WHAT HAPPENED IN 'VEGAS'? QUITE A LOT, AS IT GOES...
A rather unseasonal August Bank Holiday, the chill of which made it feel rather more like mid-Autumn than late Summer, saw County travel the short distance from SK3 to SK15 for their first local derby of the season. In doing so, the hopes uppermost in the minds of all Hatters were that the good form of the two previous matches would continue and that a third consecutive victory could be chalked up.
County's starting line-up showed one change from that which had kicked off at Edgeley Park earlier in the weekend. Tunji Moses, having picked up an ankle injury against Bradford Park Avenue, was forced to sit out on this occasion, and was replaced by Nathan Woolfe. Chris Churchman, meanwhile, returned to the bench.
Celtic, managed by former EP favourite, Keith Briggs, had something of a 'County Past' look about them. No fewer than four ex-Hatters - Lewis King, Matty Mainwaring, Paul Ennis and Liam Dickinson - were named to start for the home side. Each one of the four, too, sported the designer stubble look by way of a further show of unity!
The first twenty minutes of the match suggested that a close contest was in prospect (as, indeed, it was to prove to be... only not quite in the way expected!). For County, playing in yellow, and attacking a well-populated away end, an early chance fell to Woolfe, who failed to convert from close range. Stalybridge, at the other end of the pitch, looked to Ben McKenna, whose consistently good work on, and crosses from, the left flank marked him out as a potential danger man. And so it was to prove on 22 minutes, when McKenna, reverting to a more central position, dived low to head powerfully home.
The opening goal signalled the beginning of a poor spell for County. Missing the presence of Moses in midfield, the Hatters struggled to make inroads into the home defence and failed to create any further opportunities of note before half-time. Far worse, however, two lapses in the final five minutes of the half were to lead to further Celtic strikes on target past Hurst - by Aiden Chippendale, who had dispossessed Woolfe, and by Ennis, in space, from the edge of the County box - which left County leaving the pitch for the break with a Grand Canyon to climb.
HALF-TIME: Celtic 3, County 0.
The advent of the second half saw the assembled wave farewell to the 'walking footballers' who had been parading their skills during the interval, and, so far as County supporters were concerned, welcome back the main-event players more in hope than in expectation. Without doubt, an early goal for the visitors was needed to keep the game, and their slim chances, alive - and it duly came within five minutes, when Jamie Milligan brought the ball under control in the home area and fed Scott Spencer, whose lay-off to Jack Ryan saw the Preston loanee side-foot home for his second County goal in two matches.
Just before the hour, Alan Lord introduced more attacking options, bringing on Kristian Dennis and Chris Sharp for, respectively, Woolfe and Glenn Belezika. County's five-man defence became a flat back four, which was to be spectacularly untroubled, as the Hatters assumed domination of proceedings and sought to claw back the deficit. Shot after shot began to rain in on the Celtic goal, where King found his afternoon become increasingly busy as he used his hands and feet to keep out attempts by Spencer, Sharp and, in particular, Dennis. The former County 'keeper couldn't get close to a wonderfully-struck, rasping first-time effort from the edge of the box by Scott Duxbury, but, luckily for King, and unfortunately for County, the shot hit the post and rebounded to safety.
King also featured in a couple of goalmouth skirmishes with County players jostling for position, as the Hatters continued to pile forward. On the second occasion, both he and Sharp were booked for their trouble.
County's pressure paid off with four minutes of normal time remaining, when Dennis gratefully latched onto a Spencer pass and blasted an unstoppable shot into the top corner for his second goal of the campaign. There were then to follow, as against The Avenue on Saturday, six minutes of added time - due in no small part to treatment that Dickinson had received after appearing to pick up a thigh strain. At the end of a holiday weekend which had seen us lose the great Lord Attenborough, was 'The Great Escape' about to be completed?
Well, there was certainly no shortage of further drama to follow. Just not, sadly, in the form of a County equaliser. The third player-scuffle of the afternoon broke out near the County dugout, when McKenna held on to the ball, rather than allowing the visitors to get on with the game, when it was out of play. After the excitement had subsided, more yellow cards were brandished - to Richie Baker and Milligan, as well as to Dickinson, but, interestingly, not to McKenna. Rather more ominously for County, a small number of visiting spectators had entered the field of play and looked to join in.
Milligan and McKenna featured in the plot's final twist, when the County Captain attempted (but failed) to halt the Celtic forward, and, rather harshly to these eyes, was sent off for a second bookable offence.
Very much 'a game of two halves', then, but one which saw the home side manage to convert the odd goal in five during theirs - and to ensure that the three points stayed in 'Vegas'.
FULL-TIME: Celtic 3, County 2 (Ryan, 50; Dennis, 86).
Team: Hurst, Belezika (Sharp, 58), Duxbury, O'Halloran, Gregson, Lees, Woolfe (Dennis, 58), Baker, Spencer, Milligan, Ryan.
Unused Subs: Ormson, Lofthouse, Churchman.