Late Leveller Takes Gloss Off Fine Matt Finish
County’s second trip of the month across the Pennines yielded one more point than the first had done, with defeat at York City, 11 days earlier – as well as a second successive one-all draw.
But the single point that the Hatters had to show for the latest visit was so nearly three, after hosts Bradford (Park Avenue) – with name-brackets from the club’s Football League days recently restored – equalised two minutes from time with only their second attempt on target.
A tight contest at the Horsfall Stadium, where Bradford remain unbeaten this term, also saw Matty Warburton’s late first-half penalty saved, before Warburton made amends with a long-range thunderbolt that – for 10 minutes, and on his 50th appearance as a Hatter – gave County the lead.
The Hatters took to the field in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and showing three changes from their starting line-up at Edgeley Park against Guiseley four days previously. Chris Smalley returned from injury, while Connor Dimaio and Jake Kirby were handed their first starts (of a second County spell, in Kirby’s case) – with Dan Cowan, Jordan Downing and Darren Stephenson making way.
Kirby almost made it an immediate dream return, when, after just four minutes, he received a cross from Sam Minihan on the right. The former Tranmere Rovers loanee turned and struck a shot from eight yards out, but the effort was smothered by home goalkeeper Steven Drench.
The Hatters – as had been the case following Scott Duxbury’s injury at York – were forced to make an early change. With just 10 minutes played, ex-Avenueite Frank Mulhern limped off after a challenge by his one-time team-mate, and Bradford captain, Shane Killock.
Chances were at a premium as the two sides proceeded to act out an even contest – although the best of the scoring attempts that did arise were County’s, including a strike from distance by Sam Walker which Drench spilled against the right post and, to the ‘keeper’s relief, away to safety.
Bradford’s Number One came more properly to his team’s rescue shortly before the half-hour mark – deflecting past the far upright a shot that Kirby had unleashed from the left after being played through by Dimaio. But Drench truly showered himself in glory three minutes ahead of half-time, following the award of a penalty to County for Nicky Clee’s trip on Kirby.
Warburton’s staggered run towards the spot culminated in a tame kick, rolled low and to the left of Drench, who dived the right way to keep honours even. And they remained so at the break – despite an added-time header by Mulhern’s replacement, Nyal Bell, that flashed narrowly wide of the far post following Paul Turnbull’s free-kick on the right.
HALF-TIME: Bradford (Park Avenue) 0, County 0.
The Hatters began the second half with attacking intent – earning three corners within eight minutes of the resumption. The hosts, during that time, also produced their first shot of the afternoon on target, although Chris Dawson’s half-volley was comfortably held by Ben Hinchliffe.
Former Hatter Ben McKenna threatened to haunt his old club courtesy of some trademark wizardry on the left wing, but his cross for Jake Beesley was headed wide of the far upright by Bradford’s striker on a season’s loan from Salford.
With a dozen minutes left, County went ahead. Minihan broke up a Bradford attack, before substitute Stephenson found Warburton, and the latter, from 25 yards out, unleashed a screamer that curled and dipped past Drench and into the top-right corner.
The hosts brought on newly-signed teenage forward Lewis Knight, only for the debutant to volley over from the increasingly dangerous McKenna’s lofted pass. But another of their replacements was to get them back on level terms – and following a move unfortunately and unwittingly initiated by a County substitute.
With 88 minutes on the clock, Kallum Mantack lost possession on the halfway line – leaving Clee to pick out Beesley, whose cross from the left was bundled home by Adam Nowakowski at close range for a share of the spoils.
FULL-TIME: Bradford (Park Avenue) 1 (Nowakowski, 88), County 1 (Warburton, 78).
Team: Hinchliffe, Minihan, Askew, Keane, Smalley, Walker, Dimaio (Mantack, 74), Turnbull (Capt.), Mulhern (Bell, 10), Warburton, Kirby (Stephenson, 63).
Unused Subs: Cowan, Ormson.
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.