Boston Stumped, As Hatters Battle To Check Pilgrims' Progress
They may have ridden their luck at times - and probably owe the Freedom of Stockport to Danny Hurst for his second-half heroics between the sticks - but the Hatters ultimately negotiated a testing fixture and pitch to come away with a welcome point against a Boston side that had enjoyed successive five-goal hauls in the last three matches played at York Street (or 'The Jakemans Stadium', if you will).
Traces of the wintry weather which had blighted much of the country over the last couple of days, and which were still very much in evidence throughout Cheshire and Derbyshire, had all but disappeared in East Lincolnshire as the weekend arrived. Boston's home turf was, however, rendered rather soggy by the now-departed snow, and that, together with some Saturday lunchtime rain, necessitated an unexpected, late pitch inspection.
Thankfully, for the travelling County faithful in particular, the pitch was passed as fit - and matters were improved further ahead of kick-off by a mix of sunshine and breeze that helped to dry the playing surface. That said, the pitch still looked at the ready to cut up. Not the best of occasions, perhaps, for County to be taking to the field in an all-white kit!
The starting line-up that did emerge, sporting this initially-pristine look, showed just one change from the side that had kicked off against Leamington a week previously - Charlie Russell returning, in place of the suspended Greg Wilkinson. Nathan Woolfe and Matthew Todd, both of whom had featured in the successful Cheshire Senior Cup squad at Alsager in midweek, were restored to the bench, while Boston's starters included former Hatter, Carl Piergianni, in central defence.
The opening exchanges were somewhat pedestrian, although did provide the Hatters with an opportunity to test themselves against a handful of long throws launched into their area by Zak Mills. Then, with the first fifteen minutes rapidly lost to the collective memory, the game began to open up. Nicky Walker shot narrowly wide of County's goal, before the men in an increasingly muddy shade of white counter-attacked and a Danny Glover cross from the left just missed the head of a diving Jack Ryan. Moments later, Piergianni, adorned with alice band and ponytail, did fashion a header that saw him almost score against his old club - just as he had done in the corresponding fixture at Edgeley Park during the last days of Summer.
The hosts appeared to be exerting more of a grip on the game, when County's formation was changed from 4-3-1-2 to 4-4-2 - featuring a flat midfield that included Kristian Dennis out on the right flank. And it immediately paid off! Picking up a quickly-taken throw by Kyle Jacobs, The Menace delivered an excellent cross to Ryan, who controlled the ball, and then turned and volleyed home to put the Hatters ahead.
County enjoyed a spell of ascendancy following the goal, and Dennis looked to add to his team's tally - latching onto a pinpoint-perfect diagonal pass from Chris Churchman, before cutting in from the right and shooting narrowly over the Boston bar.
But, with half-time approaching, the Hatters were themselves caught out by a counter-attack. After plucking a corner out of the air, Boston 'keeper, Joel Dixon, started the move - finding Dayle Southwell on the left. Southwell, in turn, switched the action to the right by picking out Massiah McDonald, whose cross fizzed across the County area. The visiting defenders failed to connect with it, but Liam Marrs, waiting at the far post didn't - sliding in to equalize from close range, and Pumping Up The Volume among the home sections of the crowd in the process.
Into added time, Boston gave early notice of a clear declaration of intent to take control. The Pilgrims' leading scorer, Southwell, twice went close - firing one shot over and then a second wide, following a well-practised free kick routine.
HALF-TIME: Boston 1 (Marrs, 41), County 1 (Ryan, 27).
The sun had taken its final bow for the day by the time the teams returned to a pitch that was rapidly beginning to resemble The Somme. Quite fitting, too, given that County were about to endure a half of fierce trench warfare...
Southwell was the first home player to try his luck, as he broke into the County area to shoot - but only to be denied by Hurst's stretched left foot. The Boston striker then sought to take advantage as the Hatters lost possession on the edge of the box, but his low shot was drilled wide.
In between Southwell's efforts, Dennis appeared to be impeded as County found themselves at the other end of the pitch - but any appeals for a penalty were swiftly waved away by referee, Tom Nield.
Boston were now creating chance after chance, as they showed just how they liked to go about scoring goals for fun on their home turf. Mark Jones, under pressure from his first-namesake, Captain Lees, headed wide. Hurst saved again with his legs - this time from the home Skipper, Scott Garner, following one of many corners for the Pilgrims. Southwell shot wide from just inside the area, once more. Garner picked up a free kick to drill wide through a crowded defence. Jones connected with a cross from the left to go close. Garner stretched to head wide, after a ball from the right flank had been flicked on by Southwell. And Piergianni almost came back to haunt County again, when a second of his headers - from a Mills throw, as in the first half - was saved by Hurst at full stretch.
Hurst had already staked a strong claim to be County's Man of the Match, but his finest moments were yet to come. He saved bravely and brilliantly at close range to deny substitute, and Southwell's replacement, Marc Newsham - before grabbing hold on his goal-line of the resulting, in-swinging corner. Another Boston corner, delivered by Walker, required punching over the bar, as the home side continued to test the visiting 'keeper.
He then looked, for all the world, to have been beaten, as the ball pinged around County's area before falling to Garner, whose piledriver of a shot was clearly heading for the back of the net. That is, until Hurst somehow managed to get his fingertips to the ball - just enough for it to alter its pattern of goal-bound flight and rattle the crossbar. It was an extraordinary save - duly acknowledged in applause from doubtlessly disbelieving home supporters.
As the game neared its close the Hatters had the last chance of note when they were awarded a free kick from thirty yards out. Glover's delivery did well to clear the Boston wall, but then did likewise over the home goal. Nevertheless, minutes later, a draw was secure. (And, frankly, a late winner would have been extremely cheeky!)
So, just as they did almost a year ago to the day, County had travelled to Boston to face a side in frighteningly free-scoring form, and returned home with a point - an outcome for which most Hatters would have settled before the game, and for which all, bar none, would have taken at any point after the break.
And just as a penalty-saving Ian Ormson had been the hero of the hour (and a half) on 28th January 2014, the Hatters had his club-counterpart to thank for performing miracles with the gloves this time around.
FULL-TIME: Boston 1 (Marrs, 41), County 1 (Ryan, 27).
Team: Hurst, Jacobs, Duxbury (Todd, 78), Churchman, Lees, O'Halloran, Baker, Glover, Ryan (Sharp, 71), Dennis, Russell.
Unused Subs: Ormson, Lofthouse, Woolfe.
Booked: Ryan, Duxbury, Churchman, Baker, Russell.
Men of the Match: Piergianni (Boston); Hurst (County)... unofficially, but obviously!
Attendance: 1,072 (131 representing The Twelfth Man).
Match highlights: http://youtu.be/5wKgc0qazys
Alan's post match interview: http://youtu.be/LwG7NGw1ZsQ
Hurst saves a point for County with an important stop: http://youtu.be/IHIMhzKokco