Two For Sorrow, As Magpies Midfielder's Brace Leaves County At Their Whits' End
The Hatters' already-slender hopes of securing a Play-off position were rendered even slimmer by a pair of impressive strikes from Dale Whitham.
The Chorley midfielder entirely justified his billing in the matchday programme as ‘one to watch' by scoring once in each half to enable the Magpies of Chorley not only to achieve the double over County, but also fly four points ahead with two games in hand.
Alan Lord saw his ever-increasing list of players sidelined due to injury become even longer when, prior to the match, Scott Spencer failed a fitness test. Wes Benjamin and Chris Sharp, who had both featured in the midweek Cheshire Senior Cup-tie at Macclesfield, were also ruled out. That said, net changes to the starting line-up from County's most recent League match, at Lowestoft seven days earlier, amounted to just two - with Scott Duxbury and Jack Ryan replacing Benjamin and Spencer.
The Hatters' substitutes were, however, all of a tender age. Joining Ian Ormson, Joe Noblett and and Bobby Lofthouse on the bench were two young strikers: namely, Jordan Lazenbury, who had returned to County from a loan-spell at Ramsbottom; and another product of the Development Squad, Michael Hampson, whose registration to play in the Conference North had only been completed the previous day.
Kicking off with a 5-2-1-2 formation, the Hatters' defence was to be tested as early as the third minute when Harry Winter shot from six yards out - forcing Danny Hurst to save at full stretch. That scare for County was, a short while later, rather put in its place by ten seconds of edge-of-the-seat terror, as Hurst and his right-hand post kept out successive strikes by Josh Hine, before Connor Hancock blocked a James Dean sequel-shot.
Dean, as Chorley's leading scorer, looked to emulate one of his iconic namesake's works by setting out to bestride the County area like a ‘Giant‘ - although his efforts for the afternoon in front of goal were restricted to a couple of headers. One of those flashed wide of the upright, following a free kick that Dean had himself won after a challenge by Stephen O'Halloran.
The Hatters were not to get away so lightly with the visitors' next free kick - awarded, with just over half an hour gone, and on the very edge of the box, when Tunji Moses clipped the ankles of Winter. Up stepped Whitham, who curled his delivery around the wall to hit the bottom corner of County's net.
As County sought to get back on level terms, efforts from the Hatters before the break were restricted to long-range efforts. A Danny Glover free kick found its way into the arms of Sam Ashton, while Moses sent a half-volley over Chorley's bar from outside the area.
HALF-TIME: County 0, Chorley 1 (Whitham, 31).
As proceedings resumed, the Hatters appeared initially to have a good sense of purpose. One move, in particular, provided some grounds for optimism - when Charlie Russell split the visiting defence with a pass to find Ryan, whose subsequent cross from the left met the head of Glover. The header, however, looped under pressure from defenders in attendance - leaving Ashton (albeit with the Spring sunshine in his eyes) with a straightforward catch.
Chorley did not take long to push forward again, and continued to increase their corner-count - the corresponding one of which for County was not to get off the mark all afternoon. Hurst, as in the first half, remained the busier of the two goalkeepers, too - saving headed attempts from Dean and Chris Doyle, as well as a Winter half-volley.
But, with a little over fifteen minutes left on the clock, County's Number One was left without a chance, as the Hatters lost possession thirty-five yards out, and Whitham - with an unsuspecting Hurst off his line - exquisitely lobbed the ball goal-wards to double both his personal tally and that of his team.
Aaron Burns and Duxbury fired shots over at the respective opposite ends - before Whitham, on a hat trick, drove narrowly wide of the upright from just outside the County box. And, in the closing minutes, Hurst, as if justification were needed, further embellished the Sponsors' choice as Man of the Match by blocking Hine at point-blank range, after the visting winger had got behind Duxbury and Mark Lees.
Recent research has debunked the myth that Magpies make a habit of stealing valuable things. And, hand on heart, any County fan would be hard pressed to deny that those from Chorley had thoroughly earned the three precious points accompanying them back home up the A6 this evening.
FULL-TIME: County 0, Chorley 2 (Whitham, 31 and 74).
Team: Hurst, Todd, Duxbury, Lees, Hancock (Hampson, 60), O'Halloran, Moses, Russell, Ryan (Lazenbury, 78), Glover, Wilkinson (Lofthouse, 74).
Unused Subs: Ormson, Noblett.
Man of the Match: Hurst.
Attendance: 3,401 (298 away).