Saints Alive For Second-Half Comeback
The Hatters suffered their first defeat since late October, and their first-ever in the National League North at Brackley’s St James Park, as the ‘Saints’ produced a strong performance after half-time to win by the odd goal in five.
After falling behind with just over a quarter of an hour played, County had gone in at the break ahead – but a second-half brace by the hosts’ leading scorer Aaron Williams ultimately saw Brackley over the line to preserve an eight-month unbeaten home record.
Jim Gannon fielded an unchanged 3-4-2-1 line-up from that which had started at Southport in the FA Trophy replay three days previously. Stephen O’Halloran retained the captain’s armband, although two skippers from earlier in the season – namely, Michael Clarke, who returned to the squad after recovering from a knock, and Harry Winter – were both named among the substitutes.
The contest became an open one from the outset, as, first, Jason Oswell headed a Dan Cowan cross from the right wide of the near upright, and, subsequently, Jack Byrne’s long-range shot took a deflection off Jimmy Ball to loop past the right post, in the early stages.
But the Saints, who had never before scored at home against County in league action, were the side to take the lead after 16 minutes. Bohan Dixon lost possession, before James Armson found Matt Lowe on the edge of the Hatters’ area, and Lowe’s through-ball to Shane Byrne was slotted by Byrne past Ben Hinchliffe from 12 yards out.
Just five minutes later, the Hatters were back on terms. Their third corner of the afternoon, delivered by Matty Warburton on the right, met the head of Oswell – who, from beyond the far upright, headed across goal for Chris Smalley to side-foot inside the near post for his first goal of the current campaign, and only his third in two years as a County player.
Warburton came close on two occasions to putting County in front, when, within a minute, he fired one shot into the left side-netting and another over the crossbar. And after he turned provider with a low cross from the right, Oswell was expertly blocked by home captain Gareth Dean.
But three minutes ahead of the interval, County’s Number Ten hit the target after Ball won a tackle to feed Gary Stopforth, whose through-ball was fired home by Warburton from the edge of the area for his 14th goal in all competitions.
HALF-TIME: Brackley 1 (S Byrne, 16), County 2 (Smalley, 21; Warburton, 42).
Warburton almost began the second half as he had ended the first, although his low shot four minutes after the re-start fizzed narrowly shy of the left post.
But the hosts were building up a head of steam, as they strove to reduce their arrears. And after Hinchliffe had caught a low drive and a header by Armson, Brackley drew level when Williams – on loan from Newport County – turned O’Halloran just inside County’s box and fired past an unsighted Hinchliffe, with the possible aid of a deflection, for his 20th goal of the season.
The Hatters, by way of response just after the hour, introduced Scott Duxbury and Winter for, respectively, Ben McKenna and Oswell. But within 14 minutes of levelling, the Saints took the lead for the second time in the contest. A short corner on the right from Glenn Walker picked out Dean, whose cross was turned in from close range by Williams.
The Hatters’ final substitute, Darren Stephenson, went close after being played through by Winter – but his goal-bound shot was kept out by the legs of home goalkeeper, Danny Lewis. And the afternoon took a further turn for the worse eight minutes from time, when a poor challenge by Armson on Warburton in full flight rendered the latter unable to play any further part in the game.
County’s ten men applied some late pressure – and a Duxbury cross from the left was scrambled clear in added time – but the patience of the Saints, while tested, remained intact.
FULL-TIME: Brackley 3 (S Byrne, 16; Williams, 57 and 71), County 2 (Smalley, 21; Warburton, 42).
Team: Hinchliffe, Cowan, Mantack, Ball, Smalley, O’Halloran (Capt.) (Stephenson, 74), McKenna (Duxbury, 61), Stopforth, Oswell (Winter, 64), Warburton, Dixon.
Unused Subs: Ormson, Clarke.
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.