The Hatters’ first League Two play-offs appearance for 15 years saw them edged out by a single goal in a late Saturday meeting at Salford.
Matt Smith’s header put the hosts ahead early on, to give them the lead at the two-legged tie’s halfway-stage – and also ended County’s run of 13 matches unbeaten.
The Hatters took to the field on Eurovision Song Contest night, and in glorious mid-May evening sunshine, showing two changes from the starting line-up for their final regular match of the campaign, at home to Hartlepool, five days previously. Neill Byrne and Connor Evans were the incoming players – replacing the injured Joe Lewis, and Tanto Olaofe who was named among the substitutes – while the County bench also included Ethan Pye, following a recall from his loan spell at National League outfit, and FA Trophy finalists, Gateshead.
With just over a minute on the clock, the hosting ‘Ammies’ earned the inaugural corner after Conor McAleny’s low shot was deflected beyond the left post. The resulting corner was only partially cleared by Akil Wright, before the ball fell to Adrian Mariappa, to the right of goal and in space, but Ben Hinchliffe narrowed the angle well to block.
Shortly before the quarter-hour mark, the Hatters launched their first attacking foray of note – and went incredibly close twice, with Evans having his shot parried by home goalkeeper Alex Cairns and skipper Ryan Croasdale hitting the crossbar on the rebound.
Having almost taken the lead, County saw Salford do so a minute later, as Matt Smith connected with Elliot Watt’s cross from the right to head home from close range.
Stevie Mallan fired over for the hosts from distance, whilst, at the other end, Byrne latched on to Kyle Knoyle’s cross from the right and headed a looping effort into the arms of Cairns – before Hinchliffe, a dozen minutes ahead of the break, dived low to palm past the left upright Mallan’s free-kick from 25 yards out.
HALF-TIME: Salford 1 (Smith, 16), County 0.
As the sun set, Salford began the second half strong in possession, and created an early chance four minutes in – with Callum Hendry unleashing a low shot from the edge of the County box that Hinchliffe dived to smother.
The Hatters, shortly after the hour, introduced Olaofe and Ryan Rydel, with a view to pepping up their own attacking effort. But while County initially enjoyed more sight of the ball, the hosts continued to look dangerous – as McAleny’s shot was parried around the right post by Hinchliffe at full strength, Luke Bolton saw his deflected over, and Watt dinked one past the left upright.
A Knoyle free-kick from the left half a dozen minutes from time found Wright, who headed into the far side-netting, and Evans saw a shot deflected behind, as the Hatters pressed to get back on level terms before the second leg.
That, of course, is at EP next Saturday – and with just one goal in it, the tie is delicately poised. Ending on a Eurovision note, Hatters everywhere shall a week from now be feeling either ‘Euphoria’ or that we have met our ‘Waterloo’.
FULL-TIME: Salford 1 (Smith, 16), County 0.
Team (4-3-3): Hinchliffe; Knoyle, Horsfall, Byrne, Hussey; Wright, Croasdale (Capt.) (Olaofe, 62), Camps; Evans, Stretton (Rowe, 81), Hippolyte (Rydel, 62).
Unused Subs: Jaros, Davenport, Pye, C. Johnson.
Attendance: 3,923 (610 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.