By Chris Sweetman
PAUL Moore’s first league campaign as Newcastle Town manager began with defeat, as Bootle ran out 2-1 winners at the Delta Taxis Stadium.
After two successive seasons of relegation battles, Newcastle were hoping for a positive start to their 2023/24 Northern Premier League West Division campaign.
However, those hopes were dashed on Merseyside, as Bootle, spurred on by a passionate home crowd, took the lead through James Cooper, after a clever corner.
Castle captain Tommy van der Laan equalised on the stroke of half time with a controversial and hotly disputed header.
But, despite a wind advantage in the second half, Newcastle lacked accuracy and a clincal edge in front of goal, and were made to pay when Ben Hodkinson fired home the winner late on.
The first half proved scrappy, with a strong yet gusting wind proving a factor throughout the match.
There were strong first game of the season vibes from both teams, with the early exchanges defined by a series of basic mistakes and clumsy fouls from both sides.
Indeed, it was free kicks that provided most of Newcastle’s sights of goal in the first half, with debutant Daniel Edwards either unable to find a teammate, or avoid Bootle keeper Owen Mooney.
Bootle’s first chance of the game came from a corner, as Adam Buxton was found unmarked at the back post, but he put his free header high and wide of the goal.
Newcastle’s first real scoring chance came with almost 15 minutes gone, as another Edwards free kick found Tommy van der Laan, who could only head straight at Mooney.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the scrappy nature of the game, chances were cropping up for both sides with surprising regularity.
Hodkinson fired straight at Newcastle keeper James McClenaghan after being set free, before Bootle gave the ball away, but Max Chimenes could only drag his shot wide.
Chimenes then got a ball from Edwards caught under his feet in a prime shooting position, before Hodkinson again fired straight at McClenaghan.
McClenaghan then had to be alert to deny Arthur Lomax, before Bootle earned themselves a corner.
All the hosts’ previous corners had gone to Buxton at the back post, but this time the ball was sent to the front post, where Cooper bundled it in to give Bootle the lead.
Newcastle responded by going onto the attack, with Mooney doing well to pluck a cross literally off the top of Chimenes’ head.
However, Newcastle struggled to maintain the fluency needed to break Bootle down, with no further chances coming until first half injury time.
Then a Newcastle corner found Tommy van der Laan in the centre of the box, and his header beat Mooney before being cleared away.
However, the referee ruled that the ball had crossed the line, and awarded the goal, prompting a furious reaction from Bootle, resulting in two yellow cards for the hosts.
That was the end of the half, with Newcastle fortunate, if deserving to still be level.
The second half saw both teams come out determined to play at pace, with a frantic opening minute seeing both teams firing the ball up and down the pitch.
Newcastle then had a chance to take the lead from a corner, following good work by Oliver Ritchie, as Mooney just clawed Joshua Jordan’s header out of the goal mouth.
Minutes later, Bootle broke from a Newcastle throw and set Hodkinson away, who fired over under pressure.
The hosts were starting to take control of the game, with Newcastle struggling to escape their own half and maintain possession.
However, a heroic effort by the Newcastle back four of Ritchie, Jordan, Kyle Stubbs and Jack Derbyshire meant that McClenaghan was never seriously threatened.
Unfortunately, that effort was undone with just over ten minutes to go, as Castle lost the ball in midfield, and Bootle fired it up to Hodkinson who this time made no mistake with his finish.
Behind for the second time in the game, Newcastle did spark into life, but were unable to find a decisive scoring chance.
Alfie Carmichael – another debutant – had a shot blocked with five to go, before Stubbs broke free in injury time, but his shot was easily saved by Mooney.
That was the visitors last chance to steal a point, as Bootle held out to claim a deserved three points.
For Castle, the league campaign continues on Tuesday, as we welcome Hednesford Town to the Red Industries Stadium, before we travel to Rugby Town for the FA Cup Preliminary round on Saturday.