The beginning of the Hatters’ FA Cup campaign saw them progress to the Second Round for the third year running, as they produced a sparkling fifth of November display at Edgeley Park to eliminate fellow League Two side, Swindon – and, for good measure, chalked up a sixth successive clean sheet in all competitions.
Having directly entered this stage of the competition for the first time in a dozen years, the Hatters got off to a flyer, and put on an early fireworks display immediately ahead of Bonfire Night, thanks to a brace from Antoni Sarcevic and an inaugural County goal for Akil Wright in the opening half an hour, before Ryan Rydel added a fourth after the break to put the seal on a first victory over the ‘Robins’ since the final match of the record-breaking ‘nine in a row’ run 15 years ago.
The Hatters took to the field on a drizzly afternoon showing seven changes from their League Two starting line-up at Tranmere four days previously. Only Ryan Croasdale – who took the captain’s armband in Paddy Madden’s absence – Ben Hinchliffe, Chris Hussey and Wright survived as starters, although Madden and five others who featured in the midweek match were named among the nine substitutes permitted for the Cup. Of the players recalled, Joe Lewis, Rydel and Macauley Southam-Hales all made their returns from injury to turn out for the first time since September.
The visiting ‘Robins’, who had earned a point in the league fixture at EP just over two months earlier but were up against County in a cup-tie for the first time, picked up a card during the opening minutes – just as the most recent guests in SK3, Sutton, had done the previous weekend when being reduced to 10 men early on – although the colour on this occasion was yellow, rather than red, as Saidou Khan was booked for a foul on Ollie Crankshaw.
The afternoon’s first chance of note also fell to Swindon, as Ronan Darcy’s shot from the left after four minutes curled narrowly beyond the far upright. But the second, for County seven minutes later, went one better – with Sarcevic latching on to an excellent through-ball from Wright, following a build-up that involved Hussey in the home half, and subsequently Croasdale and Southam-Hales, before burying the ball in the bottom-left corner to open the scoring.
After another five minutes, the advantage was doubled – with Wright heading home from close range, after Rydel’s free-kick from the left had been nodded back across the six-yard-box by Hussey.
The visitors looked to reduce the deficit through Ellis Iandolo, whose free-kick from 25 yards out beat the wall but hit the left side-netting. But Sarcevic went close just before the half-hour with a low shot that was deflected past the right post – and when an in-swinging cross from Rydel, following the resulting short corner on the right, was spilled by goalkeeper Sol Brynn, Sarcevic bundled the ball in from beyond the far upright for his second goal and County’s third.
Incredibly, Sarcevic almost had a hat-trick moments later – but his low drive from a tight angle to the left of goal fizzed just wide of the far post. And Brynn looked to atone for his earlier error by using first his hands to parry a shot from Connor Evans and then his feet to keep out Crankshaw.
HALF-TIME: County 3 (Sarcevic, 11 and 29; Wright, 16), Swindon 0.
The initial stages of the new half produced little to report, save for an early substitution by each side – but the game exploded back into life a few minutes before the hour-mark, when Rydel unleashed a stunning strike from the edge of the box that flew past the diving Brynn and into the bottom-right corner for County’s fourth goal.
Crankshaw had the ball in Swindon’s net half a dozen minutes later, only for a flag for offside to deny his name from being added to the scoresheet and County from ‘going nap’. And ironic cheers from the away end greeted Swindon’s first attempt on target with 15 minutes remaining, as Darcy’s low shot from the edge of the area was comfortably gathered by Hinchliffe.
By that time, and with their place in Monday’s Second Round draw all but assured, the Hatters had already enjoyed the luxury of bringing on James Brown, Will Collar and Myles Hippolyte – and Connor Jennings and Kyle Wootton were added to the mix by way of a replacement attack with 10 minutes left on the clock.
Jennings and Wootton both had opportunities to try their luck, with low shots that fizzed inches wide of the left post – and either side of a Sarcevic free-kick that Brynn dived to smother. The visiting ‘keeper also did well in added time to tip another Jennings effort around the right post.
FULL-TIME: County 4 (Sarcevic, 11 and 29; Wright, 16; Rydel, 57), Swindon 0.
Team (3-5-2): Hinchliffe; Wright, Lewis, Hussey; Southam-Hales (Brown, 49), Camps, Croasdale (Capt.) (Collar, 65), Sarcevic, Rydel (Hippolyte, 65); Evans (Wootton, 80), Crankshaw (Jennings, 80).
Unused Subs: Jones, Horsfall, Madden, R. Johnson.
Man of the Match: Sarcevic.
Attendance: 4,534 (502 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.