COUNTY ............................ 1 SALFORD CITY ................ 1
ACALLUM Hendry stunner denied County all three points at a sold out Edgeley Park on Friday evening, as promotion rivals Salford City earned a 1-1 draw in the League Two play-off race.
Connor Evans grabbed his first Hatters goal early on to put the hosts in front, but Hendry’s looping volley early in the second half earned The Ammies a deserved point in front of a bumper Edgeley Park crowd of over ten thousand.
A generally pulsating affair did fall into something of a lull after Hendry’s 51st minute stunner, with both sides seeming content not to lose the game and take what could be an important point in the League Two promotion run-in.
The result kept both sides fifth and sixth respectively ahead of Saturday’s fixtures, with Salford then falling a place to seventh - and the final play-off berth - following a late 3-2 win for Bradford City over FA Cup heroes Grimsby Town.
For County, and boss Dave Challinor, a point could not be argued against as The Hatters ultimately didn’t do enough to claim all three, with a lack of goals in recent weeks perhaps an increasing concern around Edgeley Park.
The reverse of that argument is County’s clear quality in defensive quarters, having now conceded just three goals in their last seven outings.
That solidity at the back, however, has not been equalled by a glut of goals at the other end - with just four scored in the same number of fixtures.
Challinor was boosted in the build-up to this one, with talismanic defender Fraser Horsfall returning from injury to take place in a changed shape of a back four for The Hatters, with Neill Byrne on the bench after hobbling out of action at Swindon a week prior.
The game started with a real ebb and blow in front of a lively crowd, with Stephen Mallan and Akil Wright firing well wide of the County and Salford goals respectively early on.
County have made a habit of starting strongly early on in recent outings with little to show for it, but that wasn’t to be the case here as Connor Evans, unexpectedly finding himself at the heart of the County midfield in recent weeks, slammed home his first of a difficult debut campaign for the club.
Wing-back Kyle Knoyle burst down the right and did excellently to squeeze a cross through for the lurking Evans to control and fire home with the outside of his right boot.
The game potentially swung on a key moment only ten minutes later though, when County struck the woodwork and came agonisingly close to doubling the early lead.
Chris Hussey’s diagonal ball was nodded down by Kyle Wootton for captain Paddy Madden to run clear, clipping his effort off the inside of the upright and away from danger.
In a tight affair against a promotion rival, it always felt that The Hatters may rue that miss - with Challinor
acknowledging afterwards that his side would “probably go on and win the game” had that effort nestled inside the post.
The visitors did then start to find some control in the game, with Ethan Galbraith testing Ben Hinchliffe from just inside the area, before eventual equaliser Callum Hendry headed well wide after finding a yard of space.
County would have been happy to get in at the interval with the lead in tact - but Salford would only come out for the resumption and pick up where their threatening end to the first-half left off.
A stunning leveller would earn Neil Wood’s side a point, but Challinor would have been left frustrated by his side’s contribution to Hendry’s strike regardless of the sheer quality of the finish.
A throw-in to leading marksman Hendry saw the Salford forward completely unmarked on the edge of the County box, with time for Hendry to take a touch and dip a superb volley well over the head of Ben Hinchliffe and into the far corner.
The Hatters responded after the hour by introducing Myles Hippolyte – fresh from scoring on his international debut for Grenada a week previously – and Antoni Sarcevic.
But the visitors remained buoyed by their equaliser, and went close with a Mallan free-kick that beat the County wall before hitting the right side-netting wide of Hinchliffe’s goal.
In truth, neither side pushed the envelope enough to threaten a winner, with positives and negatives in equal measure for Challinor and company to take away from another somewhat frustrating point.
A potentially pivotal
Easter Weekend now beckons for The Hatters, with a difficult trip to Sutton United on Good Friday followed by the visit of Newport County to Edgeley
Park on Monday afternoon. COUNTY LINE-UP (4-4-2): Hinchliffe; Knoyle, Horsfall, Hussey, Rydel; Camps (Stretton, 80), Wright, Croasdale, Evans (Sarcevic, 64); Wootton, Madden (C) (Hippolyte, 64). ATTENDANCE: 10,305 (584 Salford City)