County See Off The Tigers To Earn Their Stripes
Edgeley Park's second successive Saturday 'SK El Clasico' may not have been one to linger forever in County folklore. And nor was it, against the struggling 'Tigers' from SK14, a Valentine's Day Massacre that some had predicted it could be. But the Hatters did turn in a professional team performance to secure a third home victory in a row, which, combined with results elsewhere, keeps them within kissing distance of the play-off positions.
The starting line-up showed three changes from the team that had taken to the field against Stalybridge seven days earlier. Kyle Jacobs, having been ruled out with a groin strain, was replaced by Jordan Fagbola - while Nathan Woolfe and Chris Sharp came in for Charlie Russell and Richie Baker, as part of a 4-4-2 formation.
County's starters included two popular ex-Hyde players - namely, Mark Lees and Tunji Moses - whilst a third, Scott Spencer, made a welcome return from injury to be named among the substitutes. The visitors, for their part, were fielding one former Hatter in full back, Kyle Brownhill.
The opening exchanges created relatively little of note - although the busier goalkeeping hands were those of Danny Hurst, who comfortably picked up a Ben Holmes shot from distance on the first bounce, before cutting out a Brownhill cross ahead of the on-rushing Pete Boyle.
As the Hatters began to play themselves into the game, Moses acted as creator on a couple of occasions - first feeding Danny Glover, whose subsequent turn and shot saw the ball fly past the upright, and then playing the ball wide to Sharp, who - without his trademark gloves, but sporting bright yellow boots - cut in from the right to drive low at a diving Hyde 'keeper (and a name to remember for Scrabble), Ed Wilcyznski.
Woolfe, following his late, late part in the winning goal against Tameside rivals a week earlier, turned back into potential provider as he took on Stalybridge's near-neighbours. Two corners from the winger narrowly missed the head of Stephen O'Halloran, before a peach of a cross connected with Glover's. The County Faithful rose as one to greet an opening goal, as the header looked for all the world to have gone in... when, in fact, it had ended up narrowly wide of the post.
Not that any frustration was to be long-lived, mind. With fewer than ten minutes remaining before the break, an O'Halloran long ball was poorly controlled by Brownhill, whose chest-down was picked up by Kristian Dennis. The Menace is not one against whom to bet in one-on-one situations, and County's leading scorer fully justified the odds as he remained calm to shoot home past Wilcyznski.
County looked to double their advantage ahead of half-time, with a mini-series of further forays towards the Railway End: Dennis fired a shot over; Woolfe cut in from the left to force a diving save by Wilcyznski; and Fagbola, overlapping on the right, delivered a high, looping cross that almost became a shot - only missing the far post by inches.
Into added time, Hyde came incredibly close to delivering a sucker-punch. Following an excellent run out of defence by Perry Ng, the defender found Boyle, who did everything right in turning and shooting towards goal. The effort was, however, brilliantly tipped around the post by Hurst to ensure that the Hatters could remain ahead for the outset of the second half. They would have to play it without Fagbola, though. In the course of Hyde's attack, the right back strained a hamstring - to be replaced, just before the half-time whistle, by Matthew Todd.
HALF-TIME: County 1 (Dennis, 36), Hyde 0.
Just as the dying seconds of the first half had featured a potentially pivotal moment at the Cheadle End, so, too, did the opening minutes of the second. A 'Hollywood pass' from deep by Dennis found Woolfe on the left flank, and the winger delivered another delicious cross that Glover met with a bullet of a header into the back of the net.
Pinpoint deliveries from Woolfe to Glover were turning into the order of the day. And, on another afternoon, the latter, following his near-miss in the first half, could well have been celebrating a hat-trick of headers when another such effort, from a Woolfe free kick on the left, rattled the Hyde crossbar.
The Tigers, commendably, were not without fight - and, in Connor Hughes, looked to have a dangerous wide-player of their own. Having skewed an attempt wide earlier in the half, Hughes tested the County defence more seriously with a run culminating in a shot that Hurst parried at point-blank range. The loose ball then found Boyle, but his effort spun beyond the post, and the Hatters's two-goal advantage was preserved.
For much of the rest of the game, County continued to create chances without directly threatening the Hyde goal: a Woolfe cross - from the right, for a change - found Sharp, who headed wide; shots by Dennis and Glover from around the edge of the box were fired, respectively, high and wide; Spencer shot both high and wide, following two separate runs into the area from the left and the right flanks; and Dennis, with his back to goal, turned and shot straight at Wilcyznski.
Hughes initiated two late attempts to grab a consolation for Hyde. But, as all football-loving Valentines know, The Beautiful Game, like love, is always merciless to the runner-up. The young winger broke into the County area to shoot wide of goal, before crossing from the left to Luke Giverin who, under pressure and off balance, skied over.
In between those efforts from the visitors, Spencer went to ground under a challenge in the Hyde area. The prospect of the former Tiger converting a penalty against his old club would have made for a fairytale ending to the afternoon. Instead - and, in the eyes of nearly three thousand of those present, harshly - 'Super Scott' was shown a yellow card for apparent simulation.
Not that this mattered terribly in the great scheme of things, as time was finally called on the contest and news filtered through that four of the top five-placed Conference North clubs had lost. With a number of those still scheduled to play each other over the coming weeks, further points are bound to be dropped at the business-end of the table, too. For County, it is a simple case of continuing to accumulate as many of their own as they possibly can.
Animo et Fide. And don't Hyde the County love.
FULL-TIME: County 2 (Dennis, 36; Glover, 47), Hyde 0.
Team: Hurst, Fagbola (Todd, 45), Duxbury, Moses, Lees, O'Halloran, Woolfe (Lofthouse, 68), Glover, Dennis, Sharp (Spencer, 71), Churchman.
Unused Subs: Ormson, Baker.
Man of the Match: Glover.
Attendance: 3,041 (119 away).
FREE MATCH HIGHLIGHTS:http://youtu.be/2NJuDZAQ9j0