Unbeaten in four league games for the first time since August, Chris Barker’s Aldershot Town face arguably the toughest game of his tenure on Saturday, as The Shots travel to promotion-chasing Macclesfied Town. Both sides have pushed up the table in recent weeks despite crowded treatment rooms, and will find their own causes for optimism this weekend. Steve Gibbs previews the action…
With just one defeat all season, Fortress Moss Rose boasts the second-best home record in the division; a record which has propelled John Askey’s side to third in the Vanarama Conference and only four points behind erstwhile champions-elect Barnet.
Even though the Silkmen have ‘only’ taken four points from the last nine available – including a draw at Southport and 4-0 thrashing at Eastleigh – they remain on a run of six wins and one defeat in eight matches since New Year’s Day.
Tuesday 1-0 victory against Braintree – their 12th win by a single-goal margin of the season – was achieved through the adversity of illness, injury and childbirth which robbed Askey of several first-team players and forced him to name just four substitutes. And, having challenged his players to “prepare to battle”, he was full of praise for the squad: “After a defeat, it is all about showing the right sort of character and bouncing back quickly. That is something the squad have done really well this season, and they were all determined to put things right at Braintree.
“We had a number of players missing through one thing or another so it meant people playing out of position and a couple playing who had been ill the day before and just before kick-off. After such a disappointment (against Eastleigh), to work so hard and show the determination not to be beat, and come away with a win, says a great deal about team we have at the club.”
Blessed with the second-best home defence in the Conference, Macclesfield have mastered the art of grinding out results with an efficient style of play. The Silkmen have the fewest total shots of any team above 18th place but the best on-target percentage and third-best chance conversion rate in the division. This is a team for whom quality is more important than quantity.
Continuing the theme of being greater than the sum of its parts, Tuesday night’s goalscorer, defender Alex Grant – on loan from Stoke City – highlighted the squad’s togetherness in their push for promotion. “The spirit is great. It’s not changed since I’ve come here. All season it’s been class and the lads are up-beat. I think we all think we can win the league but it’s going to take a lot of hard work still so we’ve got to keep putting in the work.”
That work ethic is augmented by more than a dash of ability and experience. Danny Whitaker – scorer of the winner at the ESS in December, but absent at Braintree to attend the birth of his child – typifies their resurgence, with guile and creativity. Video of Waide Fairhurst’s 45-yard half-volley, scored against Kidderminster in January as one of his nine goals this season, went viral, but Fairhurst also boasts eight assists alongside joint top-scorer Matthew Barnes-Homer.
Since his return to Macclesfield, on a deadline day loan from Burton Albion, Whitaker has been joined in midfield by Lee Bell. Bell, however, was injured at Eastleigh last weekend, and Combative Captain Paul Turnbull was only fit enough to be a substitute on Tuesday, but may return to the midfield this weekend. It is further testament to Macc’s spirit that they took all three points from Braintree shorn of these three crucial players.
The back-four is led by the indomitable George Pilkington, the former Port Vale and Luton Town centre-half who has made the most defensive blocks in the division. Thierry Audel has returned to the Moss Rose for his second spell, but such is the size of Askey’s squad that Grant – a centre-half by trade – has been covering at left-back of late, in the absence of the injured Scott Barrow. Previously, another central defender, youth team graduate Dan Cowan, had covered at right-back for the injured Andy Halls.
Young midfielder Paul Lewis continues to establish himself in the first-team, whilst winger Adriano Moke, who has recently extended a contract initially signed last summer, and Chris Holroyd – originally a striker, now often used in a wide right position – add a more direct threat from the flank.
Yet, whoever is in the starting XI, Macclesfield Town’s team continues to earn points with barely a hitch in their collective stride.
Chris Barker had a few injury concerns as the squad travelled north on Friday, after Jordan Roberts, Ryan Jarvis, Joe Oastler, Danny East and Mark Molesley all missed Tuesday’s victory against Dover Athletic. Barker himself, along with Matt Saunders, also finished the game in need of treatment.
Head To Head
Aldershot Town have won just two of their 11 meetings with Macclesfield, but have also lost just two of the five visits to Moss Rose.
Last season’s injury-time equaliser for Brett Williams – from a penalty which he himself had won – proved crucial in securing Conference safety, and followed a 1-0 win at the ESS in September 2013 which took The Shots to zero points thanks to a spectacular strike from Mark Molesley.
2011-12 saw two away wins, as Aaron Morris’ close-range finish beat ten-man Macclesfield at Moss Rose, to exact revenge for their 2-1 win in Hampshire, as Ross Draper and George Donnelly cancelled out Danny Hylton’s opener.
Weston super Mare’s Richard Martin refereed The Shots’ 2-1 home defeat against Gateshead in November. In 13 games, he has issued 32 yellow cards and one red. Last season, he took charge of two other Shots home games, the 6-0 win against Southport and 2-2 draw against Nuneaton Town.
Mike Minay and Rob Worrall will provide full commentary from Moss Rose tomorrow afternoon, via the BBC Sport website and the new BBC Sport mobile phone app, which is available on ios & android.
During the match, get in touch on Twitter via @OfficialShots and @BBCSurreySport.