Salford took control of their League Two play-off semi-final against Stockport with a well-deserved 1-0 first leg win on Saturday night.
The Ammies – who finished three places and four points behind their opponents in the regular season racked up 13 attempts in all, but never looked like losing once Matt Smith had given them the lead with 17 minutes on the clock.
Dave Challinor’s County hit the crossbar moments before Smith’s opener, but the league’s fourth-highest scorers – in with a shout of automatic promotion until the final day – were, in truth, somewhat limp and lifeless in attack.
But with just one goal in the tie, the place at Wembley is still very much up for grabs ahead of the second leg at Edgeley Park next Saturday afternoon, which is live on Sky Sports Football.
How Salford edged to victory despite attacking dominance
With Manchester United legends Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Roy Keane and Nicky Butt – also the club’s CEO – in attendance, Salford started brightly as the warm evening sun blazed onto the carpet of a pitch at the Peninsula.
After 15 minutes, from nowhere, Stockport put the Salford defence under intense pressure – and it almost paid off. Jack Stretton’s ball forward released Connor Lemonleigh-Evans, who forced a strong save from Alex Cairns, before County skipper Ryan Croasdale crashed the rebound onto the crossbar.
Within two minutes, the hosts had responded to the scare. Elliot Watt put a gorgeous, first-time cross in from the right-hand side, which Smith met with a looping header after winning a grappling battle with Fraser Horsfall.
Conor McAleny tried his luck with a penalty appeal after pressure from Neill Byrne in the box in the second half, but referee Tom Nield was, correctly, not having any of it. The forward was then denied the chance to double Salford’s lead when his shot on the swivel was pushed clear of danger expertly by Ben Hinchcliffe.
Salford were, at times, perhaps guilty of a touch of profligacy, given their sheer number of shots, but in the end, it mattered little as Stockport had nothing to offer in return and lost the first leg as a result.
Smith: I knew nothing about the goal
Salford striker Matt Smith speaking to Sky Sports:
“[The goal] came off my shoulder in the end, I didn’t know a whole lot about it. The player was a bit focussed on wrestling me, so just happy to see it go in.
“It was a battle, we knew it was going to be. We had to stand up to that test and show that side of our game. It’s not always how we like to play, but tonight we had to show a different side to us.
“We want to be amongst it, that was our aim. A lot of edgy games. But the main thing is we’re in there and anything can happen now. It’s only half a job. They came close a couple of times. We have an edge but we’ve got another huge 90 minutes at Stockport.”
The second leg will be played at Stockport’s Edgeley Park home at 12.30pm on Saturday May 20, live on Sky Sports Football.
There, the teams will battle it out for a place in the Sky Bet League Two play-off final, which will take place at Wembley Stadium at 1.30pm on Sunday May 28.