By Chris Sweetman
JAMES Askey’s first half header pulled Newcastle Town out of the relegation zone as they overcame Leek Town 1-0 at the F. Ball Community Stadium.
A run of heavy defeats had seen Newcastle slip into the relegation playoff places, and they faced a tough game against Leek, who started the day second in the league.
New manager Paul Moore took charge of Newcastle for the first time, ahead of his scheduled arrival at the end of the season to replace Robin van der Laan.
Moore named a much-changed side following the 5-1 defeat to Mossley, with six changes – both in personnel and positions – made to the starting XI.
The changes had the desired effect as Newcastle constantly harried and pressed Leek in the first half, keeping the playoff challengers pinned back.
Newcastle got their reward midway through the half, as Askey found himself unmarked to head home from a free kick.
Leek dominated the second half in terms of possession and chances, but could not overcome a superlative rear-guard effort by Newcastle, with Luke Dennis and goalkeeper Joe Slinn prominent.
The win and other favourable results mean Newcastle return to 16th place, with a slim two point margin over Widnes in 17th.
Newcastle began brightly, with Nathan Morley and Patryk Mazurkiewicz combining well early on, only for Mazurkiewicz to drag his shot wide.
Moments later, good interplay by Askey and Mazurkiewicz saw Louis Holden (making his first start for the club) released into space.
Holden fired an inviting square ball across the Leek goal, but Morley could not reach the ball to apply the finish.
However, Newcastle were showing a strong improvement from their previous games, with an aggressive pressing game rattling Leek early on.
But, when on the ball themselves, the visitors could not quite find the final ball to fully unlock the Leek defence, despite frequent good runs by Morley, Holden, Mazurkiewicz and Lewis Holdham.
Indeed, it was such a run by Morley that ultimately decided the game, as he drew the free kick out wide as he was pulled back by Callum Moore.
Jack van der Laan’s delivery from the free kick was perfect and found Askey unmarked on the penalty spot to head Newcastle into the lead.
The goal was no more than the visitors deserved, but they almost found themselves pegged back immediately with Slinn having to make a spectacular save to keep out Keenan’s free kick.
Shortly after, Leek manager Neil Baker was sent off after he was adjudged to have encroached on the play.
However, Leek were starting to earn themselves a foothold in the game, but a combination of stalwart Newcastle defence and their own inaccuracy prevented them from building a real chance.
Just after the half hour mark, a good passage of build-up play by Leek came to an end as Dan Trickett-Smith chipped tamely to Slinn.
Minutes later, the hosts thought they had equalised as Trickett-Smith’s shot clattered off the underside of the bar and was ruled to have bounced back into the grateful arms of Slinn.
Newcastle were not entirely nerveless, as a miscommunication between Slinn and Kyle Stubbs saw the ball loose in the area, before Dennis recovered to only concede a corner.
Trickett-Smith almost found an equaliser again, as a Leek break saw him round Slinn but he ran out of pitch before he could get a shot away.
That was the last action of the half, as Newcastle this time managed to secure the halftime lead their performance merited.
Newcastle sensed a one goal margin could prove insufficient, and immediately sought a second at the start of the second half, but Mazurkiewicz could not turn in Oliver Ritchie’s cross.
Moments later Tim Grice could not get his header on target for the hosts, before a fantastic block by Jack Derbyshire prevented Tom Carr getting the follow-up goalward.
Soon after Lewis Billington needlessly conceded a corner to Newcastle, from which Morley hit the side netting from a tight angle.
However, the rest of the half was a story of attack versus defence, as Leek laid siege to the Newcastle goal.
But, just like in the first half, Newcastle stayed stalwart in defence, with Leek’s own inaccuracy providing valuable source of pressure relief.
Too often the hosts found themselves passing into empty spaces, showing Newcastle players too much of the ball, or just passing straight out of play.
Leek were also unable to capitalise on Newcastle mistakes, as they frequently forced Dennis to concede corners and attacking throws, but could not forge decent scoring opportunities.
Case in point, after Dennis had to put a throw behind for a corner, Stubbs sliced his clearance for another, before Leek’s Rob Stevenson fired well over.
Moments later, Stubbs did brilliantly to intercept, before his poor pass went straight out for a corner, which prompted a scramble that Newcastle bundled clear.
Olly Harrison then headed straight at Slinn from another corner, before an unmarked Scott Wara headed wide from the same spot Askey had scored from.
Slinn then made a vital intervention for Newcastle to palm away a dangerous Leek cross with players lurking to turn it in.
The half was punctuated by several periods of torrential rain, which often verged on needing a break in play.
With the rain affecting play, the game fell into a pattern of Leek coming forward, working around the Newcastle area, before a good block of poor pass allowed the visitors to clear.
Indeed, Leek failed to have another shot on target until only five minutes remained, as substitute Aaron Opoku turned well before firing a powerful shot straight at Slinn.
Instead, it was Newcastle who had the best chances to score, as first Stubbs’ ambitious long range free kick flew over the bar, before Morley almost pounced on a defensive error in injury time.
Leek did continue to push, earning a dangerous free kick for the last play of the game, but Slinn punched the delivery away to secure a vital win.
As the only team in the bottom six to win in this round of fixtures, Newcastle return to 16th, two points clear of the playoffs and six ahead of automatic relegation, with just two games to go.
Those final fixtures see Trafford come to the Red Industries Stadium next Saturday, before Newcastle end the season at relegated Ramsbottom United on Saturday 22nd April.