The Hatters’ first Football League campaign for 11 seasons concluded its regular fixtures at Edgeley Park with a share of the spoils against already-relegated Hartlepool.
The draw, combined with third-placed Northampton’s single-goal win at Tranmere, left County in fourth to contest a two-legged play-off semi-final with Salford.
A Callum Camps penalty shortly before the interval put the Hatters in charge following a dominant first-half showing, but second-to-bottom ‘Pools’ got themselves back on terms following the hour-mark – and an inspired goalkeeping display by Ben Killip, who, amongst other deeds between the sticks, saved a second Camps spot-kick at the death, ensured that honours remained even, while County’s unbeaten run was extended to 13 matches.
Dave Challinor, who 23 months earlier had led Pools to promotion from the National League, named a County starting line-up unchanged from that in East London against Leyton Orient nine days previously, as the Hatters took to the field in front of the television cameras at a wet Bank Holiday Monday lunchtime. The bench featured two returning players – with Will Collar having recovered from injury, and 17-year-old Cody Johnson recently completing his loan spell at Banbury in the National League North.
The visitors, whose demotion back into non-league after their two-season L2 stay had been confirmed following the penultimate game, featured among the starters former County favourite Connor Jennings, who had moved from EP to Victoria Park at the end of January.
With just over four minutes on the clock, County won the contest’s inaugural corner – which led to the first chance, as Kyle Knoyle’s delivery from the right found Camps, whose low drive was smothered by Killip.
The second corner, 10 minutes later, was also taken by Knoyle – from the left this time – and saw County go close again, with Fraser Horsfall’s header being cleared off the line by Matt Dolan. And shortly afterwards, Killip came to his side’s rescue twice in quick succession when he parried a Myles Hippolyte shot, before deflecting behind Tanto Olaofe’s follow-up.
From the resulting corner, once more sent over from the left by Knoyle, the Hatters looked to have taken the lead through Horsfall – but, having initially awarded the goal, Referee Reeves, following consultation with his Assistant, disallowed it for a foul on Killip.
Jack Stretton was the next Hatter to test the Pools ‘keeper – cutting in from the right, and unleashing a low shot that Killip palmed around the near post 11 minutes before the break. Then, five minutes later, Camps, after breezing into the box from the opposite flank, was brought down by Jennings, to earn a spot-kick and a chance to get County’s noses in front.
With regular penalty-takers Paddy Madden and Collar among the substitutes, Camps dusted himself down and emphatically dispatched the kick into the top-right corner for his fourth strike of the season that sent the Hatters in at half-time a goal to the good.
HALF-TIME: County 1 (Camps (penalty), 39), Hartlepool 0.
County made a double-substitution within half a dozen minutes of the resumption, as Madden and Connor Evans were brought on to freshen up the attack. But, just after the hour, the visitors, with their first effort on goal, drew level, with Callum Cooke – teed up from the right by his captain, Nicky Featherstone – firing a first-time shot from the edge of the area past Ben Hinchliffe and into the top-left corner of the net.
The Hatters went agonisingly close 10 minutes later, after an Olaofe cross from the right has headed back from beyond the far post by Evans to Madden – whose snap-shot was brilliantly tipped on to the bar by Killip. And Pools’ Number One again saved his side, courtesy of a block after Madden had played Knoyle through on goal.
At the other end, Jennings fed substitute Joe Gray, whose low drive from the right fizzed past the far post. And in the course of County’s attacks late on, appeals for another penalty were waved away after Akil Wright went to ground in the visitors’ box.
As five minutes of added time were announced, Tom Crawford nodded a header on target but into the arms of Hinchliffe – and, shortly afterwards, Killip denied County again by keeping out a well-struck Camps shot from inside the ‘D’.
Then, from a Chris Hussey corner on the right, a second spot-kick was awarded after Dolan handled – but Camps this time saw his effort saved, as Killip completed a memorable performance by guessing correctly and diving to his right to parry the ball away.
The day had begun with an unveiling in the mid-morning drizzle of a statue of legendary County manager Danny Bergara – the last Hatters’ gaffer to lead the club to automatic promotion from the Football League’s fourth tier. Thirty-two years later, the Hatters can still make it up to the third, but will now have to do so through the same route as Jim Gannon’s side of 2008 took, via the play-offs.
FULL-TIME: County 1 (Camps (penalty), 39), Hartlepool 1 (Cooke, 61).
Team (3-5-2): Hinchliffe; Wright, Horsfall, Lewis (Evans, 57); Knoyle, Camps, Croasdale (Capt.) (Collar, 83), Hippolyte, Hussey; Olaofe, Stretton (Madden, 57).
Unused Subs: Jaros, Byrne, R. Johnson, C. Johnson.
Man of the Match: Hussey.
Attendance: 10,118 (584 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.