FC Halifax Town beat Stalybridge 2-1 to reach the fourth qualifying round of the FA Cup, but made hard work of their victory at The Shay.
For the second time this season, Town struggled badly against Stalybridge, never really getting into their rhythm and not playing well enough to see them off more comfortably.
Halifax have won three consecutive games for the first time since August 2014, but this wasn’t a patch on previous victories over Ashton Athletic and Bradford Park Avenue.
Josh Wilde’s second goal of the season put Town deservedly ahead, but they were pegged back through Stalybridge’s sole attempt of the first-half when ex-Town loanee Keil O’Brien headed in a free-kick.
The game then descended into a desperately poor contest lacking in chances or even half-chances, until Danny Hone headed Town back into the lead.
Billy Heath revealed the FA Cup features prominently on his list of priorities by naming the same team that beat Park Avenue last Saturday.
Perhaps understandably given then wretched form going into the game, Stalybridge strung five defenders across the back when out of possession, with three midfielders in front of them, so chances had to be earned for The Shaymen.
They came intermittently rather than regularly, with shots off target from David Lynch and Alex Simmons and a header over the bar when well-placed by Scott Garner.
From an almost identical spot, Tom Denton brought a good reaction save from Tony McMillan.
Town were warming up as the first-half went on though, with lovely link-up play between Josh Macdonald and Jordan Sinnott before the latter’s cross was glanced wide by Denton.
The striker then produced a cushioned nod down from a high ball in the box which Wilde volleyed low into the net from 12 yards.
Barring a dangerous cross by Steve Tames that was begging for a touch in the middle, Stalybridge had offered nothing going forward; while Town had at least improved from the two teams’ previous meeting, the visitors had not.
But they levelled with their first effort on target when, who else, but O’Brien headed in a free-kick from the left touchline.
The match itself then became a sideshow as referee Paul Marsden took centre stage by losing a grip of the contest.
An early decision to award a goal-kick to the away side rather than give a free-kick near their own goal line for a foul set the tone for an indecisive performance.
As he had been three weeks ago at The Shay, Stalybridge’s Andy Owens was an overly physical presence for the visitors but saw nothing in the way of punishment until a booking just before the interval.
A growing feeling of rancour between the teams spilled over into a melee near the centre circle, while Lynch was forced off around the half-hour mark when he was elbowed in the face, for which the Stalybridge player received only a booking.
Denton was then penalised despite a Stalybridge defender using him as a step-ladder to win a high ball.
The constant protests from Stalybridge players at their apparent injustices only increased the pressure from the stands for Mr Marsden to put them in their place, and his reluctance to do so only heightened the Town fans’ ire.
All of which diverted attention from the fact that Town were struggling to see off a team with just three wins from 14 games this season.
It could have been even worse for Town just after the restart when Owens, who looked offside, prodded a shot across goal and narrowly wide.
There were howls of derision from the Town fans when Owens - public enemy number two behind Mr Marsden - threw himself to the ground claiming he’d been elbowed by Hone, but received nothing other than a talking to from the referee.
Hone then lost possession on a foray forward on the ball before Owens skied a shot over, prompting gleeful cheers from the home fans.
But Stalybridge had been the better team since the interval, with Denton too often having no-one to flick the ball onto and little inspiration coming from elsewhere.
The tempo was pedestrian and the quality was not good enough from either team to even hint at a winner.
However, thoughts of a replay on a cold Tuesday night in October at Bower Fold were extinguished when Sinnott’s dinked free-kick was met with a low header by Hone at the back post.
Halifax: Drench, Roberts, Garner, Hone, Wilde, Macdonald (Burrow 81), Lynch (Hotte 39), King, Sinnott, Simmons, Denton. Subs not used: Nicholson, Moyo, Hibbs, Hughes, Barrow.
Scorers: Wilde (23), Hone (77)
Shots on target: 3
Shots off target: 8
Stalybridge: McMillan, O’Brien, Wisdom, Gorton (Ryan 27), Hughes, Chalmers, McKnight (Summerskill 61), Gee, Owens, Tames, Pilkington (Chippendale 78). Subs not used: Bagshaw, Tattum, Platt, Halford.
Scorer: O’Brien (31)
Shots on target: 2
Shots off target: 3
Town man of the match: Kevin Roberts
Referee: Paul Marsden