CHAMPIONS Hucknall Town's bid to become the first team for 17 years to land the Unibond League and cup double fell by the wayside at Watnall Road on Tuesday night.
Unibond League Cup Final, Second Leg
HUCKNALL TOWN....1 DROYLSDEN.............2
In a thrilling second leg of the league cup final, Town's best home display for several weeks was not enough to overturn the 2-0 deficit from the first leg.
Instead Droylsden exacted sweet revenge for being beaten to the Premier Division title by Steve Burr's team. Not only did they win on aggregate, they also won on the night.
And so, having suffered the ignominy of being forced to watch Town collect the league championship trophy on this ground after their league match on Easter Monday, they were happy to reverse the roles and let the locals see them pick up the league cup.
No doubt The Bloods were also happy to remind Town that, although they finished nine points behind them in the league, they have won three of the four games between the two clubs this term – and held on for a draw with only ten men in the other.
Sobering thoughts for The Yellows ahead of next season when, on the evidence of this game, they need strengthening, while Droylsden look sure to be among the favourites to win the new Northern Conference. Certainly they ended a long wait of mine to see an opposing Unibond team better than Alfreton Town.
Having said that, both sides contributed to a captivating evening's entertainment, loaded with goalmouth action and enriched by an unusually vibrant atmosphere with both sets of fans in good voice.
By Burr's own admission, if Town had any hope at all, they had to bag an early goal.
And starting at a brisk, confident tempo, they went close when Leon McSweeney headed inches wide from a Danny Bacon cross and Bacon himself turned to shoot just wide after skipper Craig Gaunt had a goalbound piledriver blocked.
But Droylsden hit the ground running too and, as you would expect from a manager as breezy and brash as Dave Pace, they soon showed that they hadn't come to simply defend their 2-0 advantage.
Their reward was the breakthrough goal that Town craved, 19 minutes in. It stemmed from a free-kick on the right that the home backline failed to attack, allowing right-back Carl Regan to steal in for a soft header past Paul Pettinger and trigger unconfined joy on The Bloods' bench.
Now Town needed to score at least three – something they hadn't done in a Unibond encounter since January 17.
To their credit, they responded well and forced visiting 'keeper Paul Phillips into three cracking saves before the interval.
Phillips tipped over a quickly-taken free-kick from Jon McCarthy, palmed aside a superb drive from Bacon and grabbed a fierce volley from Barry Miller.
Had any of those chances gone in, the second period could have been interesting to say the least. But so open had the game become that Droylsden were equally dangerous on the break and should have extended their lead when livewire striker Danny Byrne darted down the left, unchecked, for a cross to the back post that set up a goal on a plate for Dave Cameron. For some reason, he took too long and Pettinger bravely blocked his eventual shot.
A cautious opening to the second period exposed Town's need to gamble. With the cup-tied Andy Todd sorely missed, quality was lacking from wide areas and while the return of McCarthy was obviously welcome, his hamstring strain still prevented him taking corners, the delivery of which from Danny Mayman was dismal all night.
Cue a switch to three up front by manager Burr, which worked within five minutes. Substitute Mark Ward intercepted a loose ball and threaded a pass with slide-rule precision to Bacon, who finished expertly, sidestepping the 'keeper and slotting home.
Just desserts for Bacon, who belied the match's end-of-season status with a razor-sharp display, in stark contrast to striker partner Gary Ricketts.
Only moments earlier Bacon had also struck the base of a post with a tremendous curling effort from the right corner of the box.
Yet only moments after the leveller, Ricketts's rare off-night was epitomised by two squandered chances – the first a header wide from a McSweeney cross and the second a stinging drive blocked on the line by full-back Danny Warner.
How costly they proved because, on 74, Droylsden snatched the goal that sealed the cup.
Ged Murphy fed Byrne whose cross eluded Gaunt and fell once more for Cameron, who again needed plenty of time but, this time, made no mistake, chesting down before drilling into Pettinger's near post.
It was fitting that Byrne, The Bloods' top scorer, was behind the winner because he treated the crowd to an impresario performance, capped by a sizzling run late on that turned both Gaunt and McCarthy inside out and led to a thumping drive from Gareth Morris that almost made it 3-1.
Both Byrne and midfield maestro Steve Brodie must have caught the eye of watching Burton Albion boss Nigel Clough. What they lacked in inches, they more than made up for in bubble and bounce and complemented perfectly the more combative approach of Cameron, Morris and Murphy around them.
Apparently both Byrne and Brodie were surplus to requirements at Chester City, which goes some way towards explaining why Mark Wright's side won the Conference.
It also goes some way towards explaining the work both Town and Droylsden face to equip themselves for their own challenge of the Conference.
But if Tuesday night is anything to go by, neither will be found wanting.
CROWD – 597
GOALS – Regan (Droylsden) 19, Bacon (Town) 66, Cameron (Droylsden) 74.
TOWN FORMATION – 4-4-2.
DROYLSDEN FORMATION – 4-4-2.
(10=Excellent, 9=Very Good, 8=Good, 7=Average, 6=Below Par, 5=Weak, 4=Poor)
TOWN LINE-UP –
DEFENCE: 1Pettinger 8/ 2Asher 7, 5Miller 8, 6Gaunt 5, 3Barrick 8.
MIDFIELD: 11McSweeney 6, 5Hunter 7, 8McCarthy 7, 7Mayman 5.
ATTACK: 9Ricketts 5, *10BACON 9*.
SUBS: 12Ward (for Asher 61), 14Davies (for McCarthy 77), 15Winder (not used).
DROYLSDEN LINE-UP –
DEFENCE: 1Phillips 8/ 2Regan 7, 4Ruffer 8, 5Burke 8, 3Warner 7.
MIDFIELD: 10Salmon 6, 6Morris 8, *8BRODIE 9*, 7Murphy 8.
ATTACK: 9Cameron 8, 11Byrne 9.
SUBS: 12Hall (for Morris 82), 14Chambers (for Salmon 75), 15Challinor (not used).
REFEREE – P.J.Keane (Bilston) 8.
STARMEN – Bacon (Town), Brodie (Droylsden).
TOWNFORM – 8.
DROYLSDENFORM – 9.
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE – 9.
ON TARGET – Town 7, Droylsden 7.
OFF TARGET – Town 9, Droylsden 6.
CORNERS – Town 9, Droylsden 6.
FOULS BY – Town 10, Droylsden 15.
YELLOW CARDS – Murphy (Droylsden) 15 (dissent), Ricketts (Town) 36 (foul), Morris (Droylsden) 36 (foul), Cameron (Droylsden) 53 (dissent), Ward (Town) 88 (foul).