Hednesford Town’s fading play-off hopes took what could prove to be a fatal blow at Keys Park on Saturday as Rob Smith’s men, struggling for form and confidence, conceded a goal in each half to an Oxford City side who now very much look like dark horses for mounting a late play-off push.
With Chorley springing a surprise 6-0 defeat on Tamworth, the Pitmen now sit four points behind the clutch of four teams on 63 points but having played at least a game more than their rivals.
With no match next Saturday, Hednesford, for so long camped in the top five after a fantastic run of form over Christmas and New Year, could be seven points back with only twelve left to play for by the time they face Solihull Moors on Easter Monday.
The Pitmen were wounded by a second half submission against Tamworth last week, but their all-round performance in a game that very much fell into the bracket of the ‘must-win’ category was hugely disappointing for the near 500 Hednesford fans watching.
Early signs were positive as the home side pressed their opponents into a number of defensive mistakes, Salva De la Cruz looked rushed in goal and Jamey Osborne’s desire in chasing a lost cause saw an attempted clearance blocked, only for the ball to run agonisingly close to Nick Rushton who would have been clean through.
However, once Luke Coulson ran beyond his opposing wing back Glenn Walker into the acres of space left by a Hednesford back three caught napping and hit a shot across Dan Crane that the keeper got a hand to, but couldn’t prevent finding the far corner; Rob Smith’s side faced an uphill task.
The effort and commitment of the players, personified by Richard Batchelor’s attempts to win the midfield battle against the impressive Jeremy Balby and Tom Winters, couldn’t be questioned but, not for the first time in recent weeks, a lack of punch in attack and a porous defence was Hednesford’s undoing.
An injury to the usually inspirational Ben Bailey on the stroke of half-time, picked up when gallantly blocking another foray down the left by Winters, perhaps summed up the struggles of the home side and their fate was all but sealed on 54 minutes.
The Pitmen had pushed high up the pitch as they chased an equaliser, but it was still too easy for Adi Yussuf to
sprint beyond Chris Westwood and finish confidently past Crane to double Oxford’s comfortable lead.
The onslaught that was so desperately required for Hednesford to score three goals and spectacularly turn the tables never really materialised against an organised Oxford defence.
Marvin Robinson’s looping header wide was the closest the home side came to even testing De la Cruz before the final whistle was blown and the gutted Hednesford players trudged off the pitch in much same way as the disappointed fans on the terraces.
Crane, Hurst, Westwood, Bailey © (Todd 48), Tunnicliffe, Thorley (Thomas 63), Osborne, Walker, Robinson, Rushton (Strain 55), Batchelor
Subs Not Used: Kerry, Diggin
De la Cruz, Coulson (23), Lapoujade ©, Del Alamo, Henderson, Santiago, Jackson, Fofani, Yussuf (54) (Wilson 74), Balby (Benjamin 70), Winters (Barcelos 79)
Subs Not Used: Stonehouse, Scott
Bookings – Thorley, Osborne
Star Man – Tom Winters
Entertainment Rating – 2 Stars
Attendance – 520