The need to dig deep at the Horsfall Stadium was partly self-inflicted; Cowan’s team established a first half lead but should have been more than one goal to the good at half-time. They put further distance between themselves and Avenue when Dom McHale’s second goal of the game made it 2-0 just after the break, but when Andy Bond’s second yellow card offence saw him dismissed the Bucks had to roll up their sleeves and show plenty of resilience, particularly when Lewis Knight cut the deficit to a single goal with a quarter of the game remaining. The Bucks had also had to reshuffle at half-time when midfielder Jack Byrne tweaked a hamstring; with the club’s injury list making the treatment table resemble “a hospital ward”, according to Cowan, their resilience was certainly tested, a test they proved themselves equal to.
Cowan opted to change from his preferred 3-5-2 formation to something more resembling a 4-1-4-1, something he confessed was only partially by design, the manager having to adapt his playing resources to make best of use of those players available to him.
Avenue themselves are a side beset by inconsistency, following up a rip-roaring point in a 4-4 draw at league leaders Gloucester City with a midweek home defeat to Southport. They had the game’s first real goal attempt when a free-kick 25 yards out was struck over the defensive wall by Nicky Clee but travelled too high to test Russ Griffiths.
The Bucks first real foray brought a corner that Avenue defended; however, in the moments immediately following Bond was booked for preventing keeper Dan Atkinson from distributing the ball quickly. It looked slightly needless from Bond, albeit you could argue a booking was also needless, however the significance of that moment only became apparent around 45 minutes later.
McHale, the Buck currently shining brightest, linked up well with the recalled James Hardy before rifling a rising angled shot wide when well placed. Avenue responded when left-back Harry Boyes benefitted from a couple of missed challenges to cross and Adam Nowakowski, reputed to be on a contract worth just £1 per week, almost earned a goal bonus but headed back across Griffiths and wide of the far post.
The Bucks were having more of the possession and appeared to have a clearer idea of what to do with it than the hosts, but a breakthrough didn’t appear imminent. However, when Hardy was knocked off the ball, Avenue broke quickly, two against two; Isaac Marriott, instead of squaring for Nowakowski, opted to shoot, but his execution was poor, the ball going wide.
Within a minute or so Marriott’s miss proved costly as the Bucks took the lead; Eddy Jones, the young left-back on loan from Stoke City, located McHale with a raking diagonal through ball and McHale made no mistake, driving the ball home past an exposed Atkinson from the edge of the penalty area.
Half-an-hour played and a goal to the good, the Bucks withstood an Avenue flurry as the hosts responded, Mitch Lund’s near post header from a corner the closest they came, the ball directed wide. The visitors really should have added a second on 41 minutes when Lee Vaughan found Hardy in the box with a terrific pass; Hardy’s trickery enabled him to cross but then the ball rebounded to McHale off a defender he dragged his low shot wide of the near post when a goal looked almost certain.
The Bucks had to adapt yet again at the interval, with Byrne’s injury ending his involvement and Jordan Davies introduced up front. It took just three minutes for the Bucks to double their advantage as McHale finished from similar range to his first goal, adding his fourth in four matches with another well-struck low shot that beat Atkinson. It all looked like plain sailing, and might have been had referee David McNamara given a penalty when Atkinson appeared to fell Jason Oswell as he tried to seize on a loose ball created by Bond’s goal-bound shot from a Davies cross being blocked. However, as Avenue cleared their lines, Bond’s foul to halt their progress brought him a second booking and the experienced midfielder was dismissed.
Avenue had a penalty appeal of their own when substitute Ryan Toulson’s driven low cross struck a mass of bodies flung into its path, but Mr McNamara was unmoved. They then withdrew former Bucks skipper Luca Havern for an extra attacker in Moldovan Ion Ibrian, but the Bucks still appeared comfortable enough. That was until the 67th minute, when the visitors defence was breached, Brad Dockerty’s left-wing cross allowed to reach Lewis Knight and his shot beat Griffiths to halve the lead.
With around 25 minutes left the stage looked set for a grandstand finish by the home side, but it never quite arrived. Toulson couldn’t quite get the better of Jones on the Bucks left, and the home side’s deliveries into the box were absorbed by the Bucks defence, where the Theo Streete – Zak Lilly central pairing stood firm. The Bucks even had a couple of chances of their own on the counter-attack, Oswell’s hold-up play and Davies’ energy making them again look like a potential partnership in the making.
Five minutes of added time were negotiated, with Dockerty’s shot from 25 yards that went wide with Griffiths sprawling the closest the hosts came. At the final whistle, the Covid restrictions in place meant the Bucks couldn’t even shower before boarding the coach to return home, but the raucous sounds emitting from their temporary changing facilities suggested that Cowan’s men were happy to have done the dirty work that’s sometimes necessary for success.
AFC Telford United: Griffiths, Vaughan, Jones, Streete, Lilly, Byrne (Davies 45), Walker, Bond, Hardy White (80), McHale, Oswell.
Unused substitutes: Bower, Williams, Barnes-Homer.
Scorers: McHale (27, 47).
Dismissals: Bond (two cautions).
Avenue: Atkinson, Ross (Sanyang 86), Boyes, Marriott, Havern (c) (Ibrian 55), Lund, Knight, Hibbs, Nowakowski (Toulson 45), Dockerty, Clee.
Unused substitutes: Windass, Downing.
Scorer: Knight (67).
Referee: David McNamara.
Assistants: Gavin Hock, Leo Howard.