Friday night became County night for the first time since the Hatters’ return to the Football League, but they had to settle for a share of the points with play-off rivals Salford at a sold-out Edgeley Park.
A pulsating encounter between the fifth-placed hosts and their sixth-placed near-ish neighbours proved a game of goals early in each half – with County taking a sixth-minute lead through Connor Evans, and the visitors levelling shortly after half-time.
County took to the field on an overcast but dry evening, and showing one change from the starting line-up at Swindon six days earlier. Fraser Horsfall, who had played four times for Salford in the National League North during 2017, returned to the centre of defence, within a back four, following his recovery from injury – replacing Neill Byrne, who, despite picking up a knock in the Swindon game, was named among the substitutes.
The visiting ‘Ammies’ arrived as League Two’s top goal-scorers away from home – although their first attempt of the night, by Stephen Mallan from the edge of the box with just a minute on the clock, was skewed harmlessly beyond the left upright.
Mallan’s next shot, less than a minute later, was more testing – forcing as it did Ben Hinchliffe to dive and parry the well-struck effort. And at the other end, Akil Wright fashioned County’s inaugural opportunity by volleying just wide of the right post.
The Hatters’ second foray saw them take the lead after half a dozen minutes. Kyle Knoyle ran to the right by-line before crossing for Evans, from seven yards out, to convert his first-ever County goal.
Paddy Madden, clocking up his 100th appearance as a Hatter, went mightily close to marking the occasion with a goal around the quarter-hour mark, after being played through on goal by Kyle Wootton’s knock down – only for his shot to strike the inside of the left post.
The frenetic pace of the contest was not letting up, and, around the first half’s mid-point, a Salford break saw Ethan Galbraith’s shot parried around the right post by Hinchliffe – before Theo Vassell headed over from the resulting corner.
Two Callums – Hendry and Camps – unleashed shots that flew well over and wide for the visitors and County, respectively. And, a couple of minutes before the interval, a Madden effort was deflected by Ryan Leak into the arms of visiting goalkeeper Alex Cairns.
HALF-TIME: County 1 (Evans, 6), Swindon 0.
County’s first chance after the resumption saw Wootton head beyond the left post, after latching on to Chris Hussey’s cross from the left. But shortly afterwards, the visitors had theirs – and drew level, courtesy of a stunning volley by Hendry from the edge of the box that flew into the top-left corner of the net.
The Hatters responded after the hour by introducing Myles Hippolyte – fresh from scoring on his international debut for Grenada a week previously – and Antoni Sarcevic. But the visitors remained buoyed up by their equaliser, and went close with a Mallan free-kick that beat the County wall before hitting the right side-netting.
The Hatters themselves then earned a free kick, which, from the left of the area, Knoyle fired low for Cairns to dive and smother. And two more, from Ryan Rydel, were successively deflected narrowly past the far post and kept out by the Salford ‘keeper.
Four minutes of announced additional time – together with some more that followed a head injury to visiting defender, Luke Bolton – failed to separate the sides, leaving County within three, and Salford four, points away from the automatic promotion places ahead of the following afternoon’s fixtures.
FULL-TIME: County 1 (Evans, 6), Salford 1 (Hendry, 50).
Team (4-4-2): Hinchliffe; Knoyle, Horsfall, Hussey, Rydel; Camps (Stretton, 80), Wright, Croasdale, Evans (Sarcevic, 64); Wootton, Madden (Capt.) (Hippolyte, 64).
Unused Subs: Jaros, Byrne, R. Johnson, Olaofe.
Man of the Match: Knoyle.
Attendance: 10,305 (584 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.