We were treated to a cacophony of noise, a crazy atmosphere, an enthralling match, but, after FC Halifax Town and Guiseley played out a third draw in three matches, we are still no nearer to knowing who will take a step closer to the Blue Square Premier.
The match, which ended one goal apiece at The Shay last night, was dominated by the home side, who created myriad chances and could quite easily have headed into Saturday’s second leg two or three goals to the good.
However, only Dan Gardner could convert for Town, and even he had to do so at the second attempt from the penalty spot after 17 minutes, before Danny Ellis equalised for the visitors halfway into the second period.
Preparation for the tie was hardly perfect as both sides learned of the kick-off being postponed for 15 minutes only just before the match was due to kick-off, leading to the players re-emerging for a second warm-up.
However, it gave the 2,367 fans inside The Shay chance to limber up their vocal chords to a new pre-match playlist, as nessun dorma and company belted out of the tannoy system.
With both sets of fans in good voice – the Shaymen faithful armed with clappers provided by the club and the Guiseley contingent with a foghorn – a real cup tie atmosphere had rocked into life inside The Shay.
For the first time in what seemed an age Neil Aspin was able, thanks to a the adoption of a rotation policy to rest his key players over the season’s final games, to deploy a very strong side.
Alex Johnson was rewarded for a series of impressive showings, as he was given a starting birth alongside Lee Gregory in attack, the pair supported by Dan Gardner, playing just behind.
Matty Pearson was elected to play the holding role in midfield, alongside fellow central players Sean Williams and Chris Worsley, in front of the back five of Hogan, Lowe, Scott McManus, Ryan Toulson and Matty Glennon, which proved so effective for the majority of the season until injury forced them apart.
They ensured no early chances were given to Guiseley, something not echoed by opposition defender Andy McWilliams, who did something not nearly as bright as his team’s all-yellow kit, as the Shaymen took the lead. The Guiseley left back bundeled Matty Pearson over inside the box, resulting in referee Holmes given Town a penalty kick, which Gardner converted twice.
First the playmaker stepped up, stuttered in his run-up and slotted to Drench’s left, though was forced to retake as goalkeeper Drench complained about Gardner’s stutter, with Holmes agreeing that his effort was illegal.
Not that it mattered. Gardner stepped up again, this time with much more purpose, and struck powerfully into the opposite corner.
Town started to feel the full force of a rampant South Stand behind them, as McManus strode up the left, played inside to Gregory, who passed to Williams for a long range effort that ballooned, via a deflection, up and onto the top of the Guiseley goal.
The resulting corner was then cleared off the line from Pearson’s header, half by the fist of Drench, half by the head of McWilliams as Town looked to press for a second whilst the force was with them.
It was only a minute later that, from another corner, McManus headed at goal only for Andy Hardy to clear off the line.
Town’s play was by now as rampant as their vociferous support, as Johnson looked to vindicate Aspin’s decision to gift him a starting role by somehow keeping the ball through a number of yellow-shirted challenges on the right wing before wriggling into the box and hitting a left-footed effort, which nearly crept into Drench’s near post via a deflection.
Matthew Wilson then saved Guiseley again with a third clearance off the line as the Shaymen so nearly furthered their lead. An innocuous-looking punt somehow found its way to Gregory, who, as the ball fell, tried to round Drench – who was by now in no-man’s land – though the goalkeeper did just enough without fouling to prevent a shot from Town’s leading goal scorer, who had to play to Williams, though his shot was eventually blocked.
It was rarely evident why this Guiseley side finished 16 points above Town in the Blue Square North season, as time and again the Shaymen strode through their defence. Pearson this time entered the right side of the box and drilled across goal, which was bound for a free Gregory had Drench not fisted clear.
Guiseley were incensed a few minutes before half time, though, as Gavin Rothery went down under pressure from Lowe in the Town area. Referee Holmes, who had a clear view, simply waved away Guiseley’s tenuous claims, though the visitors duly mobbed the official, perhaps through frustration at being hitherto outplayed.
The Shay even had time to erupt one final time before the break, though the East Stand was collectively tricked by a strong strike from Worsley, whose effort from the edge of the area struck the side netting and somehow landed on the outer edge of the goal.
The second period started with more promise for the visitors as Hardy wound his way into the Town box and played to James Walshaw, who turned and struck powerfully but Glennon had made himself big to block the close range effort.
Straight away, though, Town were up the other end. In almost mirror-image fashion, Gregory found space in the box and hit on the turn akin to Walshaw seconds earlier, though his shot flew across the face of goal.
Guiseley, however, were looking to find the form that saw them secure second spot in the league with a number of weeks remaining. From a deep free kick, Pearson was left on the floor claiming he was fouled after Danny Ellis nodded home the visitors’ equaliser.
Not that it stopped Town, or this enthralling match, from becoming quiet. Gregory found himself half-through on goal, and stretched out a leg to chip over Drench, only to see his effort bounce back off the right-hand post.
It seemed only a brief spell during which Guiseley showed their potential, as Town pressed for another. A goalmouth scramble nearly proved fruitful before McManus’s header was collected by Drench.
In between the Town attacks Seb Carole found space to strike not too far over Glennon’s crossbar from range, but really it was the Shaymen who looked the more likely to take a lead into the play-off semi final second leg as Pearson this time could not quite direct a header on target.
Johnson’s header was then tipped over at by Drench at full stretch before Hogan’s acrobatic volley flew into the South Stand.
Still Town pressed. Pearson forced Drench into another impressive stop, again at full stretch to push away his volley from 30 yards before Toulson struck powerfully from just outside the area, his effort brushing past the left post.
With minutes left, Town’s energy resources depleted after a superhuman effort, Johnson came close to stealing a second for Town, though could not quite adjust to direct on target when awkwardly placed in front of goal before, in the third of three added minutes, the Shaymen had Glennon to thank for keeping the scores level after Josh Wilson wriggled through on goal, but for a sharp reaction by the veteran stopper.
It could have easily been a Town romp, though the Shaymen will expect a much tougher challenge at Nethermoor Park on Saturday.
Man of the match: Matty Pearson
FC Halifax Town | 1 (Gardner, 17 (pen))
1, Matt Glennon |2, Ryan Touslon |3, Scott McManus |4, Liam Hogan |5, Matty Pearson |6, Danny Lowe (C) |7, Chris Worsley |8, Sean Williams |9, Lee Gregory |10, Dan Gardner |11, Alex Johnson
(Subs: 12, Phil Senior | 14, Jon Worthington (Worsley)|15,Liam Needham (Gregory, 84) | 16, Gareth Seddon (Gardner, 84) | 17, Jason St. Juste)
Guiseley | Ellis
1, Steve Drench |2, Aaron Hardy |3, Andy McWilliams |4, Jack Rea |5, Danny Ellis |6, Matthew Wilson |7, Seb Carole |8, Andy Holdsworth (C)|9, Josh Wilson |10, James Walshaw |11, Gavin Rothery
(Subs: 12, Andy Pearson (Rothery, 84) | 14,Patrick Mullen (Carole, 90+2) |15,Jake Lawlor | 16, Zack Dale | 18, Jacob Giles