STALYBRIDGE CELTIC reached the Manchester Premier Cup final for the second year running after beating SALFORD CITY 2-1 on Tuesday night.
Celtic, who lost 3-1 to Mossley in last year’s final, hosted their National League North rivals in the first game of Steve Burr’s second spell as Bridge boss.
And while Burr admitted that this Saturday’s league match at Salford is the priority for his relegation-threatened Bridge side, goals in each half by new signing Mathias Bakare and Gary Gee saw them join FC United in the final after their win over West Didsbury & Chorlton last week.
Burr signed midfielder Bakare in time for Tuesday night’s game, along with Oldham Athletic youth keeper Callum O’Neill as Grant Shenton is Cup-tied, and O’Neill had to make two early saves to deny midfielder David Norris and makeshift right-back Craig King.
The visitors made 7 changes to the side which lost 3-2 away to Gloucester City on Saturday and Norris was among those to come in after signing for Salford on Monday. The former Plymouth, Ipswich and Leeds player, 35, ended last season with Blackpool and has joined the Ammies on dual-registration terms from non-league Leatherhead.
Richie Allen returned up front for Salford but his misplaced pass gifted Porya Ahmadi possession and he laid off for Bakare to burst through the Ammies’ defence before slotting the ball past keeper Jay Lynch on 31 minutes.
Salford were level 4 minutes after half-time as Bridge left-back Danny Wisdom halted King’s run into the box, only for his clearance to go straight to John Johnston, who swept a first-time shot inside the far post from the edge of the box.
Allen almost connected with Stephen O’Halloran’s low cross before fit-again Salford sub James Poole fired over from a corner.
But Bridge claimed a 77th-minute winner following an excellent spell of possession which resulted in Wisdom playing a one-two with Ahmadi. Wisdom’s low shot was saved but Gary Gee tapped the rebound into an empty net and joint Salford manager Anthony Johnson admitted that Celtic were worthy winners.
He said: “In the last round against Hyde United, we made a number of changes and went through on penalties. But tonight we were out-battled by Stalybridge and it could have been more emphatic. It looked like they would get a third goal rather than us get back in the game.
“We made a lot of changes because of the state of the pitch for last Saturday’s game. Scott Burton’s injured now so there were a few enforced changes and we had to play players in positions they wouldn’t normally do. But it’s not as if we had any players that people had never heard of or kids making up the numbers. They’re all part of the first-team squad.
“There was a very talented team but that’s no always what wins you a game. We saw that with Stalybridge, the determination they showed and the graft they put in, so they deserved the win.
“There’ll be all sorts on social media, saying we should have played certain players, but these lads need game-time. We’ve got over a quarter of the league season to go and the same 11 or 12 can’t play every single game. The way the pitches are at this time of the season, you’ll always be picking up injuries, so we’ve got a balancing act to make sure that lads are getting the right amount of minutes but also trying to keep a consistent side, and it was difficult with that tonight.”
Third-placed Salford will aim to get their title challenge back on track as they welcome Bridge to Moor Lane on Saturday while Celtic hope to cut the gap between themselves and safety. They’re currently 13 points off with 15 games left, although they do have 2 games in hand on fourth-bottom Worcester City.
The date and venue for the Manchester Premier Cup final are yet to be confirmed. It’s the first time FC have reached the final and last year was Bridge’s first final since 1970. The last time they won it was in 1969.