Rich irony adds
PADDY Madden’s late leveller salvaged a point for an under-par County side in a topsy-turvy 2-2 draw with Maidenhhead United at Edgeley Park, in a stalemate which dealt a blow to The Hatters’ lingering National League title hopes.
A run of nine games unbeaten under Simon Rusk prior to Saturday had County within six points of league leaders Hartlepool with two games in hand – however, whilst that run was extended to ten without loss in Saturday’s draw, County’s title ambitions were dented with the solitary point.
Meanwhile, County’s frustration on the day was compounded with the news that loanee striker Richie Bennett had struck a hat-trick for Dave Challinor’s Hartlepool side in a 2-7 thrashing of Wealdstone, with Bennett now on five goals in just three Pools appearances.
Whilst Bennett now seems certain to be recalled next week following a loan move widely acknowledged as a mistake around Edgeley Park, County’s performance on the day – whilst showing resiliency and character to twice come from behind – lacked the kind of clinical final product which Challinor’s league leaders seemed to have in abundance in Wealdstone.
For the third game running, Rusk named an unchanged line-up following Tuesday’s thumping 4-0 win over King’s Lynn as the Express went to print – but The Hatters fell behind midway through the first half when Alan Devonshire’s visitors grabbed their first goal in three games, with defender Manny Parry bundling past Ben Hinchliffe inside the area.
County responded well to the setback, with Tom Walker surging down the left and teeing up striker Alex Reid to square for striker partner Harry Cardwell to slot past a helpless Taye AshbyHammond to level proceedings before the break.
The away side proved a difficult unit for The Hatters to break down throughout the afternoon, although the tidy feet of substitute Elliot Newby teed up leading marksman Alex Reid to skew a close-range effort wide of the near post midway through the second half.
With County looking like pushing for a winner into the final quarter of an hour, the visitors retook the lead when Sam Minihan’s loose ball on halfway was picked up by Sam Barratt, with forward Danilo Orsi finishing with aplomb past Hinchliffe.
But again County bounced back, with Paddy Madden grabbing his fourth goal in County colours when the Irishman flicked past Ashby-Hammond from close range following an Ash Palmer knockdown.
Despite late chances for both sides however, The Hatters were left frustrated by the Magpies as both sides had to settle for a point which does little for County’s slender title hopes.
Instead, focus would now appear to be more on grabbing second or third spot for Rusk’s men, with a finish in either one of those spots meaning that The Hatters would avoid a play-off quarter-final.
With eight games remaining, County can still feasibly catch the current top three of Hartlepool, Sutton and Torquay (with many of the leading pack still to play against play-off and promotionchasing sides), although
The Hatters now seem surer of cementing fourth spot in the National League – given a six-point gap which has been opened between County and fifth-placed Wrexham.
Despite Saturday’s underwhelming showing, however, there are still reasons to be optimistic for Rusk’s side. County have performed relatively well against sides likely to be in and around them in the end of season playoffs should the title race come down to the current top three, with Notts County, Hartlepool and Sutton all held to stalemates, whilst there have been comfortable wins over Wrexham, Chesterfield and Eastleigh.
County have admittedly struggled more when it’s come to sides lower in the table such as Maidenhead, Barnet and Weymouth – sides which make it difficult for The Hatters to break down. In playoffs which all consist of single leg fixtures, it seems unlikely that opponents will sit in as much as the likes of Devonshire’s Maidenhead.
Torquay and Halifax are both still to do battle with The Hatters this season before the play-offs begin, with those two fixtures likely to provide a stronger indication of whether County will be doing battle with those sides again in the end of season playoff lottery, or whether they’ll be celebrating a somewhat unlikely National League title win.