A Leamington side down to its bare bones produced a shock, but thoroughly deserved, victory over Hednesford to progress to the first round of the FA Trophy, writes Paul Okey.
With Joe Halsall cup-tied, Ross Oulton suspended and Connor Gudger still injured, Nat Kelly was brought in on a short-term loan from Solihull Moors to occupy the left side of defence.
Richard Taundry did take his place among a patched-up starting XI having been a major doubt following the midweek replay win over Rushall, while youngster Ryan Baldwin and an unfit Lee Chilton made sure Brakes filled their five-player quota on the bench.
On a heavy pitch and following on so soon from a hard-fought 120 minutes, Leamington did it the hard way, recovering from a goal down to secure their passage.
But, while their performance owed much to grit and passion, there was no little skill and Hednesford were a thoroughly beaten team by the full-time whistle.
Few in a disappointing crowd of 308 could have foreseen what was to come during an opening quarter of an hour that saw the visitors hit the woodwork before opening the scoring.
Paul Ennis whipped in a free-kick in the seventh minute and Tyrone Williams came closest to making any contact before the ball thudded off the far post with Tony Breeden beaten. Jamie Tank then produced a superb covering block as Ahmed Obeng fired the rebound goalwards.
The Pitmen took the lead in the 14th minute when Rob Ogleby failed to clear, allowing Ben Bailey to send in a cross-shot from the left which was deflected home by Andy Todd despite Breeden getting a strong hand to it.
Brakes were quickly back on level terms, however.
Breeden made excellent contact with a free-kick against the wind and Jack Edwards helped it on to Ben Mackey, whose excellent header on the angle beat the stranded Dan Crane before being helped over the line by Ogleby.
The home side were not done there and pressed for a second, with Lee Moore firing into the side netting and Edwards releasing Ogleby who delayed his shot long enough for Crane to narrow the angle and save with his legs.
Edwards was unable to manoeuvre his body into position to direct Moore’s bullet of a cross at goal and Edwards then turned provider, neatly turning his man and getting in a cross which was half-cleared to Ogleby who, arriving at pace, could only fire his half-volley over the bar.
An ambitious 40-yard volley from Ennis provided an anxious moment for Breeden as it dropped on to the roof of the net, but it was a rare moment of promise for the visitors as Leamington continued to force the pace.
Crane was fortunate to gather James Fry’s vicious right-wing cross at the second attempt, diving on the loose ball as the vultures circled, while Ennis’ free-kick rippled the top of the net as a excellent first half drew to a close.
Moore and Mackey both had shots blocked inside the area as Leamington made a promising start to the second half, while Sean Williams picked up the first booking of the tie for a foul on Joe Magunda.
Taundry then produced a moment of magic to nudge Brakes in front, pouncing on a half-clearance to volley through a crowded box and into the bottom left-hand corner of Crane’s net.
The afternoon was to get even better from a home perspective when Crane, under no pressure, allowed Moore’s cross to slip through his fingers for Mackey to gratefully slam home the loose ball from almost on the line.
But, as against Histon the previous Saturday, Leamington immediately handed their opponents a lifeline, with Bailey nipping in at the near post to head home a corner via the underside of the bar just over a minute later.
Brakes returned to the attack, with Ogleby’s shot turned around the post by Crane to earn a corner from which Hood hooked his effort over the bar.
The hosts were then given a gilt-edged chance to restore their two-goal cushion when Bailey’s needless shove on Mackey saw referee Joe Hull point to the spot.
Mackey stepped up and duly powered the ball straight down the middle, with Crane having already committed himself.
Leamington had not learnt their lesson, however, and Obeng was inches away from bringing it back to 4-3, nipping in front of Breeden and diverting the ball goalwards, only for Fry to hammer the ball off the line and curtail the Hednesford fans’ celebrations.
Matt Regan headed over for the visitors while a Todd shot was deflected for a corner as the visitors again tried to haul themselves back into the tie.
Leamington were still a threat, however, and Ogleby should have done better with two chances in the closing stages.
His first effort from the edge of the box is still coming down while his second, after latching on to Breeden’s booming punt forward on the corner of the six-yard box, barely had enough pace to reach Crane.
However, any disappointment felt at failing to score five against their Conference North visitors quickly dissipated at the final whistle, leaving the home fans to salute Brakes’ best display of the campaign.
Brakes: Tony Breeden, James Fry, Nat Kelly, Joe Magunda, Jamie Hood, Jamie Tank, Rob Ogleby, Richard Taundry, Ben Mackey (Will Green, 89), Jack Edwards, Lee Moore. Subs not used: Ben George, Lee Chilton, Ryan Baldwin, Eddie Caviezel-Cox.
Hednesford Town: Dan Crane, Tyrone Williams, Tom James, Ben Bailey, Matt Regan, Jack Dyer (Phil Trainer, 53), Sean Williams, Adam Thomas (Kyle Perry, 55), Ahmed Obeng, Paul Ennis, Andy Todd. Subs not used: Danico Johnson, John Disney, Kennedy Digie.