WOKING ground out a 2-0 win against the Sandgrounders on Saturday courtesy of Scott Rendell and Keiran Murtagh’s second-half strikes.
Southport sat in 19th place prior to kick-off, four points above the sinking-sand, with returning boss John Coleman having sifted nine points from their last five outings, including elusive back-to-back wins against Grimsby Town and most recently against fellow strugglers Dartford at Haig Avenue last week.
While Coleman’s tall, physical side may not play with the style of a side from Liverpool’s City of Culture, they are becoming somewhat hard to Mersey beat of late, and so unsurprisingly the former Conference winner stuck with his winning hand against the Cards by naming the same squad of 16 from the Dartford win, which included his bulldog of a skipper and club player-of-the-month, Scott Brown, stoking the engine-room in midfield, with big front man and top scorer Danny Hattersley, leading the line.
It was also snap for the Cards, with Garry Hill and Steve Thompson keeping the same XI that had stung the Bees up at Barnet.
With consistency the buzz word of the moment, the management duo were clearly thinking that an unchanged line-up would bring those first – much talked-about – back-to-back league points since early December.
Although it became apparent from the early stages that this wouldn’t be the same counter-attacking Cards from those Gateshead and Barnet victories, with the home side dominating possession throughout.
Indeed it was Southport who were seemingly intent on retaining their compact shape and looking for those crushing break-away goals. Skipper Brown led the first of several box-to-box charges inside the opening 10 minutes, with Hattersley scuffing the resultant effort into Aaron Howe’s grateful gloves when well-placed.
With a green pitch and blue sky – to match the visitor’s strip – making a welcome return to Kingfield, it was midfielder Josh Payne – the 23-year-old making his own return to Kingfield after his midweek excursions in a 1-0 England C win in the Jordanian desert – who was enjoying himself most against the Sandgrounders.
Payne had already delivered some delightful diagonal balls and curling crosses to try and break a stubborn Southport resistance before whipping in a wicked in-swinging corner from the Woking left for Joe McNerney to attack on the half-hour mark.
The big defender and the Leslie Gosden Stand couldn’t believe their luck as the downward header rattled the crossbar before keeper Danny Hurst got his fingertips to McNerney’s looping rebound.
With the bar still shaking, Kevin Betsy then struck almost the identical speck of white paint as he cut in from the right in customary style to fade a left footer past a beaten Hurst. Betsy did almost sign-off the first half with a goal that the home side’s performance had merited but the ball stuck under the winger’s boot at the crucial moment with the goal at his mercy before, incredibly, John Goddard struck the charmed woodwork on Hurst’s left side again, this time the post making a chime.
In-form Rendell did find that elusive finishing touch 10 minutes into the second half, much to Kingfield relief.
Again Payne was the man at the heart of the move, twisting and turning sub Matty Chalinor on the left by-line before whipping in a cross-come-shot for Rendell to apply a deft flicked header into the far corner.
With the game opening up after the hour chances came and went for both sides.
Jack Marriott, finding a few rare yards of turf to run into, screwed a shot wide from the right, before a crunching but expertly-timed last-ditch Toto Nsiala block forced the 19-year-old out of the action for what could prove a tense final 15 minutes.
Having endured the infamous wrath of Moaner’s Corner for an ‘iffy’ 10 minute spell in the second-half, with the game still hanging in the balance, step up Murtagh to put the game out of the reach of the visitor’s with a smart right-footed finish across goal to turn those groans to grins.
“It got a bit scrappy in the second half. I tried to do a few things which didn’t come off but you know that’s football.
“You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth,” said a phlegmatic Murtagh (right) post-match.
“Sometimes you’re going to make a mistake and the crowd are going to get on your back but you’ve just got to keep going and hopefully it’ll come good at the end.”
And on his fine match-winner and future post-April, the Mansfield loanee was playing his hand equally modestly.
“The gaffer’s just given me the nod to go in and play behind Rends (Scott Rendell) when he’s made the substitution. I’ve made the run and Betsy’s put it on a plate for a decent goal,” said Murtagh.
“I’m trying to get in as many games as I can (before May) and I’m sure at the end of the season I’ll have a chat with Mansfield and see what they say.
“I’ve loved playing for the club, ever since I first came here on loan. It’s a great club and obviously if I can help them push on up the table then that’s what I’m here to do.”
The win does indeed take Murtagh and his team-mates up to a season’s-high 14th place in the league table, 15 points ahead of arch-rivals Aldershot who – much to Kingfield consternation, of course – make up the relegation places in 21st position and, incredibly, heaves Cards a mere nine points shy of Nuneaton who currently occupy the final play-off position.
And while boss Hill echoed his midfielder Murtagh’s thoughts after the game – albeit with a liberal sprinkling of realism with a televised Monday night trip to Kenilworth Road to face the champions-elect Luton up next – he played down punts being placed on a late charge at the play-offs from the outside rail.
“We got 62 points last year and came 12th, (and) it’s a tall order but we’re looking to get in the top half again. I think that’ll be a tremendous achievement as a part-time club,” said Hill.
And of that trip to Luton, he added: “I’m not sure I want to be in front of the cameras when we play Luton at the moment. I think they’ve scored something like 26 goals in five games, (and) not conceded. It’s nine days away, I wish it was nine hours so I could get a bit of sleep,” joked Hill.
“But no, it’s a great game and it’s out there for everybody to see on Monday night. It’s a great opportunity for players to express themselves and they’re going up against a club who, I believe, will end up worth winners.
“They’re scoring goals for fun, they’re not conceding and they’re averaging just under 8,000 fans. They’re a Football League club we all know that. But they still had to earn the right. It’s taken them five years and they’re not there just yet. It just shows how competitive the Conference is these days.”