When the captain of your opponents is sent off after only two minutes, you know the cup final gods are smiling on you.
And while it took HUCKNALL TOWN an entire half to adjust their big-match strategy, they eventually made ten-man Clifton All Whites pay the full price before deservedly lifting the Central Midlands League Cup on Sunday afternoon.
Town boss Andy Graves insisted afterwards that the red card for Clifton’s Craig Anderson, after a rash challenge that scythed down winger Ben Waplington, was as much of a hindrance as a help.
“You don’t envisage a sending-off so early,” Graves said. “It really threw our game-plan up in the air.
“In my opinion, he deserved to walk. Ben was going nowhere, and it was a ridiculous tackle that took his own man out as well. However, it’s sometimes not as easy against ten men as people think and not until half-time did we get things sorted and make use of the extra man.”
With the tie still goalless, Graves pulled off Waplington, worried that he was beginning to over-react to more physical treatment by the Clifton backline, and sent on Aaron Evans, who had been unlucky to be left out the starting 11. And within three minutes of the restart, his side were ahead.
Leon Aikman, who had passed a late fitness test, started to drive forward from midfield and when he played in Adam Nelson, the striker did the rest, deftly placing a shot past ‘keeper Oliver Mason.
Nine minutes later, it was 2-0 and as good as over. This time Cayne Maxwell, who was finding lots of room after being switched to the left to replace Waplington, was rewarded for his persistence as he chased, and retrieved, a ball that looked to be going out for a goalkick. Maxwell’s cross eluded Mason and dropped nicely for Niall Thompson, recent recruit from Torquay United, who headed home from close range.
Clifton tried hard to rally and went close with a 25-yard free-kick that was skilfully curled round the Town wall, forcing goalkeeper James Beddingham into his only serious save of the afternoon. Substitute Rob Norris also looked lively when he was sent on. But as they pushed forward, they left inevitable gaps for Town to exploit, and the outcome was never in any doubt.
The sizeable contingent of Yellows fans in the crowd at Alfreton Town’s Impact Arena Stadium began their celebrations, sensing the club’s first trophy since 2004. And five minutes from the end, they were treated to a third goal as substitute Johnny Hamilton received the ball in acres of space to neatly shoot under the advancing Mason.
It was a triumph not only for the fans and the players, but also for Graves and his cohorts who deserved credit for their tactical changes after a worrying first half in which Town failed to make their numerical advantage count.
Nelson, Aikman, Elliott Pitt and Thompson all had openings. But The Yellows were guilty of allowing Clifton far too much possession, so it was a good job that the excellent movement of striker Kev Hernagon was safely shackled by the solid back four of Pitt, Josh Henry, Dave Leak and Joe Atkinson.
By the final whistle, that first period had been forgotten. The Yellows had completed a hat-trick of wins this season over Clifton, who were the 2013/14 league champions and who had also thumped reigning title-holders, Mickleover Royals, in the semi-finals. The surroundings might not have been as salubrious as Villa Park, scene of the club’s previous cup final ten years earlier. But the feeling of pride was just the same.
HUCKNALL TOWN LINE-UP (4-4-1-1) -- James Beddingham/ Josh Henry, Dave Leak, Joe Atkinson, Elliott Pitt/ Cayne Maxwell, Cameron Davidson, Leon Aikman, Ben Waplington/ Niall Thompson/ Adam Nelson.
SUBS: Aaron Evans (for Waplington), Montel Gatland (for Nelson), Johnny Hamilton (for Leak), Michael Randle (not used), Nathan Robinson (not used).
TOWN STARMAN: Cayne Maxwell.
CLIFTON ALL WHITES LINE-UP (4-4-2) -- Oliver Mason/ Michael Banister, Ben Clark, Tom Maddison, Ben Richardson/ Wes Spencer, Craig Anderson, Sam Leggitt, David Hawkes/ Kev Hernagon, Alex Haughton.
SUBS: Danny Johnson, Scott Litchfield, Rob Norris, Andy Davies, Jake Wood.
CLIFTON STARMAN: Sam Leggitt.