FC Halifax Town were denied a deserved win over high-flying Bristol Rovers after the visitors launched a late fightback to earn a 2-2 draw.
Lois Maynard’s ninth league goal of the season and Marc Roberts’ fourth put Halifax into a commanding half-time lead, with Rovers conceding twice before half-time in the league for the first time since September 13.
But Lee Brown’s drilled shot and a magnificent effort by substitute Ellis Harrison, whose late goal also won the game at the Memorial Ground back in August, snatched a draw the visitors didn’t deserve.
Rovers showed the potential battling quality of champions by coming back to salvage an unlikely draw, but it was Halifax who had looked the league leaders of the two sides for most of the match.
If the draw at Aldershot showed signs of encouragement, this full-blooded performance put Town firmly back on track, although the nature of the late comeback will leave Town feeling robbed.
To a man, Town outplayed their visitors, jumping higher and running further in front of a home crowd buoyed by a stirring showing from the hosts.
The scale of Halifax’s task was emphasised by the fact that Rovers’ defeat against Eastleigh last time out was their first loss of 2015, while they came into the game undefeated on the road since November; no wonder they were top of the league.
Richard Peniket and Jamie Jackson, responsible for four of Halifax’s last five goals, lined up with Adam Smith in a front three.
And Peniket, up against three Rovers centre-backs, picked up where he left off at Aldershot with a wholehearted display, challenging for high balls and occupying the visitors’ formidable defence, which had kept a clean sheet in four of their last five away games.
The Town forward and Rovers’ Ollie Clarke both had an early effort from range but they hardly set a precedent for a flurry of chances.
The grass is certainly greener elsewhere for Town, with Aldershot’s carpet of a pitch on Tuesday making The Shay’s surface look like a well-worn patch of Wilton.
There were more than a dozen streaks of sand lengthways across the pitch; and that was before Halifax RLFC’s game against Dewsbury on Sunday.
Rovers adapted well to the nuances of the surface and looked a more assured side than the one that scraped past Halifax in the return fixture earlier in the season.
It was Halifax they couldn’t cope with.
Town were up for the challenge though, tigerishly competing for 50-50 balls and working hard to deny Rovers time on the ball.
During a bright spell that saw Rovers pinned back, Town launched another attack down the right, a productive route early on, and from James Bolton’s whipped cross, Maynard directed a header beyond Steve Mildenahll from 12 yards.
Moments later, Peniket continued his energetic display by charging down Mildenhall’s clearance after a short back-pass.
Although nothing came from the block, it illustrated the extra gear Town were playing at compared to Rovers, who had yet to assert themselves on the contest.
Town ensured it stayed that way as well with Marc Roberts and Graham Hutchison forming an effective shield at the back and Maynard, Matt Pearson and Paul Marshall, as they had at Aldershot, covering the hard yards in midfield.
If this wasn’t already a test for Rovers, it certainly was when Marc Roberts converted Marshall’s superb dinked free-kick past the on-rushing Mildenhall as Halifax scored twice in a game for the first time in a month. What goal drought?
Even the referee was getting a round of applause from the home crowd for his decisions in Town’s favour; maybe it was going to be Halifax’s day.
The difference from that subdued evening at Southport was stark. Town were reinvigorated and playing the table-toppers off the park.
Pearson came charging out of the blocks straight after the interval, as if he’d been on charge for 15 minutes in the dressing room, and prompted a rousing response from the Shay crowd for his ceaseless endeavours.
Harrison, scorer of the last-ditch winner in the reverse fixture, fired narrowly wide at one end before the tenacious Pearson shot over following a surging run by Jackson.
Town were feeding off the backing of the home supporters, who could sense a crucial and potentially decisive third goal may be in the offing.
Who got the next goal was in the balance as Matt Taylor’s header dribbled just wide, with Rovers much more incisive than they had been before the break.
Pearson rose to the occasion with a series of charges forward from inside his own half and generally buzzing between both boxes like a pinball.
By now Rovers had thrown on experienced forward Jermaine Easter but couldn’t match Town’s intensity, and above of all that of Pearson.
But Rovers had only failed to score once in their last 13 outings so it was always likely they would make it at least a nervy finish, which is what Brown’s vicious low shot from 20 yards did after a corner was only half cleared.
Rovers were now displaying the urgency their previous 80-odd minutes had sorely lacked and from a high ball lofted into the box, that man Harrison produced a stunning equaliser as he controlled the ball with his left-foot before smashing past Glennon with his right.
Lee Mansell could even have won it at the death but his weak shot was comfortably saved.
Halifax: Glennon, Bolton, Hutchison, M Roberts, McManus, Smith (Hillhouse 62), Maynard, Pearson, Marshall, Jackson (Boden 84), Peniket. Subs not used: Senior, Williams, K Roberts.
Scorer: Maynard (25), M Roberts (39)
Shots on target: 4
Shots off target: 7
Bristol Rovers: Mildenhall, Leadbitter, Lockyer (Easter 65), McChrystal, Brown, Mansell, Clarke (Harrison 53), Parkes, Lines, Monkhouse, Taylor (Balanta 76). Subs not used: Puddy, Dawson.
Scorer: Brown (84), Harrison (89)
Shots on target: 3
Shots off target: 3
Town man of the match: Matt Pearson