Report by John Edwards
Picture by Jonathan Moore
Altrincham 1 Curzon Ashton 0
It’s the mark of a special player when he can influence the outcome of a match at both ends of the pitch, but that was Toby Mullarkey’s contribution as Altrincham made it through to the fourth round of the Isuzu FA Trophy at The J.Davidson Stadium.
On a night when the story could so easily have been about former Alty players, with no fewer than four of them in the Curzon Ashton starting line-up, Mullarkey made certain it was a current one who made the headlines with the only goal of the game in the 72nd-minute and a crucial block in added time to deny Josh Hancock.
Hancock, of course, was one of the four former Robins on display, along with Tom Peers, Connor Hampson and Craig Mahon, but none could quibble with the outcome after Alty dominated possession, even if they did make hard work of reflecting it on the scoresheet.
Curzon were hanging on for long spells, particularly in a first-half full of scintillating football from a free-flowing Alty side that had Ryan Colclough and Chris Conn-Clarke firing on all cylinders.
Colclough’s willingness to back himself from any distance or angle was evident in only the second minute, when he received a pass from Conn-Clarke and turned his marker in one movement before lashing a right-foot drive that proved too hot to handle for Chris Renshaw.
The Nash keeper could only parry it and was still trying to scramble to his feet as Jordan Hulme pounced on the loose ball and volleyed it wide of the far post.
Alty were very much on the front foot in a lively opening, and they threatened again in the fifth minute when a low left-wing cross from Eddy Jones fell for Conn-Clarke near the edge of a congested six-yard box.
The on-loan attacker’s shot was pushed aside by Renshaw and finally bundled behind for what looked like a corner, only for referee Scott Jackson to award a goal-kick.
The official incurred the displeasure of Alty players again in the 11th minute by again giving a goal-kick when Elliot Newby was convinced his attempt to meet a Colclough cross had come off a defender and should have been a corner.
The visitors looked in need of every bit of luck they could get, after reeling from an all-action Alty start, though Hancock provided a fleeting reminder of his shooting power with an effort that was blocked by Isaac Marriott.
Back came Alty with a dazzling run by Conn-Clarke that left no fewer than three defenders trailing in his wake, each one left flat-footed by a change of direction and burst of acceleration that took him all the way to the edge of the area.
Unselfishly, he laid the ball off to Hulme, who tested Renshaw with an instant low shot that the keeper smothered diving to his left.
It was a high tempo, high quality beginning by the Robins, who had started with an intensity and urgency that underlined how they clearly meant business after failing to make their mark in the Trophy in recent seasons.
Crucially, there was no goal to go with their enterprising efforts, though they very nearly remedied that one shortcoming in the 25th minute.
Newby darted through a gap midway inside the Curzon half, and when he fed Hulme to his right, the Alty skipper’s shot from a tight angle was turned round the post for a corner.
When Colclough floated the flag-kick towards the edge of the six-yard area, Lewis Baines won the aerial duel with a firm header that thumped against the right-hand post.
The Curzon goal was living a charmed existence, and it survived again when a goalbound Mullarkey drive was blocked by a defender.
The Vanarama National League North team may well have started to sense that if they continued to weather the storm, an opportunity at the other end might just come their way, and so it almost proved in the 35th minute when Hancock rolled the ball into the path of the overlapping Jordan Richards and sprinted forward to meet the resulting cross with a flicked header that just cleared the bar.
In truth, it was little more than a half-chance, but it perhaps served as a reminder that Alty could do with making their superiority pay.
Little had been seen of Peers, but he showed in the 42nd minute that he only needs a glimpse of goal as he turned on the edge of the area and forced a save from Ollie Byrne with a low shot.
The second half began in familiar fashion, with Alty pouring forward and putting the Curzon defence under pressure.
When Conn-Clarke picked out Colclough with a clever pass, the winger cut inside and hit a dangerous-looking shot that was deflected off target.
There was a vibrancy about Alty’s attacking play, but the lack of anything to show for it remained a nagging concern, not least when Peers expertly pulled down a lofted cross from the right and fired over.
An injury to Colclough, seemingly to his left arm or shoulder, was the last thing Alty needed against such resolute opponents, but he was able to continue after treatment.
There were no obvious ill-effects soon after, in the 54th minute, when, with few obvious options from outside the area on the left-hand side, Colclough suddenly let fly with a curled effort hit with pace that Renshaw may just have got his fingertips to at full stretch.
Either way, Alty were out of luck again as the ball cannoned against the crossbar and bounced away to safety.
Another incisive left-flank raid a minute later ended with Hulme lifting the ball towards Colclough, who unleashed a first-time volley that flew over.
To be fair to Curzon, they were proving a tough nut to crack, standing firm under almost constant pressure and winning their share of headers when crosses rained in from the wings.
And when the Curzon back line were left powerless by another jinking run from Conn-Clarke in the 62nd minute, they were bailed out by Renshaw, whose sprawling save denied the Alty forward what would have been an outstanding solo goal.
Two minutes later, it was Colclough’s turn to shine, controlling an Elliot Osborne pass and drilling a shot that the overworked Renshaw tipped over with an admirable mix of agility and quick reflexes.
Finally, and not before time, the Curzon resistance cracked, as Mullarkey forced the ball home in the 72nd minute.
Colclough was the instigator, shaping to shoot on the left but, instead, fooling opposing defenders with an astute pass to Hulme, whose effort was deflected into the path of Mullarkey, lurking at the far post and able to bundle the ball in, to the relief of the Golf Road terraces behind Renshaw’s goal.
There were one or two uncomfortable moments late on, notably when Byrne had to stretch to tip over a long-range Mahon effort and when Hancock almost took his old team to penalties in added time.
The former Alty favourite found space to swivel and shoot from the edge of the area, but there was Mullarkey, reading the danger and reacting brilliantly to snuff out the danger with an outstretched boot.
Now it’s all eyes on the Racecourse and Wrexham’s tie with Scunthorpe United on Wednesday night to see who we face in round four.