County Tame The Tigers - And Survive A Second-half Circus!
Edgeley Park hosted its first weekend game for three weeks, as County returned to Conference North business, looking to extend their winning run at home and firmly cement themselves in a Play-off position. In the event, the Hatters succeeded - although, as the title suggests, there were a good few thrills and spills to be had in between!
Alan Lord made two changes to the line-up which had started the FA Cup-tie at Harrogate last Saturday. Daniel Gregson, who had been nursing a shoulder injury, was judged fit to return to central defence, while Lee Stevenson, on loan from Alfreton, was once again available for selection, to play just behind the front two, now that County were back in League action. Jordan Fagbola and Matthew Todd, who had each been called up for a first match of the season seven days earlier, stood down in their places - with the former taking a seat on the bench.
Also named among the home substitutes was Tunji Moses, who, with his post-operative recovery now complete, featured in a County squad for the first time in six weeks. Interestingly, Gloucester proved to be the first opponents since Hednesford, almost a month earlier, not to include any former Hatters on their team-sheet! (It was a close-run thing, mind, given that Elliott Chamberlain had been a ‘Tiger' as recently as 1st October, before transferring to ply his trade at Corby Town.)
The first quarter of the game was to produce very little to write (or, as your friendly ‘ScfcMedia' Twitter correspondent was finding, to tweet) home about, save for a couple of shots from Gloucester's lively Matt Groves, and one from leading scorer for the Hatters, Kristian Dennis - none of which escaped the safe clutches of the respective goalkeepers - as well as Charlie Griffin's placing of the ball in the County net, albeit only after Groves had been flagged offside.
County also had to wait almost half an hour for their first corner. But it was well worth it, as Jamie Milligan's now-trademark in-swinger was met by the head of Richie Baker for his fourth League goal. A hurried consultation in the press box concluded this also to be the County Captain's fifth corner-assist since the start of the current campaign. Remember that number - five - for what follows, dear readers!
Shortly after going ahead, County looked to have a penalty shout at the Cheadle End when a Chris Sharp shot in the Gloucester area struck an opponent - but play was waved on. Chris Churchman subsequently became the first of three County players to be booked, following a tussle with Lewis Hogg ten minutes before the break. The altercation between the pair looked to be a case of ‘six and two threes', although the visiting player went unpunished on that occasion.
With fewer than five first-half minutes left on the clock, County, as they have often been wont to do of late, scored again at a most opportune of times - doubling their lead in the process. Mark Lees, following a good run, found Sharp in the box, whose calmly-struck shot evaded Paul White in the Gloucester goal to nestle sweetly in the bottom corner.
A two-goal lead for the Hatters at half-time, then. Something for which, as events later unfolded, they were to feel very thankful... and more than a little relieved!
HALF-TIME: County 2 (Baker, 27; Sharp, 41), Gloucester 0.
Not that anyone would have stopped for a moment to contemplate that, following seven minutes of the second half, though. For, by then, County were four goals to the good.
In the first meaningful action after the re-start, Dennis, running away from the Gloucester goal, went to ground in the box under pressure from Sam Avery. The referee, without hesitation, pointed to the spot - even though, to many onlookers in different areas of the ground, it appeared a debatable call - and Milligan, as he had done to great effect at Tamworth on the second weekend of the season, stepped up emphatically to convert the penalty, sending White the wrong way for good measure.
Stevenson, just four minutes later, scored his second goal in as many games, and County's fourth of the afternoon, when he collected the ball on the left flank, and held off a challenge from Matt Williams, before rifling home. County were cruising. And the Tigers looked to be toothless.
The Hatters, however, were having to make some adjustments in defence. Just ahead of Stevenson's goal, Scott Duxbury, who had received treatment for a knock during the first half, needed to be replaced by Fagbola, who slotted in at right back. Lees, in turn, moved across to partner Gregson centrally, while Stephen O'Halloran occupied Duxbury's position on the left.
Gloucester, meanwhile - and much as they had done after going two down at EP on their previous visit almost a year earlier - were not giving up. Griffin, for the second time in the match, had the ball in the net following an infringement - on this occasion, his foul on Danny Hurst - before Hurst was called into serious action for the first time, brilliantly parrying a free kick from the Tigers' Captain, Billy Jones.
County then came close to making it five, when Stevenson found himself in space and followed up the blocking of a Dennis shot to hit the post.
With a quarter of an hour to go, the County defence required further shuffling, as Gregson, still feeling the effects of his shoulder trouble, was replaced by Moses. The returning midfielder occupied what was for him a less-than-familiar left back berth, leaving O'Halloran to return to the centre.
Two minutes later, Gloucester, continuing to press, pulled a goal back - Griffin heading in a cross from substitute, Chris Jones. And, within just two more, the Tigers had a second, when Hogg, also using his head, got on the end of a corner which had resulted from another fine Hurst save from a free kick.
Inconceivably, County, having been four up, found themselves with a potential case of the dying-minute jitters. Any nerves were soon settled, however, by a well-taken Dennis goal from yet another Milligan assist. A seventh in the League for The Menace, and a fifth of the afternoon for the Hatters. Game over... surely?
Those Tigers still had something in their tank, though. With a minute of normal time remaining, Griffin (and not Groves, as all around us - including our friends from Gloucester - had believed at the time) scored again from close range, following a goalmouth scramble that County's defenders had failed to clear.
The rollercoaster-drama continued into added time, as Hogg lunged into Hurst after County's Number One had gathered the ball. A straight red card was shown to the Gloucester midfielder.
And, even then, there was a moment left for collective gasps of breath, when Griffin, presented with a scoring opportunity that appeared easier than the two he had already put away, missed the chance to make it 5-4 and to claim a hat trick, putting the ball narrowly wide from a Groves cross.
That truly was the final act of an afternoon's entertainment which had sprung into Big-Top-type life after the intermission. More to the point, County had scored five, held on to secure a fifth successive home victory and advanced to - yep - fifth in the table. Onward now to Oxford City on Tuesday. Guess how many they scored this afternoon, too?!
FULL-TIME: County 5 (Baker, 27; Sharp, 41; Milligan (penalty), 48; Stevenson, 52; Dennis, 85), Gloucester 3 (Griffin, 78 and 89; Hogg, 82).
Team: Hurst, Lees, Duxbury (Fagbola, 50), Churchman, Gregson (Moses, 76), O'Halloran, Baker (Woolfe, 71), Stevenson, Dennis, Milligan, Sharp.
Unused Subs: Ormson, Spencer.
Booked: Churchman, Gregson, Moses.
Man of the Match: Sharp.