THERE was no festive cheer for 10-man Chester as they slumped to a 3-2 defeat at Solihull Moors.
It was always going to be a long afternoon in the west Midlands for Jon McCarthy’s side once Johnny Hunt had been sent off for a poor challenge on 16 minutes.
Elliott Durrell put the Blues ahead but the impressive Omari Sterling-James bagged a brace for the hosts, with Harry White’s finish sandwiched inbetween, as Moors dominated the second-half and claimed all three points, despite Kane Richards’ late consolation.
A first defeat in eight league games is a blow to Chester’s play-off aspirations but they have the chance to put it right now on New Year’s Day when Solihull head to Bumpers Lane for the reverse fixture.
McCarthy kept faith with the same line-up who brushed Aldershot Town aside 2-0 nine days previous at the Deva, meaning the returning Blaine Hudson (suspension) had to be content with a place on the bench.
Chester’s superb recent form – seven unbeaten league matches – led to a big away following at Damson Park and the Blues – in their third kit of all white – were roared onto the field.
Alex Lynch was immediately called into action as he repelled Sterling-James’ first minute shot, before Alabi rose highest but couldn’t direct Tom Shaw’s cross on target.
As the planes took off from Birmingham Airport in the distance, this clash was still waiting for lift off with the Blues getting as compact as possible in midfield in an attempt to stifle the hosts.
On 10 minutes Liam Daly rose up at a corner but his nod down only found Lynch’s sidenetting.
The game then burst into life in a five-minute spell, which began with Alabi catching Connor Franklin with a stray arm, referee Chris O’Donnell producing a yellow card.
Hunt was then given his marching orders on 16 minutes. The full-back jumped into a tackle on Shepherd Murombedzi, and with both feet together and studs showing, O’Donnell had no hesitation in pulling out the red card.
McCarthy was raging on the touchline but anger quickly turned to joy as Durrell opened the scoring. The midfielder intercepted possession on the halfway line and began dribbling towards goal, exchanged a neat one-two with Alabi, cut inside and shot low and left-footed from 20 yards out, with the bounce beating goalkeeper Danny Lewis and finding the corner.
It was a frantic few minutes but Chester had a vital goal and, given their fine defensive record, it is dangerous to allow the Blues an early lead these days. Evan Horwood switched to full-back and Jordan Chapell reverted to the left wing in a 4-4-1 formation.
George crunched into a tackle on Jack Byrne and was the latest player to find his way into the notebook, but despite a lack of possession, McCarthy’s men looked relatively comfortable.
George Carline laid the ball off for Byrne on 31 minutes but his shot drifted aimlessly wide of Lynch’s post.
Durrell’s 34th minute cross evaded Alabi before Chapell dribbled past two Moors defenders but his cross was too deep for Alabi and gathered by Lewis.
Bryne dragged a tame shot wide on 41 minutes as Liam McDonald’s side continued to press but Lynch still hadn’t had a major save to make since the opening minute. Horwood was cautioned on 44 minutes for time-wasting before taking a throw-in.
On-loan Wrexham midfielder Nortei Nortey saw a 45th minute shot blocked by Shaw’s arm and Sterling-James stepped up to delightfully bend the ball into the top corner of Lynch’s goal from 25 yards out to level the score.
McCarthy was again livid with the referee for awarding the free-kick, but the two teams went in all-square.
After a full 20 minute-break for half-time, the teams re-emerged and it was Carline who looked to get in on goal, Ryan Astles doing superbly to win the tackle and calmly clear forward.
Carline took on Horwood down the right on 53 minutes and forced a corner but Daly’s header hit George on the back and deflected out for a goal kick.
Lynch then fumbled a catch from a corner but the ball was cleared by Sam Hughes having intially fallen to Murombedzi.
Chester’s best chance since scoring then arrived, as Alabi did superbly to shrug off Franklin down the right wing and crossed low for Ryan Lloyd, but he couldn’t sort his feet out and the ball trickled wide.
Moors then took the lead on 56 minutes. Carline’s right-wing cross bobbled past Astles who failed to clear and fell to Harry White who half-volleyed it past Lynch from 12 yards out.
Astles went close from a corner before McCarthy mixed it up, removing Alabi and Durrell and sending on Richards and Wade Joyce.
On 63 minutes, Richards nearly made an instant impact but he couldn’t connect with Chapell’s pull back and Franklin put it out for a corner.
Horwood, troubled by a shoulder injury, came off replaced by Matty Waters but he’d hardly touched the ball before Sterling-James made it 3-1.
The lively striker, the best player on show at Damson Park, was played in on goal and rounded Lynch but looked to have taken it too far wide to score. However, the talented youngster did brilliantly to score from an acute angle, much to the delight of boss McDonald on the touchline.
Chapell, the Blues best player on the day, fired a low right-footed drive which Lewis did very well to keep out on 77 minutes, before Lloyd was cautioned for chopping down Jordan Fagbola down the left.
Richards grabbed a late consolation which looped up off Lewis and into the net but it was a day to forget for McCarthy’s side who must now re-group ahead of the rematch on New Year’s Day.