresh legs.
Pools’ captain Magnay – the hosts’ brightest player – then struck the bar again with a thunderous 30-yard drive which kept rising and crashed back against the upright, just as Harrison’s decision to replace Deverdics with Jack Munns was met with howls of derision from the home faithful.
Magnay went into the referee’s notebook for a rash tackle on Rowe-Turner, but just as it looked like Chester might see it through, Pools levelled.
Ryan Astles cleared for a corner but the Blues failed to deal with the resulting delivery and Cassidy leapt highest to beat Mitchell to the ball and head home from six yards out, although it looked like the striker possibly pushed the Blues’ goalkeeper in the process.
In all honesty, an equaliser was the very least Hartlepool deserved in a game they had now dominated for long periods, and Newton latched onto a loose ball in the box to prod goalwards on 79 minutes, his shot deflected behind off Turnbull.
Turnbull was cautioned for a cynical tackle on Amond, as the Blues attempted to cling on for a point.
Turnbull then turned provider for White with a swinging cross from the right wing which the 22-year-old forward flung himself out but Loach got down well to keep it at bay.
The impressive Mitchell further enhanced his credentials with an excellent grab from a Magnay corner in stoppage time as Chester maintained their unbeaten start to the campaign.
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