The Hatters’ first home match under Simon Rusk saw them suffer their first defeat of 2021 – as well as missing out on a move up into second place, after a goal in each half enabled promotion rivals Sutton to leapfrog County and do so instead.
Ben Hinchliffe, who had unfortunately set the visitors on their way by virtue of a freak own goal, made amends with a penalty save shortly after the break – but the spot-kick still came at a cost, with the dismissal of captain Liam Hogan, and Sutton netted a second against County’s 10 men just over 20 minutes from time.
The new manager named an unchanged starting 11 from that which had taken to the field at, and achieved County’s inaugural triumph over, Woking. Back in SK3, the earlier daytime rain had abated by the time the Hatters emerged under the EP floodlights three days later for their rearranged fixture against the National League’s other club from Surrey.
Three hours of football between County and Sutton during the 2019/20 campaign had failed to produce a goal, although, in this third encounter, the Hatters came close to bagging one with only four minutes played. A neat move on the left between Mark Kitching and Alex Reid ultimately found John Rooney, whose low shot was drilled just shy of the near upright.
Having executed the evening’s initial shot, Rooney proceeded to earn the first corner, around the quarter-hour mark, courtesy of an effort that was parried beyond the right post by visiting goalkeeper Dean Bouzanis. And five minutes later, the ‘U’s’ fashioned their first chance of note, as David Ajiboye’s cross from the right was headed past the near upright by Isaac Olaofe.
With half an hour on the clock, the visitors took the lead in bizarre circumstances – following a back-pass from the left by Hogan to Hinchliffe. The latter got a foot, and then a hand, to it, but, alas for County’s Number One, a combination of the ball’s pace and the greasy surface saw the ball spin up to his right and over the line.
County spent the remainder of the half striving to get back on level terms – with Connor Jennings going closest, after his well-struck angled shot was placed away by Bouzanis.
HALF-TIME: County 0, Sutton 1 (Hinchliffe (o.g.), 30).
The Hatters introduced Jordan Williams upon the resumption, in place of the injured Kitching – but, just over 10 minutes later, developments of a more dramatic nature unravelled after Olaofe went to ground in the County box under a challenge by Hogan.
The skipper looked to have taken the ball – but Referee Swallow not only pointed to the spot but also showed Hogan a straight red card. Harry Beautyman stepped up for the penalty, but Hinchliffe, diving to his left, kept out the kick to leave the deficit unchanged.
Hinchliffe then gathered up a header from John Louis, who had connected with a Beautyman free-kick to head against the right post. But the ‘keeper was powerless to stop a doubling of Sutton’s advantage, when Olaofe finished strongly from close range – after Omar Bugiel had nodded on a long ball upfield by Bouzanis.
FULL-TIME: County 0, Sutton 2 (Hinchliffe (o.g.), 30; Olaofe, 68).
Team (4-2-3-1): Hinchliffe; Minihan, Hogan (Capt.), Keane, Kitching (Williams, 46); Croasdale, Maynard (Palmer, 60); Southam-Hales, Rooney, C. Jennings; Reid (Bennett, 77).
Unused Subs: Stott, Barnes.
Booked: Maynard, Reid, Bennett.
Sent Off: Hogan.
Man of the Match: Southam-Hales.
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.