Simply Great At The ‘Gate, As Hatters Reach The Last Eight!
The Hatters achieved a 10th straight victory in all competitions with arguably their finest display during the sequence, as they tore apart National League Harrogate Town on Wetherby Road’s 3G surface to advance into the FA Trophy Quarter-finals for the second year running.
On a day when the wintry weather ruled out all other play between clubs in non-league’s top two tiers any further north than Chesterfield, County, having initially gone behind, really went to ‘Town’ – scoring twice in each half, and rendering the hosts’ late second goal a mere consolation.
The Hatters took to the artificial pitch showing just one change from their starting line-up at FC United of Manchester a week previously. And a predictable one it was, too, as recently-arrived defender Lewis Baines, on loan from Fleetwood Town, replaced, within a 4-2-3-1 formation, Jamie Stott, who had returned to parent club Oldham Athletic following the completion of his loan-spell.
County might have been facing a joint-highest scoring side from the level above, but displayed a boldness in possession from the outset – with both Sam Minihan and Adam Thomas working to good effect, and delivering dangerous crosses, from the right flank.
The hosts, for their part, offered little more in attack during the first quarter of an hour than a side-footed effort from distance by on-loan defender Liam Kitching that skimmed well wide of the right post. But, shortly afterwards, they were to go ahead – with the aid of a huge slice of luck.
Such fortune did not, alas, favour Jordan Keane, whose attempt, after 17 minutes, to cut out Jack Emmett’s low cross from the right saw the ball deflect into the roof of the net, as the Hatters conceded their first goal in the current season’s Trophy competition.
But within another five minutes, County, incredibly, had taken the lead. Matters were levelled after Darren Stephenson cleverly held up and laid off the ball to Thomas, who slotted past James Belshaw and into the bottom-left corner. And then, immediately following kick-off, the Hatters regained possession before Ash Palmer’s long ball was missed by Kitching – allowing Frank Mulhern to latch on to it and fire home under the advancing home goalkeeper.
Town attempted to respond ahead of the interval, albeit largely without serious threat in County’s final third. Leading scorer Jack Muldoon fired into the side-netting, and Ben Hinchliffe comfortably caught volleys from the edge of the box by Emmett and George Thomson – although County’s Number One was rather more seriously tested on the stroke of half-time, when he did well to parry away another Thomson strike following a Harrogate break.
HALF-TIME: Harrogate 1 (Keane (o.g.), 17), County 2 (Thomas, 21; Mulhern, 22).
Such are the fine margins in football that, while the first half had ended with the Hatters – thanks to Hinchliffe’s late save – just managing to keep their noses in front, the second began with a third successful strike to put them firmly in control of the tie.
With just three minutes of the new half played, Matty Warburton intercepted a poor back-pass by Warren Burrell before rounding Belshaw and drilling home for his 22nd goal of the campaign.
Minihan and Warburton fired efforts beyond the home crossbar, as County continued to press – and Warburton also saw his free-kick from five yards outside the box tipped over by Belshaw.
The hosts made two attacking substitutions as they sought to reduce their arrears, and duly applied some pressure as Thomson saw a low shot tipped past the right post by Hinchliffe, and Palmer hacked away a goal-bound effort from the newly-introduced Aaron Williams.
But the Hatters hit back – with Scott Duxbury, after 78 minutes, taking advantage of a slip by Ryan Fallowfield on the left and forcing Belshaw to parry. And a minute later, their advantage was further extended as Thomson lost possession on the halfway-line – from where Mulhern advanced on goal, drew out Belshaw, and, despite the attentions of recovering defenders, steadied himself to fire in his second goal of the afternoon and 15th of the season.
With only two minutes remaining, County looked poised to register a precise reverse of the 4-1 scoreline suffered at Wetherby Road in the National League North just over a year earlier. Thomson put paid to that by converting, from six yards, Fallowfield’s low cross on the right – but Harrogate’s second was but a most minor of late dents in an afternoon that deservedly saw the Hatters in the hat for Monday’s draw.
FULL-TIME: Harrogate 2 (Keane (o.g.), 17; Thomson, 88), County 4 (Thomas, 21; Mulhern, 22 and 79; Warburton, 48).
Team: Hinchliffe, Minihan, Duxbury, Keane, Palmer (Capt.), Baines, Thomas, Walker, Mulhern (Kirby, 82), Warburton (Cowan, 66), Stephenson (Turnbull, 76).
Unused Subs: Ormson, Osborne.
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.