A late equaliser from James Poole cancelled out Richard Peniket’s superb first-half strike as FC Halifax Town drew 1-1 at Salford in the first leg of their play-off semi-final.
Town were organised, disciplined and determined. They weren’t free-flowing or eye-catching, but that wasn’t required here. Halifax did what they needed to do and did it very well.
The Halifax back four, to a man, were outstanding, all producing timely blocks, interceptions and clearances behind a hard-working midfield who did the hard yards, and then some.
Halifax came so close to what would have been a magnificent result, but on the balance of play, Salford would have felt hard done by had they not got something from the game.
But Town surely hold the advantage now ahead of Sunday’s second-leg at The Shay, albeit a slim one.
Billy Heath arguably played it a little safer than usual in his team selection, perhaps a nod of appreciation to Salford’s outstanding home league record of one defeat all season, with two enforcers Nathan Hotte and David Lynch in midfield and the flair of Dion Charles and Adam Morgan on the bench.
Jordan Hulme had a chance within the first 18 seconds when he tried to chip Sam Johnson, but didn’t get enough elevation on the shot.
Scott Garner was then outpaced and outmuscled by Mike Phenix as Salford came haring out of the traps, and although they failed to maintain their turbo-charged start, Halifax remained pinned back as the hosts carried the greater threat.
That gradually dissipated as Town took the sting out of the contest and quietened the crowd, although they struggled to retain possession inside the Salford half.
Kevin Roberts spoke before the game of Town sitting back for the first 30 minutes and settling the contest down, and that’s exactly what they did, although Phenix nearly ruined the plan when he charged through and flashed a shot across goal and wide.
He and strike partner Jordan Hulme possessed a potent mix of pace, power and aggression, while at the other end, Tom Denton cut an isolated figure with Town funneling back to defend, albeit effectively.
That miss by Phenix then looked even worse when Peniket struck a superb low left-footed shot into the bottom corner from 20 yards after Denton’s deft lay-off.
It was fast becoming the perfect away performance from The Shaymen, who were defending diligently and now adding an attacking threat on the break, with Denton now getting hold of the ball.
The performance of referee Peter Gibbons probably caused more consternation for Halifax than that of the hosts, as he repeatedly ruled against Town when the decision could have been in their favour, most infuriatingly when Josh Wilde was pushed near the touchline, but Salford were awarded a throw-in and Wilde was booked for dissent just before half-time.
However, Matty Kosylo was possibly lucky to stay on the pitch as he appeared to kick out at Josh Hine after a tussle between the two.
Michael Nottingham hit the post with a low shot from 12 yards as Salford started the second-half with more urgency and a faster tempo.
Town replied in kind though when Hotte hit the bar with a fizzing shot before Scott Garner could have done better with a close range shot which he scuffed straight to Jay Lynch from four yards.
It wasn’t pretty as the second-half wore on, with Halifax rarely getting out of their own half, but for all their possession, Salford created little thanks mainly to that watertight back four and the terrific Lynch and Hotte ahead of them.
Jordan Sinnott nearly added a second with 15 minutes left after exquisitely bringing down Denton’s header, but fired just wide from the edge of the box.
It was as if Town were playing with 10 men as the game was played almost exclusively inside their half, but the hosts were running out of time and ideas, and looked increasingly desperate in their search for an equaliser.
But it did arrive when Town failed to deal with a ball into the box, a rare occurrence on the night, and substitute Poole’s scuffed shot bobbled past Johnson into the same corner as Peniket’s shot: the first goal Town have conceded in nearly six hours.
Salford: Lynch, Nottingham, Grand, Horsfall, O’Halloran, Johnston (Poole 64), Walker, Norris, Hine, Hulme, Phenix (Allen 78), Subs not used: Priestley, Barnes, Haughton.
Scorer: Poole (86)
Shots on target: 2
Shots off target: 8
Halifax: Johnson, Roberts, Garner, Brown, Wilde, Kosylo, Hotte, Lynch, Sinnott, Peniket, Denton. Subs not used: Drench, Hone, Moyo, Morgan, Charles.
Scorer: Peniket (37)
Shots on target: 3
Shots off target: 7
Town man of the match: Kevin Roberts
Referee: Peter Gibbons