Two-Down… Then Hatters Go To Town!
The Hatters marked their first Saturday home match of the campaign with an impressive second-half comeback that saw them share the spoils with unbeaten full-timers, Harrogate Town.
A brace after the interval from Jason Oswell made the contest an archetypal ‘game of two halves’, after visiting captain, and defender-turned-striker, Simon Ainge had scored twice within six first-half minutes for the ‘Sulphurites’.
County took to the field with one enforced change from the starting line-up against Curzon Ashton four days earlier. Darren Stephenson was ruled out after picking up a knock to his ankle in that match, so Sam Walker was handed his first start within a 3-5-2 formation.
Harrogate arrived at Edgeley Park as league leaders – having won twice without conceding – and with the chance to start a campaign with three straight victories for the first time in ten years. A first declaration of the visitors’ attacking intent was sounded after four minutes by former FC United midfielder George Thomson, who drilled a low drive narrowly wide of County’s right post.
What followed was a spell of high-octane, end-to-end play, with both sides creating chances in the final third. Matty Warburton had two shots deflected past the right post for corners in as many minutes – while Ainge wriggled into the County box and fired at Ben Hinchliffe, before, four minutes later, teeing up Thomson who blasted over from the edge of the box.
The Hatters were then taking their turn, around the 20-minute mark, to lay siege in the Harrogate area – only for the visitors to break and open their account, as Joe Leesley, on the left, sent over a cross-field delivery that Ainge finished with a sweet, right-footed volley past Hinchliffe.
Having already maintained his record of scoring in every match since the season’s start, Ainge doubled his and Harrogate’s tally a minute before the half-hour when he rose at the back post to head home another cross from the left – on this occasion by Ben Parker.
Jim Gannon opted to make an early change, bringing on Ben McKenna for Walker 10 minutes ahead of the break, but the Hatters made little further headway before half-time as they set about seeking to address their deficit.
HALF-TIME: County 0, Harrogate 2 (Ainge, 23 and 29).
The Hatters re-emerged with a greater sense of purpose that saw them go close five minutes after the interval, when Connor Hampson’s in-swinging corner from the right just failed to attract a final touch.
But two minutes later, they had succeeded in halving the arrears. Harry Winter broke forward from midfield, before finding Sam Minihan on the right – whose cross was bundled in by Oswell for his second goal of the season.
With County back in the contest, the pressure on Harrogate at the Railway End intensified. Oswell shot over from outside the box – before going rather closer, following a corner on the right, with a header that was just shy of the near upright.
Nineteen minutes from time, the Hatters got the equaliser their reinvigorated efforts deserved. Oswell fed Minihan, whose shot was parried by Town goalkeeper James Belshaw for Oswell to bury on the rebound.
Harrogate, duly stirred, went in search of a goal to restore the lost lead, but the County defence stood firm – with Chris Smalley breaking up an attack by Dominic Knowles, and Hinchliffe tipping around the right post a close-range attempt from Ryan Fallowfield.
FULL-TIME: County 2 (Oswell, 53 and 71), Harrogate 2 (Ainge, 23 and 29).
Team: Hinchliffe, Cowan, Hampson (Duxbury, 84), Winter (Capt.), Clarke, Smalley, Minihan, Ball, Oswell, Warburton (West, 90 + 2), Walker (McKenna, 35).
Unused Subs: Smith, Brazel.
Booked: Winter, McKenna.
Man of the Match: Minihan.
Attendance: 3,107 (91 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Pics: Mike Petch
Filmed by Dan Powell
Graphics and Editing by Robert Schofield