Led Sees Red, As EP's Patience Gets Tested By The Saints
For the second successive Saturday at Edgeley Park, the Hatters had to settle for a share of the points with their visitors. And, for the third one running, they failed to see out a match with eleven players on the pitch.
While County's contest with Brackley was drawn, as that against Worcester had been the previous weekend, Neil Young's team did, however, need to play for some eighty minutes longer with ten men - after Karl Ledsham was sent off for an especially early bath.
On an afternoon that alternated between sunshine and showers, the Hatters were forced into being as changeable as the weather so far as their starting line-up was concerned. With Youth-loanee, Calum Dyson, having been recalled by Everton earlier in the week, and Glenn Rule beginning a lengthy ban following his sending-off against Stalybridge a fortnight ago, Sefton Gonzales and Ledsham were both recalled. Sean O'Hanlon also returned from his back injury to don the Captain's armband again after a one-match absence, and Micah Evans made way to be named as a substitute.
Among those sitting alongside Evans on the bench were Joe Garvin, who had recovered from an ankle ligaments injury incurred during the Stalybridge game, and young striker, Max Hazeldine, who had just arrived in SK3 on loan from Accrington Stanley.
The visiting Saints, meanwhile, were about to play their first match under the caretaker management of Frank Sinclair. The former Chelsea defender, still yet to hang up his boots permanently, did not name himself in the squad. That said, in Captain, Ryan Austin (once of Burton Albion), Curtis McDonald (Cardiff) and Pablo Mills (Derby and Rotherham), as well as Greg Kaziboni and David Moyo (both Northampton), Brackley's starters did boast a healthy contingent with Football League experience.
County took to the field in a 3-5-2 formation, with Jake Kirby playing just behind the front pairing of Gonzales and Kay Odejayi. And Kirby it was who created the first chance of note - cutting in from the right, before firing a low drive across the six-yard box and just wide of the far post. Two rather more speculative attempts by Brackley were to follow, as, first, Steve Diggin launched a shot, from the edge of County's area, straight into the arms of Danny Hurst, and, subsequently, Moyo struck from outside the box - forcing Hurst to palm the ball downwards, with a view to gathering it more cleanly on the bounce.
So far, so relatively uneventful. But then, with just twelve minutes on the clock, proceedings took a turn for the more dramatic - albeit, perversely, thanks to the kind of occurrence with which the County faithful of late have become more familiar than they would... erm, red-ily choose to be.
Ledsham, pursuing a ball cleared out of Brackley's defence, slid in to challenge Moyo who was promptly upended. The Referee, Paul Brown, judged the tackle to be not only late, but, with Ledsham's right foot raised, also high - and the attacking midfielder was promptly sent off, having received the fourth straight red card shown to a County player at EP within a fortnight.
The ten remaining Hatters, to their credit, responded to this setback with a spell on the offensive - gaining the first two corners of the afternoon, and creating a pair of headed attempts in the general direction of goal. Both headers came courtesy of Odejayi: the first, following Kirby's cross from the right, was caught by a diving Dan Crane in the Brackley goal; and the second looped over the visitors' bar. A little later, the Hatters were to embellish their monopoly of the first-half corner-count when Kirby, under the close attention of Glenn Walker, unleashed a shot that Crane could only parry behind.
The Saints, however, had become more alive as the interval approached - carving out openings, while forsaking a cutting edge in the final third: Moyo fired high and wide from the right side of County's box, before Diggin, occupying a more central position just within it, shot directly at Hurst; Kaziboni crossed from the left to find Moyo, whose header flew beyond the far post; Walker, looking suspiciously offside after being fed on the right flank by Moyo, hit the side netting; and, finally, Moyo turned would-be poacher once again - trying his luck from distance, but seeing his effort soar well wide of the left upright.
HALF-TIME: County 0, Brackley 0.
Having sounded a declaration of intent before the break, the visitors did not have to wait terribly long after it in securing their own first corner of the afternoon. A low delivery by Diggin from the left began life as a cross, but was soon to require more urgent defensive attention - with Hurst diving to tip the effort around the far post.
Hazeldine was preparing to enter the fray for his County debut when his intended exchange-partner, Gonzales, won a free kick wide on the left. From the resulting set-piece, Kirby was picked out further along the flank - and the Tranmere loanee proceeded to drill into the visiting box a low drive, which took touches from Odejayi and, finally, Austin before coming to rest in the Cheadle End net.
The Hatters, in spite of their numerical disadvantage, were ahead. And, as they eventually made their first substitution that had been in the offing, generous applause rang out equally for Gonzales, following his cameo role leading to the goal, and for Hazeldine, as he turned out for his inaugural appearance in a County shirt.
The lead was, alas, to last for no longer than seven minutes. A break by the Saints saw Moyo burst into the home area - and, although his ensuing shot from the left of goal was parried by Hurst, the ball then fell to Diggin, who promptly squared it in front of an empty goal for Sam Smith to bundle home. The initiative had swung again; for much of the game's remainder, it was to stay with the team with a one-player advantage...
To begin with, any potential danger was averted without undue fuss. Kaziboni let fly with a fierce volley that cannoned off O'Hanlon for a Brackley corner. And Smith executed a bicycle kick from the edge of County's box, which, while technically impressive, presented Hurst with a routine catch.
But, as the minutes ticked by, the Saints went closer. A Dwayne Samuels cross from the right was deflected by the hands of Hurst - but only as far as the feet of Diggin, who blasted over when scoring looked to be the easier option. Skippering Saint, Austin, then almost atoned for his earlier own-goal sin when, following a corner, he struck the far post at the home end. Finally, deep into added time, Hurst bravely rushed from his line to thwart a lob by Moyo, after the latter had been played into the County area.
The ten men held out - securing a point for their efforts. Strictly on the basis of player numbers, and on the balance of possession and chances, it represented an outcome for which many Hatters might, in the final analysis, have settled with a sense of some reluctant relief - even if it was not one with which they would have felt content at the start of play. And, despite not having won at EP since the opening day of the season, County still remain in a play-off position ahead of Tuesday night's journey up the M61.
And yet... and yet...
Perhaps we just need a change of scene? Yes, Chorley, that's the answer!
FULL-TIME: County 1 (Austin, o/g, 56), Brackley (Smith, 63).
Team: Hurst, Morton (Garvin, 83), Roberts, Thorniley, O'Hanlon, Connolly, Kirby, Montrose, Odejayi, Gonzales (Hazeldine, 58), Ledsham.
Unused Subs: Ormson, Evans, Colley.
Booked: Connolly, Hazeldine.
Sent Off: Ledsham.
Man of the Match: Kirby.
Attendance: 2,683 (17 away).
See our pictures and watch match highlights and interviews here:
Twitter: http://twitter.com/SCFCmediaHalf Time Draw Results
1st prize - £280 - No 333 - winner Mike White of Cheadle Hulme
2nd prize - Case of lager - No 623 - Selwyn Williams of Heaton Chapel
3rd prize - £10 club shop voucher - No 764 - Chris Morton of Stalybridge