Joy Brakes Out, As County Return To Winning Ways
With just a single day over three months of the season still to run, and on the back of a sequence that had seen County win just one Conference North match in nine, today's visit of Leamington's relegation-threatened ‘Brakes' had ‘must-win' written all over it. And, in the event, the Hatters duly delivered not only the much-needed victory but also a generally commanding team performance. That said, for a spell during the second half, it looked as if they might have to do everything within their power to... erm, clutch onto a share of the spoils from an entertaining contest.
Alan Lord was able to name a strong starting line-up, with a 4-3-1-2 formation, bolstered in part by the returns from injury of Danny Hurst and Richie Baker. Leading scorer, Kristian Dennis, was handed his first League start since the beginning of December, whilst Ian Ormson, Jordan Fagbola and Charlie Russell all stepped down to the bench.
The Edgeley Park turf was sanded in places, following the wintry weather of the past fortnight - although some rare sunshine greeted the players as they took to the field. And the Hatters almost made the sunniest of starts within the first minute of the game, when Jack Ryan held the ball up well before playing in Danny Glover. Only the intervention of Brakes ‘keeper, Ross Atkins, prevented Glover from chalking up his first goal in a County shirt.
Leamington proceeded to enjoy a short spell of possession, without threatening in the final third, but it was the home side that took the lead on eleven minutes. Dennis drilled a low shot towards the visitors' goal that Atkins failed to hold, before Ryan was quickest to the rebound and blasted home for his sixth League strike of the campaign.
The goal stirred County to hugely positive effect - heralding a period of almost-complete domination, as the Hatters launched a number of runs from deep with which the Leamington midfield and defence struggled to cope. A flurry of attempts in and around the visitors' area followed, too. Greg Wilkinson blazed high and wide from the edge of the box; Atkins was called into action to keep hold of a second attempt on target from Dennis; and Ryan was only slightly out of position to connect in the best possible way with a Scott Duxbury cross from the left.
A second goal for the Hatters looked on the cards. And so it proved to be, when Glover split the visiting defence with a ball that found Dennis. The Menace is not a player to bet against in one-on-one situations, and he calmly placed his shot beyond Atkins to double County's lead.
The Brakes had but one meaningful effort in the whole of the first half - albeit an attempt that very nearly got them back into the game. The visiting Captain, Stephan Morley, curled a free kick that found the head of Delroy Gordon, and the defender looked to have halved the deficit for his side until Hurst, at full stretch, brilliantly palmed away the header for a corner.
Either side of that, Glover had made concerted efforts to get his name on the scoresheet, in the course of a fine individual performance that was featuring his coverage of practically every blade of EP grass (and each grain of imported sand!). His first effort saw him battle his way through the Leamington area, before shooting at Atkins, while his second involved a neat turn and shot as he connected with a Kyle Jacobs cross to fire narrowly wide.
HALF-TIME: County 2 (Ryan, 11; Dennis, 26), Leamington 0.
The Hatters were out of the traps, without a hint of complacency, as the second half began and they continued to apply pressure. Duxbury sent over another cross from the left that fizzed across the Leamington goal-mouth, before Glover headed a Baker chip over the bar, and Stephen O'Halloran shot just wide of the post following a corner.
It came as something of a rude shock, then, when Leamington scored after a little over ten minutes - Dan Newton, in space on the edge of the County box, unleashing a fine shot that fired its way past Hurst and into the top left-hand corner.
Duxbury came close to adding his name to the short list of County players who have scored direct from corners, when his in-swinging kick almost caught Atkins out. But, a short while later, Leamington drew level - and, again, Newton did the damage. Capitalising on a defensive error, the bearded striker bundled his way through two challenges before scoring from close range.
County looked for all the world to have seized a draw from the jaws of victory, but what was then to follow had a hint of fairytale about it. Playing what would now - thanks to that red card at Gainsborough, a week previously - be the final game of his loan spell at EP, Wilkinson capped a fine individual display when, picking up a lay-off from Dennis, he let rip with a 25-yard piledriver that flew into the net and restored a lead for the Hatters.
Leamington, buoyed up by their own goals-haul, looked to get back on terms - now by means of two strikers with beards, following the introduction of Lee Moore. A Newton header was palmed away by Hurst, and O'Halloran made an excellent intervention to thwart Moore when the hirsute substitute was through on goal.
County had brought on an attacker of their own in Chris Sharp, who, in the dying minutes of normal time, saw his point-blank effort saved by Atkins. Not that it was to matter, mind, as, moments later, a delicious County move involving Chris Churchman and, subsequently, Dennis - who had already played a part in each of the Hatters' goals - found Sharp. The substitute's cracker of a shot more than made up for his earlier miss, as it flew past Atkins to make the game safe.
There was still time for County to find the net once more, and, almost inevitably, it was Man of the Match, Dennis, who did so - only to be flagged for offside. Quite right, too... really. Following a sequence in which our men at numbers nine, ten, eleven and twelve had scored in order, any subsequent goal surely had to have Ian Ormson's name on it!
FULL-TIME: County 4 (Ryan, 11; Dennis, 26; Wilkinson, 73; Sharp, 90), Leamington 2 (Newton, 57 and 69).
Team: Hurst, Jacobs, Duxbury, Churchman, Lees, O'Halloran, Baker (Russell, 74), Glover (Lofthouse, 82), Ryan (Sharp, 59), Dennis , Wilkinson.
Unused Subs: Ormson, Fagbola.
Man of the Match: Dennis.
Attendance: 2,884 (120 away).
Watch the match highlights here: http://youtu.be/q0Q1NNFgKgY