Domination In-Curz Penalty, As Nash Escape The Lash
The Hatters had to settle for a share of the festive spoils with near-neighbours Curzon Ashton at the Tameside Stadium, following a contest that had all the ingredients for a Christmas stuffing in County’s favour.
Having taken an early lead through Darren Stephenson, County hit the woodwork twice and had two goals ruled out for offside – but also, at this time of giving, handed a lifeline to the ‘Nash’ in the form of a penalty that the hosts put away 20 minutes from time.
On an overcast, mild mid-winter’s afternoon, County took to the field in a 3-5-2 formation and showing one change from the starting line-up at Lancaster a week previously – with the incoming Scott Duxbury cast in the role of a left wing-back. Michael Clarke was the player to make way.
The Hatters forced the pace from the outset, and between the fourth and sixth minutes earned themselves three corners – each of which proved eventful. From the first, a header by Jimmy Ball struck the crossbar, and the second led to a Stephenson shot that was acrobatically tipped over by home goalkeeper Cameron Mason. But, saving the best until last, Stephenson connected with the third from 12 yards – rifling home through a crowded area to put County ahead.
It was Stephenson’s first league goal in a County shirt – and five minutes later, he came close to doubling the tally after cutting in from the left and drilling a low shot just wide of the far post.
Luke Clark fired two efforts towards County’s goal from the edge of the box – with the first narrowly clearing the bar, and the second being smothered by a diving Ben Hinchliffe. County’s Number One also held on to a shot from distance by former Hatter Richie Baker, before the influential midfielder was replaced due to a calf injury.
But the vast majority of attacking action was in the Curzon half. Gary Stopforth, making his 50th appearance for the Hatters, and, on two occasions, Kallum Mantack, drove attempts shy of the left upright in the course of the first half – while Jason Oswell fired over after being teed up from the left by the impressive Stephenson.
After 32 minutes, and just ahead of Baker’s enforced departure, Oswell did successfully convert a chance, when Mason could only parry a shot by Ball into the path of County’s leading scorer – only for the latter to be adjudged offside. And Stephenson was similarly penalised, having deposited the ball in the back of Curzon’s net two minutes before the break.
HALF-TIME: Curzon Ashton 0, County 1 (Stephenson, 6).
County’s first-half efforts had deserved more than a one-goal lead, but, undeterred, the Hatters were still in attacking mode upon the resumption – with Stephenson shooting over, and Duxbury lofting a cross from the left that swung dangerously towards goal before Mason tipped behind.
But with 70 minutes on the clock, and the Hatters continuing to dominate, Curzon earned an unambiguous spot-kick for a foul by Ball on Ryan Brooke. Niall Cummins duly fired past Hinchliffe, who, two minutes later, had to save from Brooke as the Nash briefly played with renewed spirit.
County rallied in response, as Ball and substitute Bohan Dixon saw efforts deflected past the right post. Another replacement player, Adam Thomas, hit the opposite upright with a scuffed shot. And with six minutes remaining, Thomas glanced on a corner to Oswell, who fired twice from close range in quick succession but was kept out on each occasion by Mason.
But a one-sided battle ended in the award of just the one point, as County go into Christmas in 10th place and four points away from the play-off positions.
FULL-TIME: Curzon Ashton 1 (Cummins (penalty), 70), County 1 (Stephenson, 6).
Team: Hinchliffe, Cowan, Duxbury, Ball, Smalley, O’Halloran, Mantack, Winter (Capt.) (Dixon, 76), Oswell, Stopforth, Stephenson (Thomas, 67).
Unused Subs: Clarke, Ormson, McKenna.
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.