County’s keenly-awaited return to match action brought with it a place in the FA Cup Third Round for the first time in 14 seasons – after Connor Jennings headed a winner in extra time at Edgeley Park to edge out Yeovil Town by the odd goal in five.
But it was far from plain sailing against the National League’s basement side, who had twice taken a lead before John Rooney, with a penalty, and Ash Palmer cancelled out the advantage – and had then seen a potential winning spot-kick in normal time kept out by Ben Hinchliffe.
The Hatters were playing their first game in over three weeks, following a COVID-enforced absence – and were completing an unusual hat-trick of successive Cup appearances to which they had been restricted during November. The latest tie at EP was also their first to be played on a Sunday since taking on Barnet in North London at the same stage of the competition two seasons previously – and, as on that occasion, with an early afternoon kick-off brought forward to accommodate television coverage.
With a fully-fit squad available, Jim Gannon named an unchanged starting 11 from that which had last taken to the field – at Rochdale in the previous round, back on the opening Saturday of the month. Former County talisman Matty Warburton, at Yeovil on a season-long loan from Northampton, started for the visitors.
Within just over a minute, Warburton had come back to haunt his old club good and proper – courtesy of a low shot from outside the box that took a deflection off Liam Hogan and fizzed past Ben Hinchliffe into the bottom-right corner of the net.
The Hatters strove quickly to overcome the early setback, as Rooney’s free-kick was headed out for a corner; Mark Kitching, from the left, fired narrowly wide of the far post; and Jennings saw an effort smothered by visiting goalkeeper Adam Smith.
At the other end, Yeovil’s newly-arrived, and much-travelled, striker Chris Dagnall, who had turned out for Rochdale against County in the 2008 League Two Play-off Final, went close for his latest club on two occasions. A shot drilled just shy of the left upright was followed, moments later, by an effort in front of the same upright from closer range that ricocheted behind after Palmer blocked.
Barely five minutes ahead of the interval, County drew level after Charlie Lee brought down Ryan Croasdale in the visitors’ box – and Rooney made no mistake from 12 yards, firing his spot-kick straight down the middle past the diving Smith.
Jennings, with the final kick of the half, unleashed a well-struck effort beyond the right post, before the teams went in for the break on equal terms.
HALF-TIME: County 1 (Rooney (penalty), 41), Yeovil 1 (Warburton, 2).
Each side – through Joe Quigley and then Rooney – flashed a shot well off target in the initial exchanges after half-time. Adam Thomas stung Smith’s hands shortly afterwards with a venomous drive, after being fed on the right by recently-introduced substitute Sam Minihan – and another free-kick from Rooney was deflected behind, as County enjoyed a spell of dominance.
It was against the run of play, then, when, with a little over 20 minutes remaining, the visitors got their noses back in front. A deep, looping corner by Warburton from the left found Luke Wilkinson at the back post, and the latter headed in from close range.
But the Hatters hit back within half a dozen minutes, when Rooney launched a free-kick from the left into the Yeovil area and Palmer prodded home following a frenetic scramble.
Referee Bramall awarded a second penalty of the afternoon eight minutes from time after Quigley rather tamely went to ground under a challenge from Jamie Stott – but, whatever the merits of the decision, Hinchliffe guessed correctly by diving to his left and kept out Wilkinson’s kick.
A delivery on the left from Jordan Williams, on his competitive home debut, flashed across the goalmouth, as the Hatters looked to settle the tie in normal time – and the substitute’s goal-bound, first-time shot during the dying stages was kept out by Smith, as extra time beckoned.
FULL-TIME (after 90 minutes): County 2 (Rooney (penalty), 41; Palmer, 75), Yeovil 2 (Warburton, 2; Wilkinson, 69).
The additional 30 minutes minutes began with County on the front foot – as Rooney saw his corner from the left cleared off the line, before letting rip with a 30-yard thunderbolt that struck the right post.
With nine further minutes played, the Hatters went ahead for the first time when Jennings connected with Stott’s cross from the left to power a header past Smith.
Lee’s through-ball to substitute Gabby Rogers threatened to produce an equaliser shortly before half-time in extra time, but the teenage substitute’s shot lacked pace and was gathered up by Hinchliffe.
Hinchliffe saved from another visiting substitute, Rhys Murphy, seven minutes from the end – but was troubled no further, as County held out to go into the draw for Round Three.
FINAL SCORE (after extra time): County 3 (Rooney (penalty), 41; Palmer, 75; C. Jennings, 99), Yeovil 2 (Warburton, 2; Wilkinson, 69).
Team (4-4-2): Hinchliffe; Hogan (Capt.), Palmer, Keane, Stott; Thomas (Bennett, 74), Rooney, Croasdale (Minihan, 46), Kitching (Williams, 75); C. Jennings (Maynard, 106), Reid.
Unused Subs: J. Jennings, Barnes, Britton.
Man of the Match: Palmer.
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.