Salford took control of their League Two play-off semi-final against Stockport with a deserved 1-0 win in the first leg on Saturday night.
The Ammies – who finished three places and four points behind their regular-season rivals scored 13 tries in all, but were never beaten when Matt Smith gave them a 17-point lead minutes on the clock.
Dave Challinor’s County hit the crossbar moments before Smith’s opener, but the league’s fourth-highest scorer – with a shout of automatic promotion until the final day – was, in fact, a bit lethargic and no attack life.
But with just one goal in the tie, the Wembley place is still up for grabs ahead of the second leg at Edgeley Park next Saturday afternoon, live on. Sky Sports Football.
How Salford won 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 shone on the carpet of a Peninsula pitch.
After 15 minutes, out of nowhere, Stockport put the Salford defense 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 captain Ryan Croasdale crashed the rebound onto the crossbar.
Within two minutes, the hosts had responded to the scare. Elliot Watt put in a lovely, first-time cross from the right flank, which Smith met with a looping header after winning a grappling battle with Fraser Horsfall.
Conor McAleny tried his luck with a penalty appeal following Neill Byrne’s pressure in the box in the second half, but referee Tom Nield, rightly, was having none of it. The forward was denied the chance to double Salford’s lead when his shot on the swivel was pushed away from the danger expert by Ben Hinchcliffe.
Salford, at times, may have been guilty of a touch of exaggeration, given their number of shots, but in the end, it was for nothing as Stockport had nothing to offer in return and lost the first leg as a consequence.
Smith: I don’t know anything about the goal
Salford striker Matt Smith spoke to Sky Sports:
“[The goal] off my shoulder in the end, I don’t know much about it. The player is pretty focused on fighting me, so happy to see this come in.
“It’s a battle, we know it’s going to happen. We have to stand up to that test and show that part of our game. .
“We want to be in it, that’s our goal. A lot of edgy games. But the main thing is that we’re there and whatever happens now. there’s an edge but we’ve got another big 90 minutes in Stockport.
The second leg will be played at home to Stockport’s Edgeley Park 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.