LAST week’s unusual combination of results left the Dukes North East Premier League top four teams separated by just 18 points.
With just eight games left, there is the tantalising prospect of a thrilling end to the season.
Chester-le-Street were left a little flat by their failure to beat a Gateshead Fell side who have suffered some heavy beatings and are rooted to the foot of the table without a win.
With Sunderland crashing to defeat at Newcastle, a Chester victory would have taken them to within a couple of points of the table-toppers, but it was not to be and it has added even more significance to Saturday’s trip to second-placed Blaydon.
Their hosts have a formidable home record, on a pitch where bowlers generally dominate, so the news that Chester have several absentees, as well as some injury concerns, does not make good reading for their supporters.
Definitely missing are skipper Quentin Hughes, Liam Simpson and Chris Martin, while question marks surround the fitness of Graeme Cessford and Andrew Tye.
Cessford is struggling with a groin strain that ideally needs rest, while Tye has an ankle strain that makes him a doubt. Both will face late tests.
John Coxon is set to captain the side in Hughes’s absence, and at least he could be able to call on the services of Mitch Claydon, who has been signed as the club’s second Durham player and will turn out of not required by the county.
Alan Mustard, David Martin and George Harrison have also been drafted in.
Sunderland have the chance to recover their momentum when they host Tynemouth.
The visitors suffered a pretty miserable time themselves last week, with a heavy defeat to Durham Academy dumping them into the bottom two.
Sunderland have a doubt over Chris Youldon’s availability and no confirmation from Durham on whether Chris Rushworth and Ruel Brathwaite will be released.
They do, however, know that Dan Woolston has left – he has moved to Washington in search of more batting opportunities and goes with the good wishes of the Ashbrooke club.
The other main title contender, South North, face a derby tussle at Benwell Hill, who picked up a rare win last time out, but the team to keep an eye on just might be Durham Academy who moved to the fringe of the title race with last week’s rout of Tynemouth.
That victory lifted them to within 16 points of both Chester and South North, and the youngsters go to Stockton this weekend with a full squad at their disposal following the return to fitness of Ryan Buckley,.
The off-spinner has recovered from the sprained ankle suffered in a match warm-up a fortnight ago. He comes into the team at the expense of Gavin Main, who is preparing to leave for Australia to represent Scotland in the Under-19 World Cup.
South Shields are unchanged at Hetton Lyons, who know Jack McBeth is unavailable but have deferred naming a replacement.
James Lloyd returns for Gateshead Fell away to the Ian Blackwell-inspired Newcastle.