Hatters Overcome Blyth Spirit To Go Through
County’s FA trophy quest for 2019/20 began with a second successive 4-2 victory at Edgeley Park, as goals from Ash Palmer and Tom Walker, as well as second-half substitutes Adam Thomas and Sam Minihan, saw off battling first-round National League North opponents Blyth Spartans.
The Hatters took to the field for their final pre-Christmas home match showing two changes from the starting line-up at EP against Chorley seven days earlier. Dan Cowan replaced Minihan in the right-back berth, and, up front, Frank Mulhern came in for Nyal Bell who was ruled out with a tweaked hamstring. In the additional absence of the cup-tied Joe Leesley and still-injured Sam Walker, County’s seven-player bench included a quartet of Academy youngsters: namely, striker Jack Cooper; midfielders Jack Hopkins and Michael Rattle; and central defender Finley Stanyer.
The first attempt on target fell to Festus Arthur, fresh from scoring his inaugural league goal a week previously. With just a couple of minutes played, the teenage centre-half rose to meet Tom Walker’s free-kick from the right – only for his header to be comfortably caught by Zac Hemming.
The visitors earned the contest’s first corner after five minutes – with Jack Hunter volleying behind Callum Roberts’ delivery from the right – before Devante Rodney and Elliot Osborne struck efforts wide at the other end, and Mulhern bundled Rodney’s low cross from the right shy of the far post.
Mulhern went close again with 10 minutes on the clock, when through on goal but blocked by the legs of Hemming – and, following another 11, Walker was denied in the same manner after he had cut in from the left.
Around the first half’s mid-point, a Walker corner from the left was cleared away from the line by Olly Scott after deflecting off team-mate Lewis Ritson. But the Hatters’ pressure finally paid off with the half-hour approaching, when another set-piece delivery by Walker – this time, in the form of a free-kick to the right of the Blyth box – was headed home by Palmer to give County the lead.
The Spartans, who had won on both their NLN visits to SK3 in the past two seasons, were offering little threat in attack before falling behind – but six minutes prior to the break, they equalised, as Lewis Hawkins converted at close range a Rhys Evans cross from the right.
With half-time imminent, the visitors almost went ahead – but Arthur hooked off the line a Dylan McGlade chip from the left that had evaded Ben Hinchliffe.
HALF-TIME: County 1 (Palmer, 30), Blyth 1 (Hawkins, 39).
The Hatters introduced Thomas for Rodney upon the resumption, and sounded an early second-half declaration of intent when Osborne fired a shot towards goal that deflected off Kris Thackray before looping into the arms of Hemming.
Thomas then flicked over the Blyth bar Tyler Garratt’s cross from the left, as County continued to press. But the visitors were content to sit back and attack on the break, and Michael Sweet fired high and wide of the Hatters’ goal when well placed to score on the hour-mark.
Hemming continued to be the busier of the two goalkeepers, as he smothered shots from Osborne and Jordan Keane. But with 66 minutes played, he could do nothing to keep out Thomas’ glanced header into the top-left corner of the net, following Cowan’s cross on the right.
Having got their noses back in front, the Hatters sought to make the tie safe. Osborne unleashed a thunderbolt of a shot that Hemming parried behind; Scott, for the second time in the game, cleared off the line – from Thomas, on this occasion; and Mulhern fired just wide of the right post.
With 14 minutes remaining, they looked to have done so, when Walker blasted in from close range at the far upright Osborne’s low cross from the left. But just two minutes later, Hunter’s 25-yard strike went in off the right post at the other end to set up a potentially nervy finish.
Minihan, on as a late replacement for Man of the Match Osborne, finally ensured County’s passage into the Second Round when he slotted home a fourth in added time, after being teed up by Thomas from the right.
FULL-TIME: County 4 (Palmer, 30; Thomas, 66; T Walker, 76; Minihan, 90 + 3), Blyth 2 (Hawkins, 39; Hunter, 78).
Team (4-2-3-1): HInchliffe; Cowan, Palmer, Arthur, Garratt; Turnbull (Capt.), Keane; Rodney (Thomas, 46), Osborne (Minihan, 82), T Walker; Mulhern (Hopkins, 90).
Unused Subs: Ormson, Cooper, Rattle, Stanyer.
Booked: Palmer, Arthur, Keane.
Man of the Match: Osborne.
Attendance: 1,436 (56 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.