By Dominic Scurr
GATESHEAD weathered a late fightback at Maidstone to claim a valuable 3-2 victory to keep themselves in the National League play-off places over Christmas.
A brace from Luke Molyneux and a stunning strike from defender Robbie Tinkler put the Heed in a commanding position going into the final stages of the match before two late quickfire goals from Jake Cassidy and George McLennan set up a grandstand finish at the Gallagher Stadium.
But after controlling the majority of the game, Gateshead were able to see things out with only a few scares and take three points back with them to the North East as an early Christmas present.
Steve Watson made three changes from the side who lost at Salford City in the FA Trophy on Tuesday night with goalkeeper Aynsley Pears, Jon Mellish and Scott Boden coming in for Mark Foden, Mike Williamson and Steve Rigg respectively.
Greg Olley – who missed the Tynesiders last league match due to suspension – was forced to withdraw from the squad after picking up an ankle injury in training.
But after making the over 300 mile trip down to Maidstone, it was the Heed who started the game on the front foot.
With just two minutes on the clock, JJ O’Donnell burst down the left flank before fizzing a low ball into the box which was turned just over the crossbar by Luke Armstrong from close range.
The home side quickly grew into the game as Jake Robinson, under pressure from Tinkler, headed Sean Shields’ right-sided cross high of the target.
Harry Wheeler’s men could have seen themselves a goal or two to the good inside the opening 25-minutes had it not been thanks to two fine stops from Pears in the Gateshead goal.
The first was a swerving 30-yard effort from Jack Paxman which was tipped over and five minutes later Shields went clean through on goal down the right but the Heed stopper was out quickly to deny the Maidstone man and keep the score at 0-0.
And just a few minutes later, The Stones were made to rue their missed chances as Molyneux picked up Tom White’s pass and charged down the centre of the field before unleashing a fierce 25-yard strike into the top right corner of the goal.
Ross Worner in the Maidstone goal could do little about the stunning strike which was the Sunderland loanee’s first in the National League this season.
After opening the scoring, Gateshead started to take control of the match with Scott Barrow coming close from a free-kick and Molyneux seeing a shot deflect wide of the target.
And just eight minutes after the first goal, The Heed doubled their advantage with another fine effort from distance. A short corner allowed Tinkler to collect the ball from White and drill an unstoppable 30-yard effort through a crowd of players and into the bottom left corner of the goal.
The 2-0 lead was just what Gateshead deserved after a fine spell since opening the scoring and they almost made it three before the break as Barrow volleyed wide of the left post after Maidstone struggled to clear a Gateshead corner.
The Tynesiders kept their two-goal advantage intact going in at half-time despite left-wing-back Dan Wishart calling Pears into action once again with an angled strike in first-half stoppage-time.
After looking down and out at half-time, Maidstone started the second half more positively, winning a succession of corners and free-kicks in dangerous areas.
Ollie Muldoon’s delivery was certainly a threat but the chances ultimately came to nothing and Gateshead soon punished them once again.
10-minutes into the second half, Molyneux won possession from Michael Phillips on the edge of the Maidstone area before calmly slotting his second of the afternoon past Worner and into the bottom right corner of the goal.
At 3-0, it looked as though Gateshead would see the remainder of the game out with relative ease and that proved to almost be the case until Maidstone pulled a goal back out of the blue with little over 10-minutes remaining.
Pears brilliantly parried Elliott Romain’s point-blank header but it wasn’t enough to stop Cassidy pouncing to bundle the ball over the line from a few yards out.
Despite the goal, Gateshead still had a two-goal cushion going into the final minutes of the game.
But when McLennan turned Jack Powell’s curling cross into the left side of the goal to make it 3-2, the momentum was now firmly with the home side and what looked to be a comfortable afternoon for Gateshead had turned into a mission to hang on for the three points.
The Stones threw everything at Gateshead in the final eight minutes in an attempt to nick an unlikely point, but Steve Watson’s men stood firm.
In the 94th minute of the game, Maidstone came within inches of equalising at the death as goalkeeper Worner rose highest to head a dangerous corner just over the Gateshead crossbar.
The referee blew his whistle following the resulting goal kick as Gateshead breathed a huge sigh of relief to claim their 13th league win of the season, one more than they managed over the whole of last season.
The Tynesiders stay seventh in the table while Maidstone remain second bottom heading into the big Boxing Day fixtures.
Maidstone (3-4-3): Worner; Walton, McLennan (Swaine 90), Phillips; Shields, Muldoon (Powell 61), Paxman (Tajbakhsh 61), Wishart; Romain, Robinson, Cassidy
Subs not used: Strizovic, Wassmer
Goals: Cassidy (79), McLennan (82)
Bookings: Paxman (52)
Gateshead (3-4-2): Pears; Kerr, Barrow (c), Mellish (Devitt 77); Tinkler, White, Hunter, Molyneux, O’Donnell; Armstrong (Rigg 67), Boden
Subs not used: Foden (GK), Thomson, Salkeld
Goals: Molyneux (25,56), Tinkler (33)
Referee: David Rock
Attendance: 2,131 (37 Gateshead)
MOTM: Luke Molyneux