FC Halifax Town
battled hard from beginning to end, dominated from first whistle to last, yet still, somehow, endured a frustrating evening at The Shay yesterday.
The 1-1 draw against lowly Bishop’s Stortford represented antithesis football at its best, as the long-travelling away side just about managed to squeeze out a point, despite eventually going down to ten men, that moves them closer to mathematical safety.
For Town the match represents a fifth at home without victory, despite 89 minutes of total domination in a game where the Shaymen could have racked up a hefty score.
The one minute when they didn’t dominate was the 32nd, as Stortford took a surprise lead. Liam Needham
pegged back the scores, though Neil Aspin’s side could not quite snatch another.
The away team’s black and white kit portrayed perfectly their attitude going into the fixture – one of negativity.
The tone was set directly from the kick-off, as with just the second touch of the game Bishop’s Stortford gifted the ball to Town, passing straight to Gareth Seddon
as the Shaymen instantly set about pitching their tents in the visitor’s half.
Rod Stringer deployed his Stortford side, who are themselves still not mathematically clear of the Blue Square North drop zone, in a disappointingly negative 4-5-1 formation, which for vast periods saw every player in white and black inside their own half.
Town, however, still set about their usual patient business, as their opponents allowed them to take time to build from the back.
Needham flashed wide Town’s first attempt from a Lee Gregory
knock-down on the edge of the box after eight minutes. A minute later Town were allowed to venture forward again, as Scott McManus
crossed deep for Gareth Seddon
– playing for the first time since picking up a dead leg away to Workington
– to nod across the face of goal.
Despite facing a decidedly clogged midfield, Dan Gardner
’s dancing feet managed to somehow beat three markers at a time, as Town looked to further their attacking expedition from a base camp of around half way into Stortford’s half.
It left Stortford’s Brian Woodhall outnumbered and outcast as the lone striker, cared for by Town’s central defensive pairing of Danny Lowe
and James Knowles. Such was the gap between Woodhall and the rest of his side, the striker would have had to charter a small plane to cover the vast distance. It’s a good job that Bishop’s Woodside Park home is sat right next to Stansted Airport.
It would also be worth checking the inner lining of Matt Glennon
’s goalkeeping gloves to see if they were padded with sheepskin or something similar, as, given how the negativity of Stortford rendered him essentially redundant, it seems the only way frostbite could have been prevented.
One of the few times he was called into action, however, was after just over half an hour, when, almost bizarrely given the pattern of play hitherto, he was forced to pick the ball out the back of his net, as Stortford took the lead.
A long punt forward was chased down by what seemed a solo effort from Woodhall, but the ball dribbled infield where Matt Johnson, who was for the first time making an attacking surge, latched on and struck with power into Glennon’s bottom right-hand corner.
The goal almost seemed an anomaly, especially as Town returned to dominate proceedings as Danny Lowe
went close with a shot from 25 yards, the effort skipping just over Carl Pentney’s crossbar via a fingertip from the goalkeeper.
Five minutes before half time Town found themselves level and could have scored three more as Stortford seemed to divert attention to a warm dressing room. McManus again wandered up to the left by-line, chipping into the box where a free Needham directed a superbly accurate header towards goal, which looped over Pentney and in off the far upright.
then would have ensured the Shaymen entered the interval a goal up were it not for one of the tackles of the season by Stortford full back Ben Sampayo. Seddon’s shot was saved by Pentney, though the ball rolled across the face of goal for Gregory to place home, and he would have done had Sampayo not slid in at the last to block for a corner.
From the corner Stortford’s other full back, Johnny Herd then blocked off the line before McManus ended a frantic final five first half minutes by volleying just wide at the back post.
As the teams emerged for the second half, Adriano Moke came out in place of Matt Pearson. The former York man lined up as a traditional right-back would, but as the half got underway, it became quickly evident that he was in fact deployed as an attacking winger, as Stortford came out with, somehow, an even more defensive attitude.
Straight away Moke was wriggling into the visitors’ box, causing trouble as his cross was blocked in front of goal, before Gardner flashed wide from the edge of the area.
For the second period it looked as though, at times, Woodhall has chartered that plane, as he himself wandered back on the defensive. Stortford were sat so deep, they were practically half way back down the M1.
The challenge for Town: break down a team who were more than happy to stick with the hand they had, a risky strategy by the away side, as Town’s offense kept threatening to produce a couple of match-winning aces.
Gregory came so close to providing a lead for Town. Gardner played a delightful cross-field pass with the outside of his boot, onto which ran Gregory who jinked past his man, had a first effort blocked and a second cleared off the line, via his own crossbar, by Sean Francis.
From the resulting corner, Herd blocked on the line but was deemed to have done it unlawfully by referee Walsh, who subsequently sent off the full back and awarded Town a penalty, which Gardner was unable to convert, as Pentney pounced low to his right.
With a little over 20 minutes remaining, Sean Williams’ beautifully angled cross then threatened to find Gregory again in front of goal, but the striker’s reach lacked an inch or two, as the ball just evaded his outstretched boot.
Still Town pressed, but every one of the myriad crosses, forays or defence-cutting passes seemed to fall agonisingly short of a blue-shirted attacker or was blocked by one of the white-shirted battalion.
By this stage Stortford were also trying all the tricks of the time wasting trade, as defensive midfielder Alli Abdullah was cautioned for holding up play instead of his midfield when taking an unnecessary drink at a throw-in.
Frustration then rang out around The Shay as referee Walsh stopped play for goal scorer Johnson, who hurt his leg after a crunching tackle from Lowe. Boos came from the 926 Town fans – who made up one hundred percent of the crowd, seen as there were zero Bishop’s fans – as Stortford’s ploy to disrupt play appeared to be working.
Still Town pressed, trying desperately to keep high their tempo as Stortford seemed to forget how to take the simplest throw-in. Gardner struck wide from inside the area.
As The Shay’s stadium announcer proclaimed four additional minutes, Moke wriggled into the area and shot just wide, injuring himself in the process.
Ultimately, however, frustration reigned supreme. Thursday’s date with Corby Town
now takes on even greater significance.