FC Halifax Town produced their best performance of the season so far as they recorded a morale-boosting 1-1 draw with Gateshead at The Shay.
If Town could take little encouragement from their point on Saturday, they could take nothing but positives from this and could justifiably lay claim to all three points as Jon Shaw’s opener was cancelled by James Bolton after the interval.
For a team without a manager and one win so far this season, their whole-hearted display offered much to be admired but also begged the question of where this kind of performance had been hiding before now?
In front of Town’s lowest gate of the season, The Shaymen looked like a different outfit to the one that laboured to a a draw against 10-man Southport just three days previously.
If Jordan Burrow had felt a little isolated at times this season, that most certainly wasn’t the case here, as Sean Tuton partnered him in attack in a 3-5-2, with Hamza Bencherif adding a presence up-field in an attacking midfield role.
And that triumvirate started well, with Tuton and Burrow working hard to occupy the Gateshead back four, and Bencherif, a transformed figure from recent outings, displaying a deft touch and adventurous intent, almost making a third striker a times.
When Town were awarded a penalty, their second in two games, for a rash challenge by goalkeeper Sam Russell on Tuton, it appeared just reward for their excellent start.
But Burrow’s shot crashed back off the bar. How’s your luck? Could be better.
Gareth McClelland’s changes, with Kevin Roberts and Bencherif coming in and a first start for Sam Walker, who played under McClelland at Woodley Sports, appeared to have paid dividends.
There was a real hunger about The Shaymen, perhaps keen to put right an underwhelming performance against Southport but also impress any potential new managers in the stands.
With a new appointment possibly in place for the next home game against Cheltenham, this was potentially their last chance to catch the eye of their next boss.
If that man was watching on, he’ll have liked what he was seeing.
Gateshead hadn’t recovered from their own disappointing result on Saturday, a 2-1 home defeat to Welling, but came into the game with four wins from five away games, so weren’t going to stay on the back-foot for too long, and responded with a stinging shot from Matty Pattison which stung the palms of Matt Glennon.
When your luck’s down, it’s down, and despite an impressive first 20 minutes, Town found themselves behind thanks, of course, to a former player.
Shaw netted 20 goals for Town in their final season before demotion, so it was particularly cruel he should nod in after Jordan Cranston’s cross was flicked on by Ryan Bowman.
This fixture has produced two cracking games since Town’s return to the Conference, and this contest now followed that pattern as Kingsley James had a fierce low shot saved by Russell.
The keeper then parried another shot from James into the path of Tuton, but his rebound was ruled out for offside.
Then Roberts cleared a header from Nathan Buddle off the line; there weren’t 18 teams between these two sides in the table on this evidence.
The same linesman who disallowed Tuton’s goal then flagged him offside again just before the break when he latched onto a lofted pass and ran through on goal when it was Bencherif who was offside, but he didn’t touch the ball.
How’s your luck? Could be better.
Town forced three corners inside the first seven minutes of the restart, one after a barnstorming run by Julian Banton, and from the third, Bolton, who scored twice in the 2-2 draw with Gateshead at The Shay last season, delivered a bullet header past Russell.
Game on; there may have been fewer than a thousand home fans present, but they were now fired up as much as their team.
Moments later, the hosts survived a frantic goalmouth scramble after James was caught in possession, with bodies thrown desperately on the line before the ball was cleared.
There had been no let up the work-rate from Town but Gateshead were coping better with them by the midway point of the second-half as the chances for both teams started to dry up.
Burrow’s final act before being taken off was a flick header across goal from Roberts’ whipped cross before his replacement Hattersley’s low cross, after a superb turn and pass from Bencherif, was just out of Tuton’s reach in the middle.
The fact that Bencherif was afforded a standing ovation by most Town fans when he was substituted late on after his withdrawal was greeted with ironic cheers against Kidderminster emphasised how much he, and the rest of the Town side, had improved.
Halifax: Glennon, Bolton, Banton, Brown, McManus, Roberts, James, Bencherif (Macdonald 89), Walker (Racchi 73), Tuton, Burrow (Hattersley 78). Subs not used: Porter, Brooks.
Scorer: Bolton (53)
Shots on target: 6
Shots off target: 6
Gateshead: Russell, Baxter, Clark, Ramsden, Pattison (Ramshaw 81), Phillips, Chandler (McLaughlin 72), Buddle, Cranston, Bowman, Shaw (Marwood 58). Subs not used: Mafuta, MacDonald.
Scorer: Shaw (28)
Shots on target: 3
Shots off target: 2
Town man of the match: Sean Tuton