Final Fixture Once Again Provides A Last Hurrah-gate
County's 2014/15 campaign ended in an uncannily similar manner to that of 2013/14: with a home win against Harrogate, which ended a not-insignificant sequence of matches without a victory.
On this occasion, however, a first three-point haul for the Hatters in eight matches and seven weeks (as opposed to what had been fifteen matches and almost eleven weeks a year previously) saw them secure a top-half finish in the Conference North, as well as improvements of three places and seven points on last term's finishing-position. Not, granted, a cause to get the champagne corks a-popping - but a basis, at least, on which to toast longer-term recovery.
For the third and final act of their caretaker management trilogy, Phil Brown and Dave Conlon made, rather fittingly, three changes to the side that had taken to the field against Gloucester seven days earlier. Danny Hurst was ruled out with a virus - thereby handing the gloves to Ian Ormson for what was the young goalkeeper's fifth Conference North appearance of the season. Charlie Russell and Nathan Woolfe were also handed starts, as part of a 4-4-2 line-up - swapping places on the bench with Bobby Lofthouse and Danny Glover - while Josh Powell was named as substitute ‘keeper in a League squad for the first time.
Harrogate's bench included a very familiar former Hatter in the form of Jamie Milligan, who had moved across the Pennines in mid-season after spending much of the campaign's first half as County Captain. Milligan's immediate predecessor, Phil Jevons, was in attendance as well - albeit as a non-playing guest, but, doubtless, with fond memories of the corresponding match on 26th April 2014, when he had ended his playing career with a fairytale brace and 3-1 victory send-off.
The Hatters had gone behind to Harrogate, before fighting back to win, on that occasion - and, fast-forwarding back to the present, history was about to begin to repeat itself amidst a typically April afternoon of sunshine and showers. Just six minutes into the contest, a free kick awarded to the visitors inside the County half was taken quickly, and soon found Paul Clayton who had got behind the home defence. The striker, whose transfer from Alfreton had been completed exactly one month earlier, made no mistake in firing home from six yards to put his new club ahead.
Spurred on by taking an early lead, Harrogate proceeded to lay siege to the County goal with a view to extending the advantage further. Ormson had to be at this best in first denying Clayton with a point-blank save, and then cutting out a shot from the left by Jordan Thewlis. The Harrogate Skipper, Dave McGurk, headed wide of the post following a corner, before Clayton did likewise - having also, a little earlier, gone close by half-volleying a Ryan Fallowfield cross from the right.
County's attacks had, by contrast, proved few and far between - being limited to headed efforts from Kristian Dennis and Chris Sharp that ended, respectively, in the arms of visiting ‘keeper, Peter Crook, and narrowly wide of Crook's left upright.
As the interval approached, however, the Hatters' fortunes were to change for the better. And, not for the first time in the season, a late first-half strike by Chris Churchman was to do the trick. Weaving nonchalantly into the Harrogate half, ‘Churchy' teed the ball onto his right foot before unleashing a forty-yard screamer that flew past Crook and into the right corner. The visitors were visibly shocked - home players and supporters, less so. (After all, the midfielder does not tend to deal in goals without at least a hint of the spectacular!) But, surprise or not, the moment offered up no less delight for County... not to mention a late ‘Goal of the Season' contender.
HALF-TIME: County 1 (Churchman, 44), Harrogate 1 (Clayton, 6).
With the Hatters duly buoyed up just ahead of half-time, there was a sense of anticipation that they might - just might - go on to enjoy the better of proceedings after the break, and finish the season with some flourish.
In the event, optimism was to prevail - and they did just that. Although the Hatters were to owe Ormson a debt of gratitude for point-blank saves that he made at either end of the second half. Shortly after the re-start, he kept out a header from Lewis Turner - whilst, in the closing stages, he once again blocked a Clayton shot.
Sandwiched in between Ormson's stops was a filling of County attack and opportunity. Dennis tested Crook with two shots: the first, a low drive, was smothered by the diving ‘keeper, who then needed to stretch himself vertically, as opposed to horizontally, when brilliantly palming over The Menace's subsequent attempt. Crook's gymnastic repertoire was demonstrated further, as he appeared to arch backwards in claiming a dangerous Scott Duxbury cross from the left.
Glover, who had replaced the injured Sharp shortly after the break, looked for all the world to have given County the lead, when he cut into the box from the left and fire a thunderbolt that rattled the visitors' bar close to the angle.
It would have been a more-than-worthy winner. But Glover, and County, were to be neither daunted nor disappointed for long. And just as substitutions the previous weekend - by way of Ryan's and Woolfe's dual impact - had, to an extent, helped bring about an improvement in the Hatters' second-half fortunes against Gloucester, so, too, did the changes made for this Edgeley Park finale. With just a minute of normal time remaining, Lofthouse floated a free kick from the right of the Harrogate area to find fellow sub, Glover, who headed home at the far post.
The Hatters are, of course, no strangers to cruel last-minute twists of fate. And, as Milligan, who had entered the fray to generous home applause late on, lined up to take a couple of corners, the irony of conceding goals in the very way that County had themselves scored several, whilst under his captaincy, earlier in the season would not have been lost.
Thankfully, however, the ex-Skipper's set-pieces turned out not to mean a thing without the right kind of swing - and victory under Team Brown-Conlon was confirmed at the third time of asking. The players remained on the pitch, upon the final whistle, to pay tribute to loyal and dedicated representatives of The Twelfth Man around all three occupied sides of the ground. Many will have left EP with just a hint of spring in their steps - and a sense of anticipation for the summer to follow...
FULL-TIME: County 2 (Churchman, 44; Glover, 89), Harrogate 1 (Clayton, 6).
Team: Ormson, Jacobs, Duxbury, Russell (Lofthouse, 80), Lees, O'Halloran, Moses, Churchman, Dennis, Sharp (Glover, 51), Woolfe (Ryan, 66).
Unused Subs: Powell, Benjamin.
Booked: Russell, Dennis.
Man of the Match: Churchman.
Attendance: 2,601 (65 away).