IT’S all eyes on the bottom of the Dukes North East Premier League Premier Division table when the season draws to a close on Saturday.
Sunderland were praying it would not come down to a last-day shoot-out, but when Gateshead Fell surprisingly toppled former champions Stockton last weekend, it opened up the possibility that the Wearsiders might still drop through the trap door as their drawn match at home to Blaydon only provided them with seven points.
The teams go into their final games separated by 18 points – a not insurmountable margin given that the Fell made up 21 last week.
But the comfort for Sunderland is that their Gateshead rivals could not have had much of a tougher game in which to try and preserve their top-flight status as they go to Ropery Lane to take on a Chester-le-Street side who have been more like their old dominant selves over the last month or so.
Two rain-affected draws aside, the Cestrians have picked up five consecutive wins, and in all but one of those they gathered maxmimum points, a series of displays which makes them the form team of the moment.
But Fell skipper Mark Lockey remains firmly upbeat about his team’s prospects, saying: “The win versus Stockton last week has given us a fighting chance and we are confident we can defy the odds and get the result needed to keep us up.”
Fell make two changes, with Tom Pinkney and Chris Dodds replacing John Devenport and Mitch Phillips, while Chester hope to be unchanged.
Sunderland travel to Tynemouth in the knowledge that 13 points will keep them safe no matter what the Fell get up to at Chester, a scenario that club chairman Michael Nunn is trying to impress on his players.
He told the Echo: “We need to play positive cricket and focus on the game we are playing and not worry about other results.
“If we concentrate on the basics, I’m sure we can go to Tynemouth and give ourselves an opportunity to win the game.”
Chris Watson is unavailable for this one, so a late decision is going to be made in terms of team selection as a few people are carrying niggles, however it is hoped that Durham’s Usman Arshad will play again for the Wearsiders alongside Sri Lankan Dinesh Jayamuni, who has made a positive contribution since his recent arrival.
Tynemouth are not in the best of form, having won just once in their last 10 outings, and only on three occasions in total this season, so Sunderland appear to have much the easier game on paper.
The home team are unchanged from the side which lost at Jesmond last week.
For the rest of the teams, it’s just a matter of completing their fixtures, with newly installed champions South Northumberland rounding off a hugely successful campaign with a short trip up the road to Denton Bank to take on local rivals Benwell Hill.
South North skipper John Graham has the remarkable record of skippering the Bulls to all nine of their titles and said: “In my 12 years as captain, this is probably the most accomplished side we have had – and we are looking for more success next year!”
Runners-up Hetton Lyons round off their season at deposed 2013 champions Stockton, but Lal Kumar has returned home and will miss the match.
But the highly successful Pakistani has re-signed for 2015, as reported in last Thursday’s Echo.
In other changes, Ryan Pringle is expected to come back in, while Rob Talbot also returns. Whitburn wind their season up at Newcastle and are able to include Durham’s Paul Coughlin as well as Harry and Mark Thursby.
Third-bottom Durham Academy, still with just one win to show for all their efforts in the league this season, finish off at Blaydon.