CHESTER came from behind to grab a 1-1 draw with rivals Wrexham in a pulsating cross-border derby.
Dean Keates' in-form Reds took a 53rd minute lead when former Chester midfieder John Rooney scored from close range, but James Alabi levelled up from the penalty spot five minutes later, his 12th goal of the season.
The Blues ended a fiercely-contested clash with 10 men as skipper Luke George was sent off with eight minutes remaining, and Paul Rutherford should've won it late on for Wrexham with a great chance which he struck wide.
Tempers flared at full-time between the two sets of players, with both managers and their backroom staff rushing onto the pitch to split the players up.
Chester boss Jon McCarthy opted to bring Theo Vassell and Johnny Hunt back into the defence, Evan Horwood and Matty Waters the men to miss out, as skipper Luke George shifted into a midfield diamond with Tom Shaw and Ryan Lloyd, ex-Wrexham man Elliott Durrell just in behind the front pair.
Wrexham were unchanged from their 1-0 win over North Ferriby United, with loan signing Ollie Shenton – brought in from Stoke City – on the bench.
It was hoped that this latest installment of the famous rivalry would be the last we see of the ‘bubble match’ restrictions, with the 1,200 away supporters all bused from The Racecourse via police escort to their near neighbours. In fact, this was the first cross-border to kick-off at 3pm on a Saturday since 1987.
Wrexham had the first chance of the 154th meeting between the two sides, Izlae McLeod’s off-balance effort drifting over the bar in the sixth minute.
Durrell then dragged his shot well wide of Chris Dunn’s right-hand post, before Vassell’s mazy dribble earned the Blues a free-kick 35 yards out. Durrell’s resulting delivery was met by Ryan Astles looping header which crashed against the bar, Shaw volleying the rebound over.
John Rooney, who quit Chester to join Wrexham in the summer, floated a cross wide but it was the Blues in the ascendancy, Durrell’s delivery again met by Astles’ header which went over.
On 19 minutes, Jordan White beat Alex Lynch to an ariel duel, Blaine Hudson hooking off the line, before Rooney’s shot was deflected wide.
James Alabi whipped in a superb 22nd minute cross which Mark Carrington had to turn behind for a corner. Durrell’s resulting near post cross was turned into the net by Alabi but the officials deemed him to be stood in an offside position.
James Jennings scampered free down the left wing and his centre found McLeod but his finish was wasteful, before Martin Riley produced a fine tackle to deny Alabi.
Vassell, having a fine game at right-back, cut past Jennings and unleashed a left-foot drive from 30 yards which Dunn tipped behind for a corner, the goalkeeper then clawing clear Durrell’s corner.
Reds’ winger Paul Rutherford’s left-foot drive trickled wide on 35 minutes, as the riot police moved into the stadium. McLeod’s 20 yard effort took a nasty bounce infront of Lynch but the young stopper gathered at the second attempt.
Shaw’s 44th minute shot deflected in Alabi’s path but the 22-year-old was denied by a tremendous last-ditch challenge from Carrington.
Neither boss made a change at half-time and it was Keates’ Reds who had a golden chance to take the lead on 48 minutes, as McLeod should really have buried his effort from 10 yards out.
Durrell’s fierce shot was blocked by Riley, as the Blues began to mount a period of sustained pressure. However, it was the Reds who took the lead shortly after.
Rutherford’s cross from the right looked to be heading straight to Lynch’s arms but the intuitive Rooney nipped inside and tucked the ball home from close range, sparking wild scenes behind the goal packed out by Reds’ fans.
But the Blues responded in the perfect fashion just five minutes later. Alabi chased down Durrell’s zipped cross-field ball and ran at Jennings with pace, bamboozling the full-back with numerous stepovers before being brought down and referee Craig Hicks had no hesitation in awarding a spotkick. Alabi picked himself up and sent Dunn the wrong way to restore parity.
George’s fantastic drive flashed over on 65 minutes before Lynch produced a real moment of brilliance for Chester by tipping Carrington’s goalbound header wide for a corner.
George was cautioned for a blatant foul on McLeod, who was subsequently replaced by Keates for on-loan striker Ntumba Massanka.
White should have hit the target as he headed down Rooney’s cross but it narrowly went wide after good initial work from Rutherford.
To their credit both sides kept pushing for a winner, and the quick feet of Rooney drew a rash tackle from George, the Blues skipper sent off for his second bookable offence.
Richards skipped away from Riley’s challenge but blazed his shot wide, before Rutherford had a fantastic chance to grab all three points but dragged his 89th minute shot wide.
Chester: Lynch, Vassell, Astles, Hudson, Hunt; Shaw, George, Lloyd, Durrell; Richards, Alabi.
Wrexham: Dunn, Carrington, Riley, Tilt, Jennings; Barry (Shenton 83), Penn, Rooney, Rutherford; White, McLeod (Massanka 71).