GRIMSBY Town and Gateshead will go into the second leg of their play-off semi-final all square after the first leg at Blundell Park ended 1-1.
The visitors started brightly and opened the scoring on seven minutes, with striker Colin Larkin on target.
Gateshead’s possession style of football looked to be frustrating some of the home fans in a bumper 5,000-plus gate but the Mariners rallied and equalised through captain Craig Disley.
After the interval, Town were the better side and did all of the attacking in a bid to force a second goal that would edge them ahead in the tie.
But they could not make that breakthrough and with a place in the final at Wembley at stake, it will be very much all to play for in the second leg at the International Stadium.
After making wholesale changes for the final game of the regular season at Braintree, Town boss Paul Hurst named a more familiar line-up for the visit of the Tynesiders.
James McKeown started in goal, with Sam Hatton, Shaun Pearson, Andrew Boyce and Aswad Thomas forming the defence.
Alex Rodman began on the right of the four-man midfield, with Disley and Scott Kerr the central pairing and Scott Neilson starting on the left.
Ross Hannah and Lenell John-Lewis were the strikers, with Andy Cook, AndI Thanoj, Dayle Southwell, Paddy McLaughlin and Jamal Fyfield all named as subs.
Gateshead made the trip south looking to make it 13 games unbeaten, with their run making them the form team of the four going into the play-offs.
Gary Mills’ match day squad included former Grimsby favourites John Oster and Jack Lester, with Oster starting and Lester being held in reserve on the bench. A third ex-Town player in Micky Cummins was also among the substitutes.
The game started with Gateshead looking to keep possession and patiently build-up attacks.
They went forward with intent for the first time on three minutes and striker Marcus Maddison was brought down by Pearson, who was promptly shown the yellow card which took him to 15 bookings for the season and will rule him out for the remainder of the campaign.
The visitors took the lead on seven minutes, when midfielder Josh Walker hit a pass to LARKIN inside the Town box and he kept his composure well to shoot across McKeown and into the net at the far post.
The Mariners, who were yet to have an attack of note, were now on the back foot but had plenty of time to get back into the game.
A foul on Rodman on the halfway line gave the hosts an opportunity to get the ball into the danger area but Hatton’s delivery into the box was caught by visiting keeper Adam Bartlett under pressure from John-Lewis.
Neilson had a shot blocked on the edge of the box as Town looked to create an opening but Gateshead looked the stronger of the two sides in the opening stages.
The Mariners began to see more of the ball around the 15-minute mark and they won a corner when a deflected Rodman shot looped over the bar but the kick from Kerr failed to cause any problems for the away defence.
A deep cross from Hatton on the right soon afterwards was headed wide by John-Lewis as Town began to come into the game more.
Gateshead’s patient style of possession football had frustrated the home players and supporters in the early part of the game but the smiles were back on the faces of the majority inside Blundell Park on 23 minutes, when the hosts equalised.
A good possession move that went from left to right resulted in a deep cross being sent into the box, where DISLEY met it with a guided header from 12 yards that beat Bartlett and crept into the net at the far post.
Town were galvanised by the goal and they seemed to up the tempo afterwards, with another chance coming through a Rodman run and cross from the right, although John-Lewis failed to connect properly as Neilson looked set to volley behind him.
A corner came for Gateshead just after the half-hour but the high, looping delivery from the left was headed wide for a goal kick.
Another opportunity was created by the home side when Neilson found John-Lewis on the edge of the box but his low shot went wide.
A foul on John-Lewis on 35 minutes gave Grimsby a free kick in a promising central position and Hannah’s shot from it was good but went just past the post as Bartlett dived full-length.
Town were now on top and when a shot from John-Lewis was blocked, Rodman went down the right and pulled the ball back from the by-line but nobody in black and white could force it into the net.
A foul by Maddison on Thomas gave the hosts another free kick, this time on the left, but Kerr’s ball was dealt with by Gateshead.
Two added minutes were played at the end of the half and there was a chance at each end, with Carl Magnay firing well over the bar for Gateshead before Bartlett had to claw the ball away after a Rodman cross.
Town ended the half on the up and they went very close to taking the lead when an early cross from Hatton on the right was met by Rodman but his goal bound header was brilliantly tipped over the bar by Bartlett.
That proved to be the last opportunity of an exciting first period, where Gateshead had made the better start but the Mariners were the side in the ascendancy towards the end of the half.
No changes were made by either manager at half-time and the first chance after the restart came eight minutes in, when a ball over the top by Kerr sent Hannah through down the middle, although his shot was blocked.
An effort by John-Lewis soon afterwards was beaten away by Bartlett for a corner, which led to Pearson sending a towering header wide.
Another chance almost came when John-Lewis flicked the ball on and it rolled across the 18-yard line towards Rodman but he was beaten to it by a defender.
John-Lewis nearly profited from some slack play in the Gateshead defence when he looked to be about to get on the end of a short back-pass but Bartlett was alertt o the danger and raced off his line to get there first.
JJ O’Donnell replaced goalscorer Larkin as the visitors made the first substitution, with the Mariners now doing all of the attacking and looking to get themselves ahead.
Gateshead had not threatened so far in the second half as the hour mark passed, although McKeown had to react quickly to clear under pressure after taking a touch when receiving a back-pass.
The game was mostly being played inside the visitors’ half of the field and a header from Rodman on 63 minutes went up in the air and was caught by Bartlett.
The away side’s second change saw Liam Hatch introduced in place of Maddison up front.
Hatton was booked for a foul on O’Donnell midway inside the Town half after the right-back struggled to control a pass from Pearson. James Marwood’s delivery was headed out by Boyce for a corner, which was caught by McKeown.
Grimsby were on the attack again seconds later, with Neilson running down the left at pace before passing to the overlapping Thomas, who shot wide.
Rodman then did well on the right to hold off three defenders and get a cross in, which was headed away for a corner.
The winger was involved again on 75 minutes, cutting in from the right and aiming for the near post with a low shot from 20 yards that Bartlett got down to save.
Walker was yellow-carded for a foul on Thomas on the left but Town could not create anything from the free kick and the ball was hacked clear.
The Mariners were continuing to ask all of the questions as the game moved into the last 10 minutes, with Gateshead seemingly content to get men behind the ball and look to keep the tie level.
Cook was sent on for the last six minutes in place of John-Lewis, before a Gateshead corner was punched clear by McKeown.
Another opportunity for the hosts came when Rodman cut in from the right and found Neilson inside the penalty area. He turned and shot but Bartlett was there again to tip the ball over his bar for a corner, which led to Boyce volleying over the bar.
Three added minutes were signalled and Boyce conceded a free kick for a foul near the halfway line but Oster’s ball was headed away by Thomas.
With no further chances for either side, the match ended level and all eyes will now turn to the north-east for Sunday’s second leg.