A Stroll For The Hatters, As They Down The Avenue!
Third-placed County turned in an exhilarating performance at Edgeley Park to score thrice without reply against fellow promotion contenders and former Football League rivals, Bradford (Park Avenue) – moving the Hatters to within a point of their visitors and four away from leaders Chorley.
An early strike by leading scorer Matty Warburton set them on their way, before second-half goals from Darren Stephenson and Frank Mulhern put the seal on an excellent afternoon – in which they also had an effort disallowed and hit the Bradford crossbar three times.
County took to the field in a 4-2-3-1 formation, showing one change from the New Year’s Day starting line-up at Altrincham earlier in the week. Jake Kirby was ruled out with a foot injury, and Stephenson took his place for a first league start since late October.
Attacking the Cheadle End against visitors that had not lost on the road for four months, the Hatters got a dullish-grey afternoon off to a sparkling beginning by taking the lead after only five minutes. Scott Duxbury and Stephenson combined well on the left, before the latter squared along the edge of the box to Warburton – who took a touch on to his left foot, and then drilled past goalkeeper Jack Atkinson for his 14th goal in all competitions.
Five minutes later, Warburton again tested the young goalkeeper, who was making his league debut, with a shot from the left that Atkinson caught. And within a further minute, Stephenson, on the same flank, fired an effort on to the top of the bar and over.
County players were queuing up to try their luck in the final third, as the Hatters continued to press. Adam Thomas shot narrowly over on the turn, before Mulhern dived to head narrowly wide of the right post a Duxbury cross from the right.
Avenue, having scored in every league match of the current campaign, did not appear a potent force in attack – with such limited opportunities as there were being off target. Alex Hurst blasted over, after weaving his way into the County box, while Nicky Clee drilled beyond the right post.
With 10 minutes of the first half remaining, County’s lead was almost doubled after Jordan Keane’s cross from the right was nodded on by Ash Palmer to Thomas, whose own header was brilliantly kept out by Atkinson.
And four minutes later, the Hatters believed that they had made it two. Ben Hinchliffe’s free-kick was flicked on by Mulhern to Thomas, who slotted home from close range – only to see the goal ruled out, with a flag having already been raised against Mulhern for being in an offside position.
Hinchliffe was called upon to make his sole save of note before the break from former Hatter Mark Ross, although the excellent fingertip parry behind by County’s Number One of the one-time club captain’s header was rather academic, as, again, an Assistant had flagged for offside.
HALF-TIME: County 1 (Warburton, 5), Bradford (Park Avenue) 0.
The Hatters began the second half in much the same attacking manner as they had spent the first. Atkinson used his legs twice within moments to block one shot from Warburton, and deflect behind another by Stephenson – before Palmer headed the resulting corner beyond the left post.
Warburton then beat Atkinson with an effort that was blocked and cleared by substitute Nicky Wroe, before unleashing one that the young ‘keeper dived to catch in mid-air.
With just over 20 minutes of the half played, County’s advantage was finally increased when Warburton found himself in space to play provider – squaring to Stephenson on the left, whose low drive defied a touch by the outstretched Atkinson to settle in the far corner of the net.
Five minutes later, County hit the bar again – courtesy of Jamie Stott’s header from a corner. The ball was eventually gathered by Atkinson, who began to roll it out – unaware that former Avenue-ite Mulhern was lurking behind him, in appropriately festive Pantomime style, ready to pounce, steal and, finally, tap into an empty net for the Hatters’ third of the day and his 12th of the season.
A third strike of the bar quickly followed – on this occasion by Warburton, who had cut in from the left. And in the closing stages, a lively cameo appearance off the bench saw Conor Dimaio fire shots wide of both posts. But the game was already more than safe, and the majority of a 4,000-plus crowd went home buzzing in the wake of a fourth successive win without conceding.
FULL-TIME: County 3 (Warburton, 5; Stephenson, 66; Mulhern, 72), Bradford (Park Avenue) 0.
Team: Hinchliffe, Minihan, Duxbury, Keane, Palmer, Stott, Thomas, Turnbull (Capt.) (Osborne, 70), Mulhern (Bell, 78), Warburton (Dimaio, 80), Stephenson.
Unused Subs: Cowan, Ormson.
Man of the Match: Warburton.
Attendance: 4,105 (136 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.