By Tom Easterby
At Hillheads Park
Newcastle United Under-21s 1 (Aarons)
Whitley Bay 0
Gael Bigirimana played the full 90 minutes as Newcastle United under-21s ran out 1-0 winners over Whitley Bay in a Northumberland Senior Cup semi final tie.
The 20-year-old, who has been out of the first-team picture since suffering an ankle injury in January, starred as a crowd of around 1,000 saw Peter Beardsley's men reach the final courtesy of a stunning 86th-minute strike from Rolando Aarons.
A United side also featuring the likes of Michael Richardson, Remie Streete and Alex Gilliead struggled to find their rhythm early on against their part-time opponents, but Callum Roberts was first to threaten as his inswinging free kick forced home keeper Michael Hammond into action, punching clear the danger after just three minutes.
Leon Ryan's Northern League outfit enjoyed some pressure during the early exchanges with Craig McFarlane and Michael McMullen combining well down the right flank but with clear-cut opportunities at a premium, United's young charges pushed forward. Streete, in a commanding centre-half display, nodded captain Bigirimana's corner over after 11 minutes as Beardsley's side sought an opener.
Having travelled with the first team squad for Saturday's defeat at Fulham, both winger Aarons and centre back Lubo Satka returned to reserve team action at Hillheads, and the latter was faced with the task of keeping The Bay's talismanic forward Paul Chow quiet.
Chow went close with a snapshot past the post on 28 minutes, before Jarrett Rivers blasted high and wide from the edge of the area on the half hour. With Ryan's men in the ascendency, Rivers forced Streete into a last-ditch lunging block as the winger bore down on goal but it was Newcastle who spurned the best chance of the first period, as Gillead diverted Richardson's teasing cross over the bar following good work from Roberts.
Irishman Brandon Miele, returning from injury, had a St. Patrick's Day to forget as he limped off to be replaced by OIivier Kemen with two minutes of the half remaining.
After the break, the Toon looked more likely to make the breakthrough, with Kemen and Bigirimana forging an industrious midfield partnership. Whitley Bay's speed and endeavour on the counter, however, posed sporadic problems for United with Alex Kempster testing Callum Williams on occasion, but the young full-back did well to deal with the pacy wideman. Chow's physicality was also a persistent threat, but the big forward was well marshalled by Streete and Satka.
At the other end, meanwhile, Roberts forced Hammond into a smart save when he cut in from the right flank and hammered an effort towards goal prior to Williams attempting a speculative right-footed effort to no avail, but it took a moment of magic from Aarons to separate the sides. His thunderous 25-yard drive sailed past Hammond in the Bay goal with just four minutes remaining to hand Beardsley's young prodigies a place in the final.
Whitley Bay: Michael Hammond, Craig McFarlane, Chris McDonald, Stephen Buzzeo (Brad Brooking 22), Leon Ryan, Chris Reid, Michael McMullen (Andrew Robertson 80), Callum Anderson, Jarrett Rivers, Paul Chow, Alex Kempster
Subs not used: Craig Smith, Lewis Burns, David Fairgrieve
Newcastle United Under-21s: Jonathan Mitchell, Jamie Sterry, Callum Williams, Gael Bigirimana, Remie Streete, Lubo Satka, Michael Richardson, Brandon Miele (Olivier Kemen 43), Alex Gilliead (Jonathan Quinn 68), Callum Roberts, Rolando Aarons
Subs not used: Ryan McKinnon, Freddie Woodman, Greg Olley