Long Eaton ended their season in winning fashion against Hall Road Rangers on Saturday.
Hall Road Rangers 2
Long Eaton United 3
Having guaranteed their NCEL Premier Division status seven days earlier, Long Eaton United travelled to Hall Road Rangers and produced a winning performance that perhaps should have been rewarded with a more convincing outcome than the final scoreline suggests.
Hall Road themselves had become embroiled in a fight for survival up until a month ago, but three wins in their previous five league outings had assured their safety a little earlier than United had managed.
Reassuringly, the victory enabled Long Eaton to finish the season ahead of their weekend hosts by way of a superior goal difference.
Manager Mick Galloway included himself in the starting line-up, enabling him to make his NCEL debut, and the former Gillingham and Notts County man restored Blaine Hancock to play alongside him in United’s midfield.
On a poor playing surface and in a swirling wind, both sides were slow to adapt to the awkward conditions but Hall Road were able to gain the early advantage when Jamie Barwell scored an opportunist strike with the game barely ten minutes old.
After a clever build-up, United levelled the scores within a minute when Hancock struck a low shot with some precision through a crowded goalmouth, registering his third senior goal for his home town club since his January debut.
The goal inspired United to produce their most attacking style of the season, clearly free from the hesitancy that a struggle against relegation can bring.
Shaun Rickford, Will Mellors-Blair, Jimmy Hunter, Dominic Jones and Jacob Webster all had opportunities that rattled the beleaguered home defence. Unfortunately the clinical edge was missing when it mattered.
Mercifully, United’s dominance was eventually rewarded after 35 minutes when leading scorer Rickford deceived an in-form home ‘keeper and wrong-footed the rest of the Hall Road defence with a cutely timed strike.
United continued to assert their control of the game but moments after their own penalty appeals were waved away when Mellors-Blair was upended, the home side gained a more positive response from the referee when Kial Thurman was adjudged to have handled when the ball rocketed upwards after the central defender had intercepted a strongly struck pass.
Hall Road’s Steve Gawthorpe despatched the spot-kick with confidence, enabling his side to enter the interval on level terms.
During the second-half United appeared to stifle the Hall Road midfield in a clear attempt to restrict the home threat.
As a consequence, United produced a more subtle edge to their passing game which gave their own approach play a more clinical edge.
After 60 minutes Rickford had a deftly finished goal ruled out and minutes later the same player lashed another effort over the bar from twelve yards. At the other end, United’s ‘keeper Scott Webb prevented Hall Road from scoring with a finger-tip save from a cleverly executed free-kick.
United secured a well-deserved victory in the 72nd minute when Mellors-Blair cut in from the left to score a wonderful goal from 20 yards that stranded the Hall Road ‘keeper and further consolidated his contribution in a difficult season for a young team
The home side tried to rally as the game closed out but United were in no mood to relinquish their position after their gallant efforts in recent weeks.
United: Webb, Armstrong, Warman, Thurman, Jones, Webster, Hunter (Marshall 83). Galloway (King 67), Hancock (Taylor-Gardner 80), Rickford, Mellors-Blair