County began the Easter weekend programme with a long trip down to the southern end of Greater London, and edged out Sutton there to keep in touch with the automatic promotion positions.
Jack Stretton’s early second-half strike proved the difference between the two sides, as well as notching up a first-ever win for the Hatters at Gander Green Lane, together with a second ‘double’ of the campaign, and, crucially, putting them just two points away from third place.
County took to the field for the second successive Friday, and under blue skies and white clouds, showing four changes from the starting line-up against Salford at Edgeley Park a week previously. Neill Byrne, Will Collar and Myles Hippolyte all returned, while Stretton was handed his first start since re-joining the Hatters in January, to replace Paddy Madden, Chris Hussey, Connor Evans (all of whom were named among the substitutes) and the injured Callum Camps. Former Sutton hero Tanto Olaofe also featured on the bench, and Ryan Croasdale was handed the captain’s armband in Madden’s stead.
With just under a couple of minutes on the clock, the hosts unleashed the first attempt – as David Ajiboye fired beyond the left post, after Will Randall’s free-kick had only been partially cleared. Five minutes later, however, they suffered an early setback – losing the services to injury of their skipper, Craig Eastmond.
County’s first attack of note saw Kyle Wootton connect with Hippolyte’s cross from the left and head on to the top netting – before Ali Smith, at the other end, nodded over after Joe Kizzi had launched a long throw into the County box from the right.
Kizzi tried his luck more directly midway through the first half, courtesy of a half-volley from the edge of the area that Ben Hinchliffe gathered up on the bounce. And Stretton went close after being put through on goal by Wootton – only to be denied by goalkeeper Jack Rose, who blocked with his legs.
The exchanges were largely concentrated in County’s half as the break approached – with Byrne executing an impressively calm tackle to stop Ajiboye’s foray into the six-yard box, Smith seeing a shot deflected over, and Ajiboye hitting the left stanchion behind the goal.
HALF-TIME: Sutton 0, County 0.
Having had to endure some pressure late in the first half, the Hatters began the second applying it to their hosts. Stretton took advantage of hesitation in the home defence, before teeing up Wootton who blazed over from the edge of the box, and Kyle Knoyle, at a similar distance, went close with a shot that was deflected beyond the right post.
Then, eight minutes in, they took the lead, with Stretton converting from close range after picking up Rydel’s cross from the left. He almost then doubled his and County’s tallies a few moments later, following a break that saw him connect with Hippolyte’s delivery from the same flank, but fired wide of the far upright.
The hosts responded through leading scorer Randall, whose shot was tipped beyond the right post by Hinchliffe – before County’s Number One saved, and Fraser Horsfall cleared off the line, two successive headers following the consequential corner.
Just after the hour, Rose could only parry Rydel’s well-struck free-kick against the right post – but as Byrne and Stretton followed up, the ball was somehow ballooned over.
Ajiboye remained the main potential threat to County, as he first unleashed a shot into Hinchliffe’s arms, before sending another over the Hatters’ crossbar. And, at the other end, Rydel again tested Rose with a free-kick – with the home ‘keeper doing well to beat it away.
The end-to-fare continued, with Hinchliffe parrying efforts in quick succession from substitutes Enzio Boldewijn and Lee Angol. And, in the course of half a dozen minutes of added time, Boldewijn curled a shot narrowly over – but the Hatters ultimately held firm to extend their unbeaten run to seven matches.
FULL-TIME: Sutton 0, County 1 (Stretton, 53).
Team (3-4-3): Hinchliffe; Wright, Horsfall, Byrne; Knoyle (Sarcevic, 86), Collar (R. Johnson, 77), Croasdale (Capt.), Rydel; Stretton (Olaofe, 77), Wootton, Hippolyte (Evans, 86).
Unused Subs: Jaros, Madden, Hussey.
Booked: Croasdale, Collar, Hippolyte.
Attendance: 4,253 (702 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.