By Chris Sweetman
Newcastle Town slipped to a damaging 1-0 defeat to Skelmersdale United, in a low-quality game at the Red Industries Stadium.
Newcastle went into the game knowing that a win would put them level on points with eleventh-placed Skelmersdale, and more importantly build the gap to the relegation zone.
However, they never quite got a handle on a game where both sides lacked quality both on the ball and in front of goal.
It was a game that was always likely to come down to one chance, and Skelmersdale took it as Callum Lees headed in off a free kick.
Knowing this was a must-win game, Newcastle began pressing hard, and forced a series of chances in the closing stages.
However, a great performance by Skelmersdale goalkeeper Sam Ashton – and the woodwork – consigned Newcastle to their fourth defeat in their last five games.
Newcastle almost got off to the worst possible start, with goalkeeper Joe Slinn forced into an early save by Skelmersdale striker Stephen Milne.
However, from there the game devolved into a turgid, scrappy affair with neither side showing any fluency or ability to string passes together.
Newcastle looked the more comfortable with the ball at their feet, but Skelmersdale looked dangerous on the break and often had the hosts scrambling.
But after Milne’s early chance, neither side could create a definitive goalscoring chance, with every attempt to get into the box intercepted or too easy for the goalkeepers and defences.
Newcastle’s best chances both came from speculative long-range shots, as first Jack van der Laan tried with nothing on.
Then, after good work from Nathan Morley set up a platform, Will Lloyd had to go from distance after being pressured by the press.
For their part, Skelmersdale proved better at getting into the opponent’s box, but gave the Newcastle defence too much time to recover, as both Milne and Elliot Morris had shots blocked.
But despite these rare flashes of opportunity, a low-quality half finally came to an end with the 0-0 scoreline it deserved.
The second half began with at least some attempt to up the entertainment value, as first Milne let fly from range, before Newcastle’s Joe Thompson found room for a shot, which Ashton claimed.
Moments later, Slinn needlessly handled a backpass on the edge of Newcastle’s penalty area, and from the freekick Lees headed in to give Skelmersdale the lead.
In desperate need of points, Newcastle initially responded well to going behind, with Thompson winning a free kick, taking it himself, and forcing a save from Ashton with a well-placed shot.
However, the visitors nearly doubled their lead from the corner, as the ball fell to Milne who tried to beat Slinn from near halfway.
The shot was on target, and Slinn was left stranded, only for the bounce to take the ball over the crossbar for a goal kick.
Declan McLaughlin hit the post for Skelmersdale moments later, and Newcastle were in danger of finding themselves out of the game.
However, they soon rallied and carved three quick chances: first with Askey heading a corner at Ashton, before Ryan Baxter was played in, only for his shot to be deflected to the goalkeeper.
Newcastle quickly came back, with Jack Derbyshire winning another corner and this time Askey forced Ashton to work to make the save.
However, while Newcastle were on top at this stage, they were still behind and Skelmersdale (Ashton in particular) were in no hurry to play when they had set pieces.
Newcastle, now with Max Chimenes on the field, were starting to create more and were improving as the game progressed, but could not find that final killer ball.
Instead, the visitors should have doubled their lead, as Slinn spilled a routine save off a long-range shot, only for substitute Finnan Crofton to fire the follow-up right at him.
Shortly after, Newcastle had their best chance up to that point, as Baxter and Chimenes combined – albeit in a scrappy manner – to set Connor Russo up, who dragged his shot wide.
Then a Kyle Stubbs throw saw Askey head narrowly wide, but the game was in its final minutes and Newcastle looked out of time.
Despite that, they continued to fight as an injury time corner saw three separate players – Morley, Chimenes and Askey – all hit the post, before Ashton forced the ball out.
That was Newcastle’s last chance at a goal, with the last play of the game seeing Ashton punch away yet another corner.
That meant it was a bitterly disappointing defeat for Newcastle, who remain fifteenth, just three points above the relegation playoffs with just nine games left to play.
It does not get any easier for Newcastle as they welcome promotion chasing Clitheroe and league leaders Macclesfield Town to the Red Industries Stadium over the next two weeks.