Belief Quietly Grows After Meeting With Quakers
County chalked up a ninth successive home win in the National League North, and moved to within two points of the top, after a goal in each half saw off 10-man Darlington in SK3.
The victory, combined with results elsewhere, also made it mathematically certain that the second-placed Hatters will at least finish in a play-off position this term, although, by beating the ‘Quakers’, their credentials for automatic promotion have strengthened in the title-race – primarily with current leaders Chorley, over whom they have a game in hand.
County took to the field showing two changes from the starting line-up at Edgeley Park against Ashton United four days previously. Jordan Keane and Elliot Osborne replaced Sam Walker and Darren Stephenson in a 4-2-3-1 formation, while newly-arrived loanee Jason Gilchrist was included with Walker and Stephenson among the substitutes.
Ten minutes came and went before the contest’s first chance of note – with Nyal Bell heading over Dan Cowan’s cross from the right. And six minutes later, Bell fired a low shot from distance past the left upright.
Midway through the first half, Matty Warburton went closer after connecting with another, lower Cowan cross on the right. The leading scorer’s flick was heading for the net – only to be kept out by the leg of visiting goalkeeper Jake Turner and deflected beyond the far post.
‘Darlo’, for the most part, appeared lively – while the Hatters, if anything, were a little disjointed – as the half progressed, but their fortunes changed for the better a minute before the break. Scott Duxbury’s free-kick from the left – awarded following Simon Ainge’s foul on Osborne – was met in the visitors’ box by Ash Palmer, who headed down for Adam Thomas to stab in from six yards.
HALF-TIME: County 1 (Thomas, 44), Darlington 0.
One pivotal moment just ahead of half-time was followed by another, three minutes following the resumption. Luke Trotman – already on a foolish, late first-half yellow card for hindering a County throw-in – received a second one, together with his marching orders, after pulling Osborne’s shirt.
A long spell of one-way traffic ensued, as the Hatters proceeded to create opportunities and earn corners – the second of which Jamie Stott nodded over, and the third was glanced towards goal by Jordan Keane but cleared thanks to the head of Romal Palmer.
Osborne then skied a chance presented to him from the right by Cowan, Thomas unleashed a low drive from outside the box that Turner dived to smother, and Warburton – fed by captain Paul Turnbull – saw his long-range shot deflected past the left post, as County continued to press.
With 65 minutes on the clock, a second goal arrived for the Hatters – replicating a set-piece that had already paid dividends for them at the Cheadle End on other occasions during the current campaign. Duxbury delivered a corner from the right towards the near upright, and Keane moved forward to meet it, before glancing home his header into the far corner of the net.
Another Warburton shot was deflected over, and Osborne headed wide of the far post from one more Cowan delivery on the right – whilst, at the other end, and following a rare Darlo break, Ben Hinchliffe stood tall to palm away an attempted lob by Harvey Saunders.
Osborne and, in the course of his second-half cameo-debut, Gilchrist were denied by Turner late on, as the Hatters ended a satisfactory afternoon’s work to become the only winners on the day in the NLN’s top five – as well as surpassing their own points-tally of 72 that earned them entry into the play-offs a year ago.
FULL-TIME: County 2 (Thomas, 44; Keane, 65), Darlington 0.
Team: Hinchliffe, Cowan, Duxbury, Keane, Palmer, Stott, Thomas (Stephenson, 84), Turnbull (Capt.), Bell (Gilchrist, 54), Warburton (Minihan, 74), Osborne.
Unused Subs: Ormson, Walker.
Man of the Match: Keane.
Attendance: 4,807 (203 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.