Lee Gregory’s 17th goal of the season earned FC Halifax Town an impressive point against high-flying Cambridge at the Shay.
If Town’s season opener against Cambridge was a day to forget, then this performance was one to savour as Town once again relished the battle with one of the Skrill Premier’s big boys.
The visitors brought the best out of the Shaymen with a polished first-half performance, but not even the meanest defence in the country could keep out Gregory as he equalised after Tom Elliott had scored for Cambridge.
Craig Clay came straight in for his debut in place of Kevin Holsgrove in Town’s only change, while fellow new boy Marlon Jackson was named on the bench.
It was apparent from the early exchanges that a win against the U’s would probably be Town best yet at the Shay as the visitors belied a bumpy pitch to enjoy plenty of possession and look comfortable in it.
But Town gave as good as they got in what was shaping up to be another action-packed meeting between the teams after the 5-1 win for Richard Money’s side back in August.
Marc Roberts, again being watched by Football League scouts from the stands, was forced into a crucial early block after Scott McManus became the first early victim to the pitch, which then caused Harrison Dunk to miss his kick when well placed in the box.
Lois Maynard nearly hit back with a rasping drive which whistled wide before Matt Glennon was forced into a series of outstanding saves to keep out the visitors.
Glennon’s season got off to the worst possible start with his early red card at the Abbey Stadium, but he helped consign that day to an even more distant memory as he kept out the visitors literally single-handidly at times.
Cambridge’s front two of Tom Elliott and Matthew Barnes-Homer possessed a potent mix of strength, pace and awareness which unsettled Town’s pairing of Roberts and Simon Ainge, who were arguably given their toughest test since the Alfreton combination of John Akinde and Jake Speight.
Elliott saw his powerful near post shot turned behind by Glennon, before the keeper tipped away Barnes-Homer’s effort after the Cambridge striker had raced clean through.
But Glennon reserved his best save for Ashley Chambers’ attempted chip across the box as he stretched every sinue to tip the ball over.
Town were clinging on at times against a well-oiled Cambridge machine, who were showing all the quality of a side who had knocked Luton out of the FA Trophy in midweek.
But the Shaymen had their moments too, with Lee Gregory’s flick header flashing wide from McManus’ superb cross, while Ainge also headed off target from Adam Smith’s corner.
Despite the lack of goals, it was still an engrossing contest as Town put in the leg-work to keep Cambridge at bay; the only quibble being they struggled to put the away side under the same kind of pressure, with the visiting keeper John Sullivan, who played here for Charlton in their televised 4-0 FA Cup win in 2011, not having a shot to save in the first-half.
Neil Aspin, perhaps encouraged by a much more even start to the second-half, replaced one debutant with another as Jackson replaced Clay as Town shuffled into a more attacking system.
But Elliott grabbed the goal he’d been sporadically threatening when he rose highest to head in a Cambridge free-kick, but Town were left protesting furiously at the award of the set-piece to the right of the box, arguing it was no more than a shoulder-barge on Cambridge’s Gregg Taylor.
Such were assistant manager Lee Nogan’s protestations that he was sent to the stands moments later.
Referee Darren Handley was fast becoming public enemy number one as the Town fans voiced their anger at a number of marginal decisions given against the Shaymen.
It took until the 73rd minute for Sullivan to be tested, and it was very nearly worth the wait but Matt Pearson’s terrific strike from 25 yards was acrobatically palmed over.
But Sullivan could only watch and admire three minutes later as Gregory showed magnificent technique to control Smith’s high cross before turning sharply and firing into the corner
But the referee wasn’t off centre stage for long as he showed McManus his second yellow of the afternoon barely a minute after Gregory’s goal, stoking an already bristling atmosphere into new levels of antagonism.
Jackson showed some promising touches as the 10-men gritted their collective teeth and flung themselves into any semblence of a loose ball.
Roberts added another wonderful last-ditch tackle to his growing collection late on as Town sough to repel the Cambridge charge, thanks in no small part to the tireless Pearson, who seemed to be playing in at least three positions at once come full-time.
Halifax: Glennon, Challinor, Ainge, Roberts, McManus, Smith, Pearson, Maynard (Marshall 65), Clay (Jackson 60), Wilson, Gregory. Subs not used: Senior, Worthington, Gray.
Scorer: Gregory (76)
Shots on target: 2
Shots off target: 6
Cambridge: Sullivan, Taylor, Coulson, Miller, Tait, Donaldson, Champion, Chambers (Arnold 83), Dunk (Hughes 86), Barnes-Homer (Berry 65), Elliott. Subs not used: Roberts, Norris.
Scorer: Elliott (66)
Shots on target: 5
Shots off target: 3
Town man of the match: Matt Pearson