County On Top At Acre Bottom
A thoroughly professional performance, in difficult, wintry conditions, saw County through to the last 32 in this season's FA Trophy - equalling the Hatters' best previous record for the tournament two years earlier.
That the match at The Harry Williams Riverside, on Acre Bottom, went ahead was very much thanks to the great efforts of Rammy officials and supporters who, since 8am, had used a combination of brushes and, most tellingly, flame throwers to clear the pitch of overnight frost. The playing surface was confirmed as satisfactory by the referee, Tom Nield, at lunchtime - although, by that stage, thick fog and light snow flurries were gracing the West Pennine valley in which the ground nestled. Smoke from the ‘Santa Special' on the adjacent steam railway was probably a less than helpful addition to the mix!
As kick-off approached, the fog lifted and the snow turned into rain, resulting in a heavy, rather than a rock-hard, pitch - likely to be neither conducive to ‘carpet football' during the game, nor terribly popular later on with the County washing machines... given that the Hatters were wearing their white change-shirts!
The County side selected to start the match in a 4-3-3 formation showed four changes from that which had lost at home to Guiseley a week previously. With Andy Owens having returned to Telford following the completion of his loan-spell, and Chris Churchman and Lee Stevenson being unavailable for Trophy action due to suspension and ineligibility, respectively, three of these alterations were inevitable. And a fourth was deemed necessary, given that Jamie Milligan was enduring difficulties with his back and hamstring. There were consequent recalls for Glenn Belezika, Tunji Moses, Bobby Lofthouse and Kristian Dennis, while Mark Lees was given the Captain's armband - although Milligan was named among the substitutes, along with two regulars from the Development Squad, Connor Hancock and Jordan Lazenbury.
With the Hatters having failed to find the back of the net in their last two matches, the odds on an early County goal might have been quite long at the outset. And yet, within the first two minutes, it was looking an attractive gamble, as a Lofthouse corner led to Scott Spencer heading against the Ramsbottom bar.
Inside three minutes, any such bet became a definite money-maker. County were awarded a penalty for a handball by Gary Stopforth, and, with regular spot-kicker, Milligan, on the bench, Scott Spencer stepped up calmly to slot the ball to the left and send Grant Shenton the wrong way, to the delight of Twelfth Man representatives in the stand behind the goal.
Scott's brother, Grant, forming half of the two-man Ramsbottom attack, went to ground in the County area just a short while later - but appeals from the home side for a second penalty of the afternoon were waved away.
Rammy did soon come close to equalising, however. And just as had been the case with County, the Rams' first near-miss of the game followed their inaugural corner - forcing a headed goal-line clearance by Belezika.
Back at the other end, Dennis tested Shenton with a hooked shot that the home ‘keeper, and Rammy Captain, Shenton, did well to parry away for a corner. The Menace's contribution to proceedings was, sadly, not to last very much longer, though. Having missed the visit of Guiseley seven days earlier, due to a groin strain, County's leading scorer, despite treatment, did not appear fit to continue on this occasion either, and, after just eighteen minutes, was replaced by Lazenbury.
There followed a spell of pressure on the part of the home side, during which Danny Hurst saved efforts from Tom Williams, at close range, and from the highly-rated Jordan Hulme. But, having weathered this, the Hatters proceeded to double their lead when a Richie Baker free kick from the left flank was only cleared by the Rammy defence as far as Daniel Gregson. The towering central defender showed something of a striker's instinct to turn before rifling home for his first-ever goal in a County shirt.
Ramsbottom made a concerted attempt to reduce the two-goal deficit as the first half entered its closing stages - forcing two corners in quick succession, and claiming a penalty for handball - but to no avail.
HALF-TIME: Ramsbottom 0, County 2 (Spencer (penalty), 3; Gregson, 24).
The relentless pace at which much of the first half had been conducted inevitably slowed a little, as the heavier rain and pitch made their presences felt, after the break. The Rams, for all their continued effort, were reduced to a small handful of chances - although a strike by Hulme did bring out a save at full stretch from Hurst, while Williams unleashed a shot that fizzed just over the County bar.
The Hatters, for their part, looked to test Shenton with a couple of shots - courtesy of Chris Sharp, from distance, and Spencer, at close range from an angle. Then, with fewer than ten minutes left, Sharp turned provider with a pinpoint-perfect cross from the right that Lazenbury rose to meet with his head - scoring his first competitive goal for the first team, and putting County three ahead.
Hancock was brought on for his debut with five minutes still on the clock, and, although he had far less time in which to impress than his goal-scoring Development Squad colleague, made himself immediately, and impressively, useful by breaking down an attempted Rammy attack. Milligan also had a run out, and almost fulfilled the role of ‘super sub' when an exquisite chip of his from the left floated across the face of the home goal.
Not that this mattered in the event, for County had seen off potentially dangerous, and notoriously free-scoring, opponents, to secure their place in Monday's Second Round draw. It may have been Winter outside, but in the hearts of the County faithful there were clear signs of Spring.
FULL-TIME: Ramsbottom 0, County 3 (Spencer (penalty), 3; Gregson, 24; Lazenbury, 81).
Team: Hurst, Belezika, O'Halloran, Moses (Hancock, 85), Gregson, Lees, Baker, Lofthouse (Milligan, 68), Spencer, Dennis (Lazenbury, 18), Sharp.
Unused Subs: Ormson, Woolfe.
Booked: Hurst, Belezika, Baker.
Attendance: 907 (316 away).
The draw for the 2nd Round of the FA Trophy will take place on Monday 15th December and ties will take place on Saturday 10th January.
Teams in the draw with us are:
AFC Telford United -or- Chester FC
Alfreton Town FC
Basingstoke Town FC -or- Gosport Borough FC
Bath City FC
Bradford (Park Avenue) FC -or- Kidderminster Harriers FC
Braintree Town FC
Burgess Hill Town FC
Concord Rangers FC -or- Barnet FC
Dover Athletic FC
Ebbsfleet United FC -or- Welling United FC
FC United Of Manchester
Forest Green Rovers FC -or- Didcot Town FC
Grimsby Town FC
Hemel Hempstead Town FC
Maidenhead United FC
North Ferriby United FC -or- Boston United FC
Oxford City FC
Southport FC -or- Wrexham FC
Torquay United FC
Weymouth FC -or- Havant & Waterlooville FC
Worcester City FC -or- FC Halifax Town