Slow Start Against Cheshire Rivals Seals County's Cup Fate
On this, the last full day of British Summer Time, the lights finally went out on County's FA Cup run - and, sadly, on the prospect of progression to the competition's First Round proper - although only after a firecracker of a contest, which, most particularly in the second half, had exhibited plenty of ingredients required for classic knockout football. A bumper attendance, goals galore, penalty-area skirmishes, sendings-off, and even a beach ball on the pitch... oh, but I'm telling you the plot!
Let us first rewind, then, to 3pm, when the teams took to the pitch against a cacophony of noise from an Edgeley Park that featured a Railway End full of visiting Cestrians - as well as constantly-whirring turnstiles through which queues continued to snake until well after kick-off time. County's line-up showed just one change from that which had started at Leamington a week previously - Richie Baker returning to action, in place of Lee Stevenson who, once again, was unavailable for Cup duty. The Seals, meanwhile, included three former Hatters - namely, Sean McConville, Craig Hobson and their Captain, Kieran Charnock - to start.
The home substitutes' bench was seven-strong, as permitted by the competition (although there was no place on it for either the still-injured Scott Duxbury or the now-suspended Chris Sharp). And, before the game had reached its ten-minute mark, County were forced into making early use of it. Matthew Todd picked up a knock, while challenging for the ball adjacent to the Popular Side, thereby bringing his participation to a premature end. Glenn Belezika was brought on as a direct replacement at right back, to make his first County appearance in more than five weeks.
The beach ball was not far behind Belezika in gracing the Edgeley turf - appearing just in front of the Cheadle End goal that County were defending, and just as a cross was heading Danny Hurst's way! Thankfully, the Hatters' custodian held onto the match ball, without being distracted or impeded by the one from the seaside.
With a trio of ex-County players plying their trade in opposition, there was always the danger of at least one exerting an influence of note upon proceedings. And it was a now-bearded Hobson who looked to be ‘that guy', when he had the ball in County's net after the defence had fluffed its lines. To the relief of the home faithful, however, ‘Hobbo' had been flagged offside, and the game remained goal-less.
Not that it was to do so for much longer, mind. Following high-and-wide attempts for the visitors from Craig Mahon, Ben Heneghan and Wayne Rooney's little brother, John, Mahon turned provider to play McConville in behind the County defence. And so it was that the midfielder came back to haunt his former club by latching onto the ball to shoot past Hurst, and to put the visitors in front. McConville's subsequent booking for his goal celebrations in front of the Cheadle End was, frankly, of scant consolation.
Fewer than ten minutes had passed before Chester doubled their lead through Matthew Hughes. Currently on loan to the Seals from Fleetwood Town, Hughes had, shortly beforehand, seen a headed attempt saved by an unsuspecting (but obviously grateful) Hurst, after the County ‘keeper failed to cut out a Heneghan cross. His very next involvement in the action, however, saw him make inroads, unchallenged, back into the County area and rifle home an impressive shot.
Chester saw out the first half very much in charge of proceedings. The two-goal advantage notwithstanding, they were ticking all the right boxes when it came to pace, possession and winning tackles. County, for their part, were restricted to a couple of wayward attempts from Chris Churchman late on in the first half, and, as the whistle blew for half-time, it was not immediately obvious as to how the Hatters could possibly get back on terms.
HALF-TIME: County 0, Chester 2 (McConville, 20; Hughes, 28).
A disappointing first forty-five minutes for County might, quite understandably, have persuaded a good few of the home faithful to prolong their own half-time refreshment breaks. Any who did so missed the most unexpectedly blistering start to the second half, as the Hatters scored twice in the space of two minutes to re-light their Cup fire and send almost three-quarters of those present into feverish raptures.
Firstly, Nathan Woolfe, who had replaced Baker at the re-start, threaded a ball through the Chester defence to Kristian Dennis. The Menace made no mistake, once one-on-one with Jon Worsnop, to convert his tenth goal in all competitions this term.
Barely had the excitement subsided, when Scott Spencer scored the goal of the game - hitting home a half-volleyed effort that saw him net for the third consecutive game.
County were now firmly in the ascendancy. And the Hatters went within a whisker of taking the lead, when a Woolfe shot from distance was tipped against the bar by Worsnop. Cue howls from the home fans, partly in homage to the impressive Woolfe-man and partly in anguish over the visiting ‘keeper's excellent save.
The game was briefly interrupted, after Hurst and Belezika collided with each other in the course of an attempted clearance just outside the County box. Both players - the latter, following treatment - were, however, soon able to continue.
The contest was then to take a further turn, as, for the third time in the afternoon, a team scored twice with some rapidity. And, in the most horribly polite British way, it was Chester's turn. Just after the hour, Mahon showed great skill on the right side of the County box before playing the ball in to McConville, who converted from close range. Then, eight minutes later, a corner from Rooney was headed powerfully home by Heneghan - displaying, distressingly, all the hallmarks of several County set-piece successes this term.
With a two-goal deficit restored on the scoreboard, and time ticking away, a re-doubling of County's efforts was required. While seeking to apply further pressure, the Hatters were awarded two corners in quick succession, and, in the immediate aftermath of the second kick, a goalmouth skirmish ensued. From the Main Stand, it was all rather reminiscent of Barry Manilow's Copacobana - not being able to see clearly “just who shot (or, on this occasion, to be fair, manhandled without firearms) who”. The end-result was stark enough, though, as both teams were reduced to ten men, with straight red cards for Dennis and for Michael Kay - as well as a yellow, shown to Belezika, for good measure.
During four minutes of added time, each side went close to adding to the afternoon's goals-count. A curling shot from Woolfe was parried by Worsnop, before Rooney fired just wide of the post. Chester substitute, Jamie Menagh, also played his part in the late drama with a short cameo of Judi Dench calibre as he theatrically went to ground in the County box. A yellow card was brandished - but be sure not to rule out nominations when those end-of-year acting awards ceremonies get started, either!
As the final curtain came down, County could be justly proud of their performance following the break - but will, no doubt, rue having taken until then to get the party started. Time, as they say, to concentrate on the League - starting with another visit next Saturday to Harrogate, where this season's Cup adventure began last month. Onwards and - let us hope, come the end of the campaign - upwards!
FULL-TIME: County 2 (Dennis, 47; Spencer, 49), Chester 4 (McConville, 20 and 64; Hughes, 28; Heneghan, 72)
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Team: Hurst, Todd (Belezika, 9), O'Halloran, Lees, Gregson, Fagbola (Moses, 85), Baker (Woolfe, 45), Churchman, Dennis, Spencer, Milligan.
Unused Subs: Ormson, Lofthouse, Lazenbury, Hancock.
Booked: Churchman, Belezika.
Sent Off: Dennis.
Man of the Match: Gregson.
Attendance: 4,612 (1,282 away).