County in Seventh Heaven!
The Hatters kicked off, in the best possible way, a five-game sequence of contests against teams that, earlier this afternoon, all sat above them in the Conference North table. By 5pm today, two of those - namely, today's opponents, together with this coming Tuesday's, from Chorley - had been leapfrogged, as County moved up into the final play-off position, having achieved a seventh consecutive home League victory for the first time in just over (go on, guess...) seven years.
County's starting line-up showed just one change from the team that had taken to the hallowed, and rather soggy, Edgeley Park turf against Brackley one week earlier - Daniel Gregson, having recovered from the injury that he picked up at Harrogate, replacing Jordan Fagbola in the back four. The substitutes' bench included, as it had done for the Cheshire Senior Cup-tie at Warrington Town in midweek, Charlie Russell, who was now being named in a League squad for the first time, as well as Chris Sharp, for whom a three-match suspension had ended.
Hednesford's substitutes, meanwhile, counted among their number a former Hatter in Marvin Robinson, who had made three League One appearances as a striker for County during 2005.
As proceedings commenced, the Pitmen were clearly the quicker to settle - keeping the ball in County's half, and making a number of early attempts on goal, which, through Ben Bailey, Jamey Osborne and James Hurst, all went wide. Hednesford's leading scorer, Danny Glover, had the game's first shot on target, although his overhead kick was comfortably caught by Ian Ormson.
Ormson, despite this initial pressure from the visitors, may have been relatively untroubled - but his opposite number in the Hednesford goal, Dan Crane, had been completely uninvolved when, against the run of play, the Hatters launched a counter-attack from their own area which led to a goal that was as well worked as it was unexpected. Mark Lees started the move, subsequently involving Jamie Milligan, Richie Baker and Andy Owens. The Telford United loanee then played in Scott Spencer, who held off the attentions of both the Hednesford Captain, Darren Campion, and imposing man-mountain of a defender, Francino Francis, before firing home to score in his fourth successive game at EP.
The remainder of the first half, which, prior to the goal, had been very much dominated by Hednesford, became a more even affair after the Hatters had taken the lead. Further notable efforts were one apiece before the break - with Tom Thorley shooting over the County bar, and the in-form Tunji Moses hitting a half-volley narrowly shy of the post.
There was some interest generated, as well as consultation between the match officials, when Crane handled what had, on first sight, appeared to be a back pass from Francis. The ball was, however, adjudged to have been above the knee when it left the defender, and Hednesford, quite correctly, escaped any further action.
HALF-TIME: County 1 (Spencer, 22), Hednesford 0.
Hednesford emerged after the break with the look, at least initially, of a team making a concerted effort to get back on level terms. First off, a Campion free kick, from thirty yards out, fizzed past the post after taking a deflection. Shortly afterwards, Ormson pulled off an excellent point-blank save from a Francis shot - and, heroics duly performed, the County ‘keeper then watched in relief as Richard Batchelor's follow-up header looped over the bar and rested on top of the net.
But cometh the hour-mark, cometh the County, as the Hatters began to secure greater control of the game; a ball from Milligan was drilled from the left into the Hednesford area and across goal, only to be missed narrowly as Spencer slid in; Baker had a fierce shot deflected for a corner; Lee Stevenson, beginning to make his presence felt to good effect in the second half, much as he had done at Warrington four days previously, had a shot blocked after being put through on goal by Spencer; and a Milligan free kick into the box would have found the on-rushing Sharp were it not for Crane's alertness.
The pressure paid off. And in big style, too, as, within the space of three minutes, the Hatters had trebled their lead. Stevenson performed wonders on the left flank, turning Francis inside out, and then squaring to Baker who took a touch before driving the ball past Crane for his sixth League goal of the season. And then Ormson, having brilliantly parried a Hurst shot behind the goal and commanded his area to pick up the resulting corner, launched a long ball onto Spencer who fell foul of a challenge in the Hednesford area. A penalty was awarded without hesitation, and Milligan stepped up to send Crane the wrong way - both seeing County go three goals to the good, and maintaining the Skipper's own unblemished spot-kick record this term.
The game was, to all intents and purposes, settled. Hednesford did have a couple of opportunities, through their substitutes, to grab a consolation in added time when Paul Sullivan ballooned over from two yards, following a long throw into the County area, and - looking, no doubt, to come back and haunt his former club - Robinson attempted a bicycle kick that saw the ball fly to the upper reaches of the Railway End.
A third Hednesford substitution saw Archie Love on for Glenn Walker. But the real Love today, brothers and sisters, was for our own team, which had turned in a commanding performance to quell the threat of, and then gain mastery over, the Pitmen.
Next stop, Lancashire. And Chorley, now, we will be in with a good shout there... (sorry - couldn't resist!).
FULL-TIME: County 3 (Spencer, 22; Baker, 77; Milligan (penalty), 80), Hednesford 0.
Team: Ormson, Belezika, O'Halloran, Moses, Gregson, Lees, Baker (Churchman, 84), Stevenson, Owens (Sharp, 45), Spencer, Milligan (Woolfe, 87).
Unused Subs: Hurst, Russell.
Booked/Man of the Match: Moses.
Attendance: 2,651 (115 away).
Half time draw
Possibly the biggest news of the day was that the second prize case of lager wasn't claimed. Check your pockets county fans - it could be you!
Call Tom Quayle on 0161 266 2700 Ext 256 if you think you're a winner.