A Holy Welcome Win... Feels Like (County) Heaven!
His halo might have slipped a tad on being dismissed against Worcester seven days earlier, but Jack Ryan signed off, ahead of his one-match ban, in the best possible way - scoring the only goal of the game at St James Park, home to the ‘Saints’ of Brackley.
It was, it must be said, a bizarre goal (more of which anon...), but a significant one - halting a sequence of three straight League defeats for County, and ending a scoring-drought which had crept up towards the six-hour mark. In the process, the Hatters also notched up a second ‘double’ of the current campaign against opponents (the first having been Leamington) that they had failed to beat on either occasion during 2013/14.
Alan Lord made two changes to the side that had started the Barrow game at Edgeley Park in midweek, as Scott Duxbury and Bobby Lofthouse, having been ruled out with respective groin and hamstring injuries, were replaced by Kyle Jacobs and Connor Hancock. It marked a League debut for the latter - a product of County’s Development Squad - who took his place in a five-player defence, replicating the formation which had served County well at an earlier stage of the season when the Hatters gained 19 points from a possible 24.
The Brackley line-up included a familiar face in Frank Sinclair, who had, only the previous month, appeared against County while still player-managing Colwyn Bay. The hosts also handed a debut to Paulo Mendes, their recent signing from another Conference North club, Oxford City.
The opening half-hour, on an undulating, but remarkably well-preserved, pitch, was to see precious little in the way of action around either final third. Of the two sides, however, County, adorned in blue, did look to be more intent on creating opportunities during this phase: Greg Wilkinson executed a fine chip that got behind the defence - only to reach Dean Snedker, in the home goal, just ahead of the on-rushing Richie Baker; and a Danny Glover shot from the edge of Brackley’s box flew wide of the goal’s top-left corner.
When the Hatters did score, it would not be unfair to say that it was out of rather less direct intent! A Wilkinson cross from the left found Ryan towards the far side of the area, and the loanee from Preston headed the ball towards the six-yard box - in the hope, no doubt, that a team-mate would be there to latch onto it.
As it turned out, Glover was in that very spot - although his leap failed to connect. And, moreover, neither did Snedker’s, as the ‘keeper, while jumping with Glover for what he might have expected to be a routine catch, misjudged the flight of the header. To his horror, to County’s delight, and to the surprise of everyone in the ground, the ball looped into the back of the net, and the Hatters were ahead.
The goal did appear to stir the Saints, who, from two corners in succession, went close with headers over the bar by Sinclair and, subsequently, by their Captain, Ryan Austin. The Hatters, however, created the last moment of note ahead of the break. Jacobs, pressing forward in the style that had so endeared him to the County faithful during his first spell at SK3, caught the Brackley defence napping with a mazy run that only ended when Austin intervened to play the ball behind for a corner.
HALF-TIME: Brackley 0, County 1 (Ryan, 32).
Having opened up ahead of the break, the game continued in similar vein following it - with Brackley looking to restore parity. Free kicks from distance by Ebby Nelson-Addy and Chris Carruthers, on the left and right flanks respectively, evaded those assembled in the County area before going out for goal kicks. And, closer to goal, Ryan Rowe tried his luck with a chip from the left side of the box - although the effort lacked height, and was comfortably caught by Danny Hurst.
The Hatters, for their part, saw Baker shoot low and wide from the edge of the home area - before launching a more sustained attack which, in the space of less than a minute, involved rather more of their number. Glover’s chip across the face of goal was quickly followed by blocked shots from Chris Churchman and Ryan - and, finally, a Ryan header, which, in going harmlessly wide, failed to repeat any first-half freakery.
The Saints were still alive, and not without a prayer. Rowe connected with a David Moyo cross from the right - heading narrowly wide. Moyo then launched a more direct attempt, by cutting in from the right and skying the ball over the bar and out of the ground.
With ten minutes left on the clock, the hosts had their best chance of all. Will Green, a substitute who had replaced Mendes on the stroke of half-time, beat the offside trap to get behind County’s defence. The outstretched legs of Hurst, however, came to the rescue of the Hatters with a magnificent one-on-one stop that deflected the ball behind for a corner.
When it came to the corner-count, Brackley were enjoying a healthy lead. The Hatters gained but one in the second half (following a couple before the break), which was back-headed by Baker wide of the post.
The final meaningful action of the afternoon almost resulted in a doubling of County’s lead. And its quality would certainly have merited a goal, as Glover beat three defenders before having an initial shot blocked by Snedker, then retrieving the ball and firing again - only to see his goal-bound effort tipped onto the bar.
Not that it mattered, as the Hatters played out the game solidly to secure the points. And the pleasure of the players and their Manager at having achieved a hugely morale-boosting win was clear for all to see. One spectator who will certainly have left St James Park a happy man was George Haigh - at 99, the oldest surviving former County footballer - who had made the short trip from his Oxfordshire home to watch the team that he himself had first joined in the late 1920s. He even managed a touch of the ball, too, when it went out of play and, as if by fate, into his waiting hands. George’s throw back to Carruthers led to a cheer that might not have been quite as thunderous as some of those he would have enjoyed while playing in front of bigger crowds eighty-odd years ago - but it was surely no less emotional for that.
Watch the match highlights here - http://youtu.be/XLvYzAkCb24FULL-TIME: Brackley 0, County 1 (Ryan, 32).
Team: Hurst, Jacobs, Todd, Lees, Hancock, O’Halloran, Baker, Churchman, Glover, Ryan, Wilkinson.
Subs (all unused): Ormson, Moses, Spencer, Sharp, Russell.
Booked: Glover, O’Halloran.
Attendance: 395 (143, by way of an unofficial count, representing The Twelfth Man).