The Hatters signed off for the calendar year with a single-goal victory over Alfreton at Edgeley Park that saw them move up to ninth place in National League North.
They had on-loan Kallum Mantack to thank for the decisive strike against one of his former clubs – although, sadly, the right-sided player’s involvement in the first part of a festive ‘double-header’ with the ‘Reds’ from Derbyshire ended when he was stretchered off just after the break.
County took to the field half an hour later than scheduled, after traffic problems had unavoidably delayed Alfreton’s arrival in SK3 – and with a 3-5-2 line-up unchanged from that which had started against Curzon Ashton two days before Christmas.
Just as the Hatters had largely dominated from the outset at the Tameside Stadium, so, too, did they on their home turf.
With twilight already descending, Chris Smalley headed over an early first corner – before another was earned when visiting goalkeeper Chris Elliott parried Jimmy Ball’s low drive beyond the right post.
County went closer still after 16 minutes, after Darren Stephenson crossed from the left and Mantack, from six yards out, struck the far post.
And a subsequent delivery from Stephenson on the same flank led to shots at a crowded defence by Mantack and Dan Cowan that were blocked in rapid succession.
Alfreton’s first chance of note arrived just after the half-hour mark when Frank Mulhern, who had recently joined the Reds on loan from Guiseley, broke through into the County area and shot – forcing Ben Hinchliffe to tip around the left upright at full stretch.
But most of the first half’s impetus continued to have the Hatters at its source – and they took a deserved leave four minutes before the interval.
Stephenson was the architect, delivering a quick throw-in on the left to Gary Stopforth, whose return pass was crossed by the winger to find Mantack.
Taking one touch before dropping his left shoulder, Mantack showed great composure in firing home his second goal in a County shirt.
County began the second half with a substitution – bringing on Bohan Dixon for Harry Winter to create a 3-4-1-2 formation, and handing the captain’s armband to Stephen O’Halloran on his 100th appearance for the Hatters.
Mantack’s part in proceedings was to last little longer than Winter’s, as, with only three minutes played following the resumption, he was felled by a heavy, late tackle from Cieron Keane near Alfreton’s right by-line and carried off on a stretcher.
The loss of Mantack might have momentarily thrown the Hatters off their stride, although they continued to concentrate much of the game in Alfreton’s half – and the visitors initially offered little threat, save for off-target efforts from Tom Platt and former County Youth player Ryan Jennings.
But with just over 20 minutes left on the clock, Alfreton looked certain to score when Bradley Wood’s through-ball found Mulhern, who began to round Hinchliffe for a glimpse of an empty net. Incredibly, though, County’s Number One jumped back to smother high and preserve the lead.
Brendon Daniels had a 25-yard free kick deflected past the left upright, as the Reds continued to sense a chance of gaining something from the contest.
Then, after Dixon had fired narrowly wide of the right post and Jason Oswell headed straight at Elliott, County again owed a debt of gratitude to Hinchliffe when he saved from substitute Noel Burdett – and, by denying the festively-named striker, avoided an unwelcome match report headline! – just ahead of added time.
FULL-TIME: County 1 (Mantack, 41), Alfreton 0.