FA Trophy report: Grimsby Town close in on Wembley after 3-0 win
GRIMSBY Town's bosses insisted that nothing would be decided after the first leg of their FA Trophy semi-final.
But, barring a Dartford comeback of epic proportions, they were probably wrong.
A three-goal advantage for a team that have lost just once on the road all season should be plenty when they head to Kent for the second leg.
The only concern is that the Darts were the better side for periods of the first match as Town struggled to find their 'A-game' once again.
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For the opening 20 minutes, and much of the second half, it was a stop-start display from the hosts who looked unsure whether to protect their precious one-goal lead or try to kill the tie off.
Thankfully, Town found their form for 25 minutes in the first half and ten more at the end, and that proved enough to effectively book their place at Wembley next month.
After seven days' rest, the Town bosses weren't expected to shuffle their pack too much from the league victory over AFC Telford.
And that proved to be the case. After a strong display against the Bucks, Joe Colbeck continued on the wing, with Jamie Devitt – back from illness – on the bench.
Ross Hannah was another of the substitutes, again, with top-scorer Andy Cook and Richard Brodie continuing to lead the line.
The visiting Darts had their top marksman, Harry Crawford, back on loan, three weeks after he left the club for Barnet.
And the Kent side could have been in front within 15 seconds as Danny Harris ghosted past Ian Miller and pulled the ball back for Lee Noble, who missed his kick horribly from six yards out.
The pre-match talk was whether Dartford would come to defend. But there was no sign of that in the opening stages as Crawford danced past Miller and fired a 20-yarder wide.
Maybe the Mariners had Wembley on their minds already – following Wrexham's lunchtime first leg win – but, whatever the reason, it was a slow start.
Crawford was causing a nuisance again in the 16th minute, turning superbly and firing a shot at James McKeown with the outside of his right boot.
But Shaun Pearson nodded Sam Hatton's free-kick on target in the 21st minute as the hosts began to wake from their slumber.
And, remarkably, the Mariners were ahead three minutes later thanks to a goal of the season contender.
The hosts' first corner of the afternoon was half-cleared to Craig Disley 25 yards out and the skipper couldn't have wished for a cleaner contact as his stunning right-foot volley arrowed into the bottom corner.
Keeper Marcus Bettinelli didn't move an inch, but Disley certainly did – turning arms aloft to charge towards the Main Stand in celebration. It was a mixture of joy and perhaps a little surprise from the midfielder, who couldn't have hit many better in his career.
His partner in the middle of the park, Derek Niven, was suitably inspired, firing wide from a similar distance a minute later.
Town were suddenly the team who had stormed to the top of the Conference, as Niven and Disley linked up to put Cook through and his shot was pushed away by Bettinelli.
Miller nodded the resulting corner straight at the stopper as the remarkable transformation continued.
Brodie should have made it 2-0 in the 34th minute, prodding wide after Marcus Marshall's jinking run, and Miller followed that up with another header, which sailed wide.
Both sides were unrecognisable from the opening 20 minutes, with the Mariners rampant and their visitors stuck in their own half without an outlet.
The second goal looked certain five minutes before the break when Marshall again charged clear down the left flank and picked out Colbeck at the far post with an excellent cross.
The only part missing was the finish, as the winger's diving header flew over the visiting goal and into the Osmond Stand.
A quiet start to the second period ended in the 52nd minute as Cook's appeals for a penalty – after the striker was barged in the box – were waved away by referee James Adcock.
It had been a scrappy start to the second half and Dartford sensed a chance, pushing forward and pegging their hosts back, as Town's long clearances out of defence kept coming back.
Devitt entered the action for the impressive Marshall, and Hannah replaced Brodie five minutes later as the bosses looked to add some impetus.
But the Darts continued to look the more positive and could have levelled things up in the 76th minute when substitute James Roger's superb effort was only bettered by McKeown's stunning full-length save.
Elliot Bradbrook was next to go close for the visitors, heading a free-kick over from six yards out, before Rogers slashed another volley wide of the mark.
Six minutes from time and Town were still searching for their first effort on goal of the half – that was until Disley stepped up to the plate again.
Picking the ball up 25 yards out, the captain tried his luck with his left foot this time and, although Bettinelli appeared to have it covered, the ball squirmed from his grasp and just over the line.
Two minutes later, and it was 3-0 as Cook, in the inside left channel, expertly turned his marker and fired past Bettinelli at the near post.
It was harsh on Dartford but the majority of Blundell Park didn't care as the pre-Wembley celebrations began.
The Darts' misery was complete in the 90th minute when Noble kicked out at Aswad Thomas on the floor and received his marching orders.
A two-goal cushion was generally viewed as a 'good' potential result over the pre-match Bovrils and teas.
But the Mariners went one better and should be running out onto Wembley's lush turf in little more than a month's time.