Matt Smith gives Salford slender advantage over Stockport
Salford claimed the advantage over local rivals Stockport with a 1-0 win in the first leg of their League Two play-off semi-final at the Peninsula Stadium.
The hosts were much the better side on the night – and the shot statistics bore that out – but all they could muster was the single first-half goal from experienced striker Matt Smith.
Neil Wood’s side could well go on to rue not taking a healthier advantage into next Saturday’s second leg, although they did condemn County to their first defeat since February.
There was a terrific atmosphere ahead of the tie between two close neighbours.
The Ammies, who ended the regular campaign four points behind fourth-placed Stockport, made the early running.
Conor McAleny saw an early effort from distance deflected behind, while County goalkeeper Ben Hinchliffe then had to charge off his line to bravely deny veteran Adrian Mariappa.
It was taking Stockport time to settle into a decent rhythm and they were denied by the woodwork with their first meaningful attack in the 16th minute.
Connor Evans’ initial strike was superbly parried by keeper Alex Cairns, with skipper Ryan Croasdale then thumping the crossbar from the follow-up.
Barely a minute later the hosts notched what proved to be the evening’s winner.
Elliot Watt swung over a perfect cross for Smith and he out-jumped Fraser Horsfall before powering home a header from six yards.
It was almost two just past the half-hour mark when Hinchliffe was forced to dive full length to keep out Stevie Mallan’s superb curling free-kick.
Salford, chasing a potential fifth promotion in only nine years, had dominated the opening 45 minutes, but their advantage remained at just the one goal when referee Tom Nield blew for half-time.
The theme continued into the second period, with Salford on the attack from the off.
They went close with the first opportunity following the restart, with Smith teeing up Callum Hendry for a low drive which Hinchliffe saved well.
Stockport passes were going astray, while hosts Salford were collectively tidy in possession and looked much more of a threat.
Just before the hour mark, Hendry was again afforded plenty of space just outside the Stockport box, but this time he blazed high and wide.
Stockport boss Dave Challinor made a couple of attacking changes in a bid to light a much-needed spark, but Salford’s back-line were comfortably repelling any threat thrown at them.
At the other end the Ammies almost bagged a second when Hinchliffe produced a brilliant diving stop to keep out McAleny’s strike.
Stockport upped their tempo somewhat in the closing stages, with subs Isaac Olaofe and Ryan Rydel both going close, but they could not find an equaliser they would arguably scarcely have deserved.