Aiming for the top
MATCH-WINNER Sam Minihan admitted that The Hatters have got all eyes on top spot in the National League North, after County sealed backto-back wins over the festive period with a late 1-0 win over Kidderminster Harriers on Saturday.
Just three days after Jim Gannon has masterminded a third successive win over neighbours Altrincham, The Hatters struck play-off chasing Kidderminster down thanks to an 87th minute header from Minihan - to move Gannon’s high-fliers into third in the league standings.
It proved a second successive win to nil for Gannon’s men, who have become he form side of the National League North heading into New Year’s Day’s crunch tie at Moss Lane with Altrincham - and Minihan admitted that his teammates couldn’t help but have one eye on top spot.
“As players, we see no reason why we can’t go for it. All the boys believe that we’ll do it.”
“If we keep doing what we’re doing, then why not?”
The Hatters historically come good in the second half of their campaign under Gannon, with last season’s run of six wins in a row catapulting County into a play-off berth.
And Minihan claimed that County’s impressive run - with Gannon’s promotion chasers now losing just one in fifteen league outings - has come as a result of his County teammates “understanding” Gannon’s methods a lot sooner than previous years.
“We just really understand what the gaffer wants, and we understand each other as players.”
“We’ve just bought into it and the fact that we’ve down that is shown with a really good run.”
Saturday’s late show proved to be County’s first league win over The Harriers in seven attempts, with Neil MacFarlane’s men winning all six of the previous attempts.
And Gannon claimed that Minihan’s last gasp header made a “statement” for The Hatters, who have also historically come undone against other big sides in the division.
The former Northwich boss has now masterminded wins over secondplaced Chorley, play-off contenders Altrincham, Spennymoor as well as points at table-topping Bradford PA and fourthplaced Telford.
“It’s not just the atmosphere and the wins and the clean sheets that have been good over Christ- mas, but doing it against two of the top sides in the division.”
“Huge credit to the lads because they’ve come in training a lot over Christmas, and they’ve been the utmost professionals.”
County may have been forgiven for being pushed a step too far on Saturday, with the visit of the Harriers coming amidst a training ground bout of flu affecting Gannon’s squad.
Midfielders Connor Dimaio, Jake Kirby and Jordan Keane were all struck down by the virus after the 2-0 win over Altrincham on Boxing Day, with Gannon forced into two changes for Saturday’s tie.
To make matters worse, the returning Sam Walker, deputising in place of holding midfielder Keane, was then replaced after just nine minutes with a tight hamstring - but Gannon was quick to reshuffle, and The Hatters battled onto a landmark win.
We’ve had Connor, Jake Kirby & Jordan all sick, so we were down to fifteen players without young Alex Jackson on the bench.”
“Sam Walker just felt his hamstring which is really unfortunate as he’s been chomping at the bit, and Darren Stephenson came on and did well and worked hard.”
“The injuries and illnesses could have disrupted us, but it’s just a professional group which carries on.”
“So many of the players could have been man of the match, there were a lot of excellent performances.”
The 50-year-old also admitted that an eye was being kept on that top spot, currently held by Bradford, but urged caution at Edgeley Park.
The lead at the top is now seven points for Mark Bower’s high-flying Avenue side, who visit Edgeley Park in a huge clash this coming Saturday.
Goals from Jamie Stott and Frank Mulhern sealed the Boxing Day win over Altrincham, who have now lost three in three this season against Gannon’s men without registering a goal - with the losses coming in the FA Cup, FA Trophy and the league respectively.
This has been despite the Robins’ status as the league’s top scorers - and Gannon revealed a “confidence” in the County camp at his side’s solidity at the back.
“I think any side which is in good form at the moment and playing with confidence will fancy their chances of top spot.”
“There’s a lot of work to be done, but if we stay professional and keep doing what we do, we may be able to put it into our own hands.”
County’s place in the table is a precarious one over the festive period, with no fewer than four sides all within two points of each other in the playoff positions.
A win at Moss Lane could see The Hatters move to within four points of top spot, whilst a defeat could see Gannon’s inform side slip out of the play-offs altogether.
Until Minihan’s late winner on Saturday, four sides had all claimed third position in the live league table throughout the day and Gannon admitted that his side would need to “stay grounded” amidst talk of claiming first place.
The successive home wins have earned The Hatters a touch of breathing space over the chasing pack outside the play-off positions, with Kidderminster now dropping out altogether and losing ground on resurgent County.
“We’ve created a bit of a gap from ourselves to Kidderminster and Altrincham outside that top five, and then obviously the next target for us is to keep cutting that gap to Chorley and Bradford in the top two.”
“That’s the aim, and we’ll keep taking it one game at a time to achieve that and go for that top spot.”
●●Sam Minihan, right, leads the celebrations after scoring the winner against Kidderminster Harriers