Ainge hits hat-trick but Town are held by leaders
A Simon Ainge hat-trick took Harrogate Town to within a couple of minutes of a fine home victory over National League North leaders AFC Fylde.
The defender-turned-striker increased his tally for the season to 17 to hand Simon Weaver’s team a 3-2 lead at the CNG Stadium, but substitute Matty Hughes earned the visitors a share of the spoils with a late equaliser.
Reflecting on his side’s performance, boss Weaver said: “I thought the lads were outstanding. From start to finish they put in a really enthusiastic performance and stuck to the game plan.
“I think that we can count ourselves unlucky just to come away with a point.”
Town had the ball in the net in the early stages after Fylde’s Dom Collins collided with his own goalkeeper, Rhys Taylor, resulting in Ainge tapping into an empty net, only for referee Kevin Mulrane to bizarrely disallow the goal.
Ainge then netted one that did count after 12 minutes, beating the offside trap and latching on to a low through-ball from Lloyd Kerry before calmly slotting past Taylor on the edge of the box.
It could have been two for the hosts as fine work from Joe Leesley on the left wing resulted in Lewis Turner heading just over the bar.
Dave Challinor’s men were then given the chance to draw level when they were awarded a spot-kick after Brendon Daniels’ strike was adjudged to have hit a Town arm inside the box.
National League North’s top scorer Danny Rowe stepped up confidently and beat Peter Crook from 12 yards to level the scores.
The equaliser, that came against the run of play, took the frantic early pace out of the contest, though Town did have the ball in the net for a third time before the half was done, but Liam Agnew’s finish was ruled out for offside.
Moments after Town substitute JP Pittman fell just inches short of converting Ben Parker’s cross, a loose ball fell to Rowe whose perfectly-weighted through-pass ball allowed Dan Bradley to move Fylde ahead in the 62nd minute.
An immediate response from the home side ensured the visitors’ lead lasted just three minutes as Ainge converted his second goal of the afternoon, controlling Kerry’s pass and again showing great poise before finishing from close range.
Town’s in-form centre-forward then completed his hat-trick in the 70th minute, heading Leesley’s deep corner past a host of defenders and over the line.
Despite Harrogate looking likely to claim a win that would have taken them just three points short of the play-off places, Fylde struck just three minutes from time when substitute Hughes tapped into an empty net at the far post after Crook parried a strike into his path.