A Point Gained, Frank-ly – As Mulhern Heads Off Saints’ Rejoicing!
The Hatters returned to league action for the first time in a fortnight – and, in doing so against the ‘Saints’ of Brackley at Edgeley Park, extended their unbeaten run to 12 games in all competitions.
But they left it late – as substitute Frank Mulhern headed an equaliser in the dying seconds of added time, after the visitors, continuing their good record in SK3, had taken the lead on the hour.
The drama of the afternoon was very much confined to the contest’s latter stages – and off the pitch as well as on it, with County boss Jim Gannon being sent to the stands, following a clash with Brackley’s assistant manager Mark Noon in the 86th minute.
The afternoon had got under way more peacefully, with the unveiling, by the magnificent 103-year-old ex-Hatter George Haigh, of a plaque to honour the 13 former County players who lost their lives as a result of the First World War – and, immediately before kick-off, with a minute’s silence for all the fallen. The Hatters, by then, had taken to the field with a 4-2-3-1 starting line-up unchanged from that at Yeovil in the FA Cup a week earlier.
The first half began slowly, and remained rather low-key, by way of attacking opportunities – although the greater share of what chances there were fell to County. With 10 minutes on the clock, Nyal Bell prodded the game’s first corner shy of the right post, before Matty Warburton saw one shot deflected past the same upright and another parried at full stretch by visiting goalkeeper Danny Lewis, and, with half-time looming, Sam Walker also drilled wide.
HALF-TIME: County 0, Brackley 0.
But the Saints are nothing if not a test of County’s patience at EP, where they have won on three occasions and the Hatters just the once. And the advent of the second half signalled a change in momentum, as Brackley, having sat deep in defence to absorb County pressure before the break, went on the offensive after it to force three corners within 12 minutes of the resumption.
As the contest reached its hour-mark, the visitors got their noses properly in front – with Lee Ndlovu flicking home at close range Connor Franklin’s delivery from the left.
Their lead was almost doubled seven minutes later, courtesy of a looping header from Connor Hall that evaded the grasp of Ben Hinchliffe but was nodded off the line by Ash Palmer.
The Hatters had struggled to make a second-half impact at the other end until the 70th minute, when Matty Warburton, after cutting in from the left, saw a well-struck shot held by Lewis.
With around a quarter of an hour remaining, Sam Minihan bravely threw himself in the way of a Matt Lowe shot that was deflected beyond the right post. And Palmer headed away Shane Byrne’s free-kick – before, a couple of minutes following Gannon’s dismissal, Hinchliffe brilliantly tipped behind a shot by Ndlovu.
So to the final, fourth minute of added time – and the award to County of a late, late corner on the right. Scott Duxbury delivered it, and Mulhern – in a manner of which his manager would both approve and, as a former player, relate to – ghosted towards the near post before glancing a textbook header into the far corner of the net for his eighth goal of the season.
Edgeley erupted. The draw felt like a win. And this ensured County, four points away from the play-offs with two games in hand, stayed in touch. It was no less than the living legend that is George Haigh deserved to enjoy.
FULL-TIME: County 1 (Mulhern, 90 + 4), Brackley 1 (Ndlovu, 60).
Team: Hinchliffe, Minihan, Duxbury, Keane, Palmer (Capt.), Cowan, Thomas, Walker (Dimaio, 68), Bell (Stephenson, 68), Osborne (Mulhern, 62), Warburton.
Unused Subs: Turnbull, Ormson.
Man of the Match: Palmer.
Attendance: 3,449 (50 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.