Hatters Beaten By The Form-Horses At Cheltenham
County's final away-trip of the season, to the edge of the Cotswolds, ended in a defeat by the odd goal in three that extended the Hatters' sequence of matches without a victory to seven.
Phil Brown and Dave Conlon announced a starting line-up unchanged from that which had taken to the field at Hyde four days earlier. Rather unusually, the Hatters found themselves, within the same space of time, playing two separate sets of ‘Tigers' - albeit two with different sharpness of tooth. For, while those of Ewen Fields were already relegated, the tenants at Whaddon Road had just secured their safety and, indeed, topped the Conference North form-table with a run of four wins and two draws - in rather ominously stark contrast to County's two draws and four defeats.
The County bench showed just one change from the midweek excursion - with Nathan Woolfe returning from injury to replace Michael Hampson, and to feature in a squad for the first time in nearly two months.
The Hatters, adopting a 4-4-1-1 formation and turned out all in white on a glorious Spring afternoon, kicked off into the sun and with a breeze behind them. Gloucester, however, were to create the game's earliest chances: an outstretched leg of Chris Sharp, helping out in defence, blocked a shot by Sam Avery; Femi Orenuga burst into the County box on the right, before firing wide; and Ross Staley connected with a cross from the same side, before heading past the far upright.
County's first chance of the match, and of a brief spell in which they enjoyed a greater share of possession, fell to Kristian Dennis when he shot over the bar from just inside the Gloucester area. Chris Churchman then tried his luck, but fired wide, from distance - before Dennis, picking up the ball following a Danny Glover header from the right of the box, cut in to shoot and force the diving teenage debutant goalkeeper, Harvey Rivers, into what was no doubt a confidence-building save.
After twenty minutes, Gloucester took the lead - having earned a corner when Staley's dipping lob from the left flank was tipped over by Danny Hurst. County's defence cleared the corner itself, but was then caught napping as the ball was whipped back into the box by Billy Jones - and Harry White reacted quickest to fire home from close range.
The wind may have been behind the Hatters, but did not appear to be assisting them as a free kick, taken by Glover from thirty yards out, drifted harmlessly to Rivers. Having gathered that delivery with some ease, however, the ‘keeper needed to be at his best when County's next opportunity arose. A pinpoint-perfect pass by Scott Duxbury from sixty yards found Dennis in the Gloucester area and one-on-one with Rivers, but, after steadying himself to shoot, The Menace's effort was brilliantly blocked.
It was a missed chance that the Hatters were to rue, as, with just a minute of normal time remaining before the break, Gloucester doubled their advantage. The goal owed much to Orenuga, who beat Duxbury on the right byline before squaring the ball for White to tap in.
HALF-TIME: Gloucester 2 (White, 20 & 44), County 0.
The Hatters would have been - as the pundits say - disappointed to concede both of the goals that they had done. And the players‘ return to the pitch several minutes before their opponents provided a likely indication about the general drift of changing-room conversations at half-time.
White, meanwhile, was thoroughly enjoying his afternoon - and it was almost a case of Gloucester's ‘Happy Harry' becoming even happier, as he came close on several occasions to securing a hat-trick just after the re-start. A cross from the left by Adam Connolly narrowly evaded White at the far post, before the young striker had a shot deflected behind by Mark Lees and headed the resulting corner over County's bar. He then shot wide from close range, after his Captain, Tom Webb, had won a tussle for the ball in the six-yard box.
Dennis continued to look as if he offered County's best hope of a goal. By way of his side's first chances following the break, The Menace shot wide whilst under pressure from attentive defenders - before weaving into the box on the right and firing straight at Rivers.
With over an hour played, the Hatters made an attacking double-substitution - with Woolfe and Jack Ryan entering the fray, and the formation converting into a more conventional 4-4-2. Woolfe's impact was almost immediate, as he floated a free kick from the left that Stephen O'Halloran - who had himself fired a shot wide just earlier - headed for Rivers to catch.
The Tigers remained on the prowl, and not far away from increasing their advantage further. Staley, while looking in a suspiciously offside position, found himself with only Hurst to beat - but, after cutting inside to shoot, his eventual effort lacked pace and was comfortably gathered by County's Number One. Following that, White was again denied a three-goal haul, after connecting, six yards out, with a Jones cross from the left - but seeing his shot saved by Hurst's right leg.
Dennis looked possibly to have earned his side a penalty as the whistle blew after he had gone to ground under a challenge by Rivers in the Gloucester area - but, to the clear dismay of County's leading scorer, he received a yellow card for apparent simulation, rather than the award of a spot-kick.
The Hatters were nonetheless able to get themselves back into the game, when, with just over ten minutes remaining, their two substitutes played key roles leading to a halving of the deficit. Another free kick by Woolfe from the left caused chaos in the Gloucester box, and two opportunities in quick succession for Ryan, whose header was blocked on the line by Mike Green and follow-up shot struck the woodwork. But cometh the hour, cometh the Irishman - and O'Halloran it was who finally found the back of the net, as he blasted home for his first goal in a County shirt.
County strove to draw level in the game's closing stages - albeit, ultimately, in vain. Dennis skipped nimbly past Jones, before shooting wide from just inside the area. And O'Halloran almost doubled his own, as well as his team's, tally, when he fired over following a corner.
But the final word of the contest nearly went to Webb, whose late shot - had it gone in, rather than being held by Hurst - would have truly put the icing on the cake for the Gloucester Skipper... burning bright as one already undoubtedly needed to by way of celebrating his remarkable 600th appearance as a Tiger.
Watch free match highlights here - https://youtu.be/8zL1tOg3-1QFULL-TIME: Gloucester 2 (White, 20 & 44), County 1 (O'Halloran, 79).
Team: Hurst, Jacobs, Duxbury, Churchman, Lees, O'Halloran, Moses (Russell, 89), Glover (Woolfe, 65), Dennis, Sharp, Lofthouse (Ryan, 65).
Unused Subs: Ormson, Benjamin.
Booked: Sharp, Dennis.