Almost two years ago to the date, County turned up at The Lamb on the back of two opening victories. Sadly, the 100% and undefeated records went that afternoon - and tragically, of course, come the end of the season, so too did our Conference Premiership status.
This new campaign’s start had, ahead of today, been a reversal of that in 2012/13, courtesy of two defeats against opponents beaten in the Play-offs last term. And today’s fixture, away to a team that had plyed its trade in the Conference Premiership during 2013/14, and had picked up four points out of six thus far, did not promise to be any less tough an assignment. County’s preparations were not helped by a facial injury suffered in training by Kristian Dennis on Thursday, which had ruled him out for selection. Also stepping down from the line-up that started at Guiseley, and onto the bench, were the two Chris’s - Churchman and Sharp - and Nathan Woolfe, as Alan Lord opted for a five-man defence that included the returning Glenn Belezika. Jack Ryan returned to lead the line alongside Scott Spencer, who, together with Tunji Moses, was handed a first start of the season. Richie Baker also featured from the off against his former club.
After some cautious opening exchanges, County, playing in their white and black change-strip, enjoyed the first attempt on target, although Ryan’s shot lacked pace and was comfortably gathered by James Belshaw in the home goal.
Tamworth were promptly stirred into life, and, proving themselves quick on the break, began to force County into a rearguard action for ten minutes or so, although the five-man defence - with Gregson, Lees and O’Halloran all looking solid and dependable in the centre - stood firm on each occasion.
Not that it was all one-way traffic for long, mind. The well-populated defence was allowing Milligan and Moses more space to operate in midfield, and each arguably ended up putting in his most impressive shift in a County shirt. The Captain hit the crossbar with a well-floated free kick from the edge of the Tamworth box after twenty minutes, and, later in the game, was to feature in a couple of technically excellent one-two movements with Baker and Ryan, which, on another day, could have led to memorable goals. Moses, meanwhile, was typically combative - and to truly great effect. By unanimous agreement in the Blue and White half of the Press Box, he was worthy of a Man of the Match shout-out this afternoon.
The more the first half went on, the more open it became. Hurst, in particular, had to be at his best to pull off two point-blank saves from David Hibbert. But, by the time the whistle had gone for the break, the attempts on goal stood at half-a-dozen apiece, and honours were deservedly even.
HALF-TIME: Tamworth 0, County 0.
The second half resumed pretty much as the first had left off, with periods of pressure, potentially ominous free kicks and a handful of half-chances for both sides. At around the midway-point, a much clearer opportunity, and the best in the game to date, fell to Spencer, who did all the right things by opting to lob Belshaw. Unfortunately, however, the chip’s direction was slightly askew and rolled wide of the Tamworth post.
The home side had already used up three substitutions by the time Alan Lord decided to make changes late on in the game, with Churchman and, subsequently, Sharp, replacing Belezika and Spencer - the former of whom looked to have picked up a knock, and the latter of whom more than deserved a rest after a tireless afternoon’s effort up front.
Then, with the contest in its final moments of normal time, came the decisive moment - not to mention controversial talking-point - when Ryan, chasing the ball towards the right of Belshaw’s goal, went to ground in the face of an approach from the on-rushing ‘keeper. The referee’s decision was instantly to award a spot-kick - greeted by no fierce dissent on the part of the home players, but by utter derision from the locals in the crowd.
With no apparent shortage of volunteers to take the penalty, Milligan invoked Captain’s prerogative, left-footing it safely home towards Belshaw’s right and directly in front of the jubilant standing County faithful. A long-awaited first County goal for him personally, and, of course, one that opened the team’s account for the new season. All that were needed now were the points to go with it!
Thankfully, the hour was late, and no obvious causes of nail-biting presented themselves ahead of the final whistle. The sun even emerged from previously leaden skies, as if to herald the advent of better times ahead. County had achieved a perfect reverse of the results-sequence from August 2012, and, most importantly, had, after a couple of false starts, got the season up and running with an away-win that not many would have even dared to dream of at 3pm.
All that was missing was a third substitution involving our nippy winger, which would have presented a Heaven-sent opportunity to talk about setting the Woolfe among the Lambs... but then you can’t have everything.
FULL-TIME: Tamworth 0, County 1 (Milligan, pen.).
Team: Hurst, Belezika (Churchman), Duxbury, O’Halloran, Gregson, Lees, Moses, Baker, Spencer (Sharp), Milligan, Ryan.
Unused Subs: Ormson, Lofthouse, Woolfe.