County hammer title rivals
VANARAMA NATIONAL LEAGUE NORTH COUNTY ............................ 3 BRADFORD PARK AV .... 0
SUPERB County produced one of their best displays of the season to sweep aside promotion rivals Bradford Park Avenue 3-0 at Edgeley Park on Saturday.
A first-half strike by talisman Matty Warburton set County on their way after just five minutes, before Darren Stephenson and Frank Mulhern sealed the win in the second half to move to just four points off the National League North summit.
The three points moves Jim Gannon’s men to just one point behind secondplaced Avenue, who suffered back-to-back defeats for the first time in four months.
The impressive statistics kept on rolling for the resurgent Hatters, who became the first side in ten months to prevent Mark Bower’s side from scoring, whilst simultaneously inflicting a first away defeat in four months on the West Yorkshire side.
Gannon again opted for his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation, with his a solitary change from the side which battled to a 1-0 New Year’s Day win at Altrincham.
Left winger Jake Kirby was ruled out with a foot injury, picked up in the first ten minutes at Moss Lane, with Stephenson deputising alongside Warburton and Adam Thomas in an attacking midfield three.
After three wins and three clean sheets in succession prior to Saturday, the visit of the high-flying Avenue promised to be a pivotal moment in both sides’ campaigns, with Bradford coming into the Edgeley Park clash on the back of a surprising 2-1 home defeat to Guiseley.
And Gannon’s men set the tone for the dominant performance which was to come, with star man Warburton cutting inside his man and drilling low past young goalkeeper Jack Atkinson on the former Halifax stopper’s senior debut.
The 18 year-old was selected as a last minute replacement for the injured number one Steve Drench - and, despite a number of good saves throughout from the youngster, Atkinson’s afternoon would only get worse.
Five minutes later, Warburton again tested Atkinson, who proved equal with a reflex save down to his left. And within a further minute, Stephenson, on the same flank, fired an effort on to the top of the bar and over.
County were already looking in total control after just a quarter of an hour, with Bradford’s only attempts coming via the speculative long-range efforts of midfield duo Nicky Clee and Conno Branson.
Bower’s side, similarly to Altrincham and Kidderminster before them, appeared at a loss as to how to breach County’s rock-solid defence, with young Oldham loaner Jamie Stott building an impenetrable partnership with Ash Palmer at the back, in front of the unflappable Ben Hinchliffe in goal.
Stott’s loan is scheduled to come to an end in two weeks, with fans and club officials alike desperate to extend the 21 year-old’s stay at Edgeley Park. 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 Palmer to Thomas, whose own looping header was brilliantly kept out by Atkinson on the turn.
And just before the interval, controversy reigned after Adam Thomas had fired low past Atkinson - with the referee missing his assidtant’s offside flag, which had been raised against Mulhern for what seemed to be an eternity prior to Thomas’ finish.
The goal was eventually chalked off, with the officials ruling that Hinchliffe’s
clearance had come from a free-kick as opposed to a goal-kick (from which attacking players cannot be ruled offside).
However, a decision which in previous years would have all-but certainly ended up costing The Hatters, the hosts continued the second half in the same vein and went on to “completely strangle” the visitors of any momentum, in the words of a well-beaten Bower.
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 inches beyond the left post.
Warburton then stepped inside to curl an effort past the outstretched fingertips of Atkinson, with veteran midfielder Nicky Wroe on hand to head away from danger.
With the score at 1-0, albeit not exactly on a knife-edge thanks to County’s complete dominance, Stephenson produced his first result altering moment on the tie - superbly tracking back 70 yards to his own goal to block a Bradford Park Avenue counter-attack, with what seemed like a certain goal as three Avenue cowards converged on Hinchliffe’s goal.
After the former Chorley winger had taken in the applause of the near four thousand home supporters, Stephenson duly went on to double County’s lead.
Warburton returned the favour earlier paid to him by Stephenson, rolling the ball into the area for the Jamaican forward to spin and fire past Atkinson, via the fingertips of the young ‘keeper.
But Gannon’s unplayable County weren’t finished - Stott headed substitute Elliot Osborne’s corner onto the crossbar minutes later, and despite Atkinson gathering the rebound, The Hatters’ third goal immediately followed in comical fashion.
With seemingly the entire population of Edgeley Park aware of what was about to happen - including a frantic Avenue bench who were all on their feet desperately attempting to warn their young goalkeeper - Atkinson rolled the ball out of his arms to launch it upfield.
Sickeningly for the visitors, their former striker Mulhern was stood directly behind Atkinson and pounced to roll into the empty net.
And again County piled forward in droves, with Warburton thundering an effort off the crossbar from the kick-off, before substitute Connor Dimaio - returning to the senior side for the first time since the FA Cup defeat at Barnet, twice went close late on.
But their fourth consecutive win and clean sheet was soon confirmed for the impressive Hatters, who maintained their position in third heading into their FA Trophy clash with National League South side Truro at Edgeley Park on Saturday.
It has proven to be yet another successful afternoon of league football for Gannon’s promotion hopefuls, who look set to finally give a title challenge a real go - sweeping aside several of their promotion rivals in recent weeks, and not looking like slowing any time soon.
COUNTY LINE-UP (4-2-3-1): Hinchliffe, Minihan, Duxbury, Keane, Palmer, Stott, Thomas, Turnbull (C) (Osborne, 70), Mulhern (Bell, 78), Warburton (Dimaio, 80), Stephenson
ATTENDANCE: 4,105 (136 away)
●LAST week’s report of County’s game against Kidderminster Harriers was written by Gareth Evans and wrongly credited to Sam Byrne.
●Darren Stephenson celebrates after scoring
●Matty Warburton enjoys his goal
●Frank Mulhern. celebrates his goal in the 3-0 win against Bradford Park Avenue