Match Report: Grimsby Town 0 Cambridge United 1
ALL the pre-match talk revolved around returning hero Liam Hearn – but it was on-loan midfielder Tom Naylor who dominated the headlines 90 minutes later.
After seven months out of action with a ruptured Achilles, Hearn made a surprise comeback, appearing from the bench for the final 24 minutes.
Last season's top scorer was expected to get a long-awaited recall in Wednesday's Reserve team clash against Mansfield. But with fellow forward Ross Hannah ruled out with a foot injury, the Hitman's return was brought forward, much to the delight of the Blundell Park crowd.
However, even the man who scored 29 goals for the Mariners last season couldn't inspire a second half fight-back as Town crashed to a third successive defeat.
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Instead, it was the unfortunate Naylor who ultimately decided affairs – netting a first half own goal and missing a gilt-edged opportunity to atone for that error after the break.
The on-loan Derby County man was amongst the Mariners more impressive performers for the remainder of the match, though.
But, as with last Tuesday's defeat at Mansfield Town, Town again lacked a cutting edge in the final third, and paid the price by slipping further adrift of the automatic promotion spot held by the Stags.
The game was three minutes old when the first 'chance' arrived, as Tom Elliott headed over the Town crossbar from 15 yards out.
But it was another 11 minutes before there was anything to raise a cheer as Jamie Devitt cut inside from the left flank and drilled a shot two feet over the bar.
It was the same man who created the Mariners' first real gilt-edged opportunity in the 19th minute.
The winger's corner from the right was met at full tilt by Shaun Pearson, but, as the crowd waited for the net to bulge, the ball flew tantalisingly wide.
Instead, it was the visitors who were in front in the 26th minute.
Frankie Artus, making his return to the side after a long absence, was penalised on the U's right for what appeared an excellent tackle. And from Harrison Dunk's delivery, Naylor inadvertently nodded the ball past team-mate James McKeown at the near post.
The midfielder had been Town's most impressive player in the opening stages and looked frustrated at not receiving a call to leave the set-piece for his keeper.
Pearson's header apart, it had been a lacklustre opening from the Mariners who were struggling to get their widemen into the game, while the front two were too often left isolated once again.
What followed was among the rarest of sights in modern football – a contested drop-ball. And it almost led to the hosts' equaliser.
Richard Brodie won it and Andy Cook in turn fed Marcus Marshall – the wideman flashing his drive narrowly wide of the far post. It was a decent response from the Mariners, which lifted the gloom somewhat.
And when Town broke from a Cambridge corner, Brodie should have found the charging Sam Hatton in acres of space in the box, although his low cross was poor.
Four minutes before the break, though, and the visitors could have doubled their advantage when McKeown dropped a corner at the feet of Josh Coulson but recovered brilliantly to block the defender's shot from point-blank range.
It took the Mariners just four minutes of the second period to notch their first shot on target, as Cook headed down Devitt's cross and Brodie finally forced Nick Pope into a save.
Next, Elliott was inches from connecting with a fine low cross across the six-yard box as the game threatened to open up.
And it should have been all square in the 56th minute as Naylor found himself in uncharted territory, racing clear of a high Cambridge defence but, in lifting the ball past the onrushing Pope, guided it just wide of the target.
The match, and crowd, needed a lift and it came 24 minutes from time with the introduction of Hearn, to a hero's welcome. He was joined by Joe Colbeck as Marshall and Brodie made way.
Naylor glanced a corner wide at one end, but Tom Shaw should have killed it off at the other, as he eased into the home box before dragging his effort wide of the far post. Shaw then turned provider, teeing-up Dunk to test McKeown with another low drive on target.
The game was slipping away from Town, with Devitt's loud appeals for a penalty – after going to ground in the U's box – ignored by referee Jason Whiteley.
The frustration grew and grew around BP as the Mariners continued to huff and puff, but never really threatened to hit the target.
Defensively, the hosts were fine. But, with Cambridge happy to protect what they had, Town needed more from their attackers, or a Disley-esque burst from midfield from one of the injured skipper's replacements.
An understandably rusty Hearn decided to try his luck as the game entered its final ten minutes, cutting inside his marker and firing a shot well wide.
Pearson had been limping for some time and couldn't make it to the final whistle, with Dougie Wilson coming on in midfield and Naylor dropping into defence for the closing moments. But even at that late stage, there was no real urgency from the home side who looked weary and lacking ideas in attacking areas.
In fact, Town were deep into four minutes of injury time before they came close to forcing an equaliser as Devitt's 30-yard free-kick was superbly tipped over by Pope.
From the set-piece, McKeown came up and made a nuisance of himself, but Hearn's eventual shot was blocked and that was it for Town's chances.
Whether it also extinguishes the Mariners' hopes of clinching automatic promotion or not remains to be seen.
But with ten games remaining and 26 points required to reach that all-important 90-point mark, it doesn't take Carol Vorderman to work out that it's going to need an incredible run to make that dream a reality.
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