The Hatters returned to SK3 for their final Saturday afternoon home fixture of the regular season, and, in front of another five-figure attendance at Edgeley Park, prevailed by a single goal to beat, and relegate, basement side Rochdale.
Tanto Olaofe’s first home strike for County on the stroke of half-time proved the difference – extending the Hatters’ unbeaten run to 11 matches, as well as earning them a fourth ‘double’ of the season and, crucially, elevating them back to within a single point of the automatic promotion places.
The result also sadly brought to an end a 102-year Football League residency for ‘Dale’, whose drop into the fifth tier was confirmed with the club 11 points adrift of safety and having only two matches left to play.
County took to the field on a cloudy afternoon, and showing three changes from the starting line-up at Carlisle four days earlier. Akil Wright, Callum Camps and Jack Stretton dropped to the bench – to be replaced by one-time Dale man Neill Byrne, Jacob Davenport and Olaofe, respectively.
The visitors, with ex-Hatter Jimmy McNulty in acting charge, included among their starters, in Danny Lloyd and goalkeeper Richard O’Donnell, two players who had also once plied their trade for County. Another pair – namely, James Ball and Devante Rodney – were among Dale’s substitutes, but Scott Quigley, in accordance with the terms of his current loan from SK3, did not feature.
County started the game on the front foot – and, after earning the inaugural corner of the afternoon with a couple of minutes played, the first shot, by Myles Hippolyte, was fired over the visitors’ crossbar.
Two minutes later, Olaofe squared from the left to Paddy Madden, who half-volleyed beyond the near upright. And, just ahead of the quarter-hour mark, Hippolyte fired past the same post after cutting in from the same flank.
Hippolyte switched to the other side of the pitch, from where he delivered a cross that Fraser Horsfall headed over as the first half approached its mid-point. Byrne nodded wide of the far post, after connecting with Chris Hussey’s corner from the right. And visiting skipper Ethan Ebanks-Landell deflected behind a goal-bound shot by Ryan Croasdale.
With half-time less than 10 minutes away, a couple more deliveries from the right led to headers narrowly off target, as Hippolyte and Will Collar – making his 100th appearance as a Hatter – respectively headed wide and high following crosses by Byrne and Kyle Knoyle.
Unfortunately, Collar’s participation in proceedings was to end on the stroke of added time, following a collision on the halfway-line with Croasdale, which saw both County players receive lengthy treatment and Collar stretchered off – to be replaced by Connor Evans.
Three additional minutes had been announced originally, although a good few more were played in the wake of Collar’s injury – and during the ninth, County took the lead with the final kick of the half. An excellent run from the home half saw Hussey pick out Olaofe, who, from the left of goal, unleashed a thunderbolt past O’Donnell and into the far top corner.
HALF-TIME: County 1 (Olaofe, 45 + 9), Rochdale 0.
The bottom-placed visitors, needing nothing less than victory to have a chance of avoiding relegation, started the second half brightly – and a neat passing move in the County half culminated in a dipping shot by Lloyd that cleared the Cheadle End bar.
Croasdale then fired over the other goal, after Dale had only partially cleared a Hussey free-kick. And Ben Hinchliffe palmed away from danger an effort from the right by Dale substitute Tyrese Sinclair.
And that, so far as second-half action of note in the final thirds went, was pretty much that. But with Stevenage losing at Mansfield, the Hatters found themselves on the final whistle back to touching distance of the top three.
FULL-TIME: County 1 (Olaofe, 45 + 9), Rochdale 0.
Team (3-5-2): Hinchliffe; Byrne (Lewis, 67), Horsfall, Hussey; Knoyle, Collar (Evans, 45 + 6), Croasdale, Davenport (Wright, 67), Hippolyte (Camps, 79); Olaofe, Madden (Capt.) (Stretton, 67).
Unused Subs: Jaros, R. Johnson.
Booked: Evans, Byrne.
Man of the Match: Olaofe.
Attendance: 10,319 (824 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.