HISTORY was not on the side of this match taking place when it should – given that rain during 2013/14, and ice last season, had resulted in the postponement of corresponding fixtures on their originally-scheduled winter dates.
In the event, it did get played. And even in spite of a morning pitch inspection that had ruled out any problems from cold overnight weather. But a soft playing surface combined with a prevailing stiff breeze to create conditions that were not conducive to free-flowing football – leaving two of the National League North’s five lowest-scoring sides to battle out a stalemate that, while fair on the overall balance of play, will not linger terribly long in the collective memory.
Jim Gannon made two changes to the line-up which had taken to the field in Cheshire Senior Cup action against Crewe in midweek. Paul Connolly was called up as right back, instead of Danny Morton who had been ruled out with a hamstring injury, and John Marsden replaced Joe Garvin.
Avenue’s squad, meanwhile, featured two former County players – with Lamin Colley starting, and player-coach, Danny Schofield, being named among the hosts’ substitutes.
Colley, who had made ten league appearances up front, without scoring, for the Hatters earlier in the current campaign, before returning to the club from which he had been signed, was a visible presence during the opening exchanges. The 21-year-old featured, most particularly in two tussles between him and former team-mate, Gareth Roberts, who succeeded, successively, in winning a free kick against Colley as the pair went to ground, and blocking an attempted shot by the Avenue striker.
Michael Potts sent a free kick well clear of the County crossbar from 25 yards, but, shortly afterwards, focused his sights a little better – and much lower – with a strike that appeared just to be missing Dean Henderson’s goal, before the on-loan ‘keeper made absolutely sure by finger-tipping it beyond the left post.
Sam Patterson’s resulting corner was met by Connolly – albeit with a glancing header that sent the ball fizzing across the face of goal without, thankfully, finding the touch of a home player before passing the far upright.
In a first half that was generally short on both quality and scoring opportunities, the Hatters – playing in their turquoise shirts, and adopting a ‘diamond‘ 4-4-2 system – had precious little to show for it, save for two Marsden snap-shots in quick succession that flew high and wide.
The pitch, having not seen league action since December 5, was by now cutting up quite significantly – and neither it nor the patterns of play were getting any easier on the eyes of Avenue’s highest crowd for the season to date.
That said, the hosts – with Luke Dean and Nathan Turner exerting their influence in midfield – did look the team more likely to create chances ahead of the break. And so it proved – although the contest had reached the half-hour mark before witnessing its first shot on target.
Potts was the player to pull the trigger, having been played through by Colley. But Henderson, whose loan from Manchester United had, earlier in the day, been extended for a further month, saved the effort thanks to an outstretched leg.
Referee, Paul Newhouse, signalled the interval, having declared that enough was enough without taking the trouble to play out any added time to speak of. Shortly beforehand, Colley had seen his loose shot deflected for a corner and Turner skied over from distance.
Neither attempt was much to write home about – but then… well, you get the picture…
The Hatters’ formation was tweaked at the re-start – such that they might better use the full width of the pitch, with Marsden and Jamie Menagh on the right and left flanks, respectively. And, with just ten minutes of the half gone, Kayode Odejayi was introduced, in the hope of unsettling the Avenue defence with his trademark, headed flick-ons.
These changes did succeed in making County a more effective attacking force with which to be reckoned. And, whilst it was never destined for classic status, the game also became somewhat more open as a contest – with the Hatters having the edge for sustained spells.
Obi Anoruo blasted over, after cutting in from the right. And, with just over an hour reached, County had a shot on target when Marsden unleashed a low drive from outside Avenue’s box that home goalkeeper and captain, Jon Stewart, dived to smother at the second attempt.
The hosts were restricted for long spells to attacking on the break – only, for the most part, to be calmly repelled by County’s back four. Jason St Juste, as a left wing back was the biggest danger – notably, delivering a cross that was narrowly shy of the far post, and then engaging in some trickery that led to Avenue’s first corner since the break.
Menagh posed questions with his now-customarily thoughtful free kicks, as one was headed out stage right by Ryan Qualter, and another beat the home wall but was held by Stewart.
There was little sign of Colley in the second half, and, consequently, no obvious sense that he might, in time-honoured fashion beloved of ex-Hatters, come back to haunt his old club… until, that is, a three-minute blitz towards the end of the game in which he hit the woodwork not once, but twice.
Colley’s first attempt displayed no shortage of skill, as he beat two defenders, weaved along the edge of the area, and let fly with a low shot that beat Henderson – only for the ball to strike the left post and rebound into the grateful arms of County’s current number one.
His second took the form of a header, following a St Juste cross from the left. This time, the crossbar felt the impact – possibly after being parried up by Henderson, although no corner was awarded.
The hosts did earn themselves a final corner, thanks to a Chib Chilaka long-range shot that had taken a deflection. But neither that, nor a County free kick fired over by Conor Smith by way of what was to prove the game’s very last touch, could break the deadlock.
Subs not used: Ainge, Schofield, Kebbie, Terrell.
Bookings: Turner (66); Dean (90 + 3).
Subs not used: Ormson, Tonge.