FC Halifax Town slipped to fifth place in the Blue Square North after losing 2-0 at promotion rivals Altrincham.
Town can still finish above the Robins, but they will probably now have to win their final two games after a much-changed Halifax side lost away from home in the league for the first time since New Year’s Day thanks to second-half strikes from Nicky Clee and former Town man Matt Doughty.
Only a win would have kept alive Town’s hopes of a late surge up to third place, so these two teams could meet again soon should they come through their respective semi-finals.
Perhaps with those in mind, both sides played with the air of teams who know they have far more important matches to come in the very near future in a game lacking any real urgency.
Neil Aspin made eight changes from the side that started against Guiseley, with only James Knowles, Adam Jackson and Matt Glennon keeping their place in the team.
That selection made the prospect of a draw an even more attractive result for The Shaymen, especially given Altrincham’s full-strength line-up.
No doubt the weary legs of the more regular starters were a consideration for the Town boss, who should hopefully have a fresher squad to choose from when the play-offs come round next week.
But it also hinted a confidence that Halifax may fancy their chances against Guiseley just as much as Brackley in the semi-final.
Town looked the livelier side early on, with Alex Johnson particularly impressing in an unfamiliar role on the left of midfield, cutting in at one point before firing a shot over from 25 yards.
There was a visible sense that the pressure was off for Town as they passed the ball around in assured fashion, knowing a play-off spot wasn’t dependent on the outcome.
Based on Altrincham’s first 30 minutes, Town don’t have as much to fear as the 50 goals their strike partnership had to their name before kick-off might have suggested.
Few goalscoring chances were being created, but the hosts appeared less likely to carve any out than Halifax.
Liam Hogan provided a reassuring presence alongside James Knowles at the heart of the defence on his return from injury, helping keep Damian Reeves and Duncan Watmore quiet, but Altrincham’s centre-back pairing were keeping Gareth Seddon and Danny Glover just as quiet at the other end.
If the Town changes were also an invitation to play yourself into contention for next week’s double-header, then Johnson seemed keenest to take his chance as he got another sight of goal a few minutes before the break, but his left-footed shot from inside the box curled over the bar.
There was no shortage of endeavour from the visitors, especially from Johnson and Osebi Abadaki on the opposite flank, but little end product from either team as a fairly lethargic first-half ended with no shots on target.
It was so far so good for Town, but the hosts produced their first moment of quality just after the restart to take the lead when , DClee curled his shot past Matt Glennon from the edge of the box.
Cue chants of ‘whatever will be will be, we’re going to Brackley’ from the home supporters, who witnesesed a much-improved performance from their team after the restart, with Clee and James Lawrie both proving good outlets down the flanks.
Another rare moment of quality in the match then saw the hosts string a superb move together with some sharp, one-touch passing around the Town box before Doughty stroked the ball past Glennon.
Parity now looked a long way back for Town, who battled to the end and went close when Hogan’s header from a corner was blocked before Seddon nodded wide, but Altrincham rarely looked like surrendering their lead as they pencilled a trip to Brackley into their diary.
Altrincham: Coburn, Densmore, Doughty, Rodgers (Lacey 58), Havern, Leather, Lawrie, Boshell (Moult 50), Watmore, Reeves, Clee (Brooke 77). Subs not used: Hall, McMillan.
Scorers: Clee (50) Doughty (67)
Shots on target: 2
Shots off target: 1
Halifax: Glennon, Jackson, St Juste, Hogan, Knowles (Pearson 44), Toulson, Abadaki (Messer 56), Needham, Glover, A Johnson, Seddon. Subs not used: Senior, Wysock.
Shots on target: 0
Shots off target: 4
Man of the match: Liam Hogan