Top scorer James Vaughan will take the headlines for a well-taken hat-trick at Ashton Gate this afternoon in a potentially crucial 3-1 away victory against already relegated Bristol City.
However, his strike partner Lee Novak deserves massive plaudits for the role he played in making first start in eight games at the expense of the injured Jermaine Beckford – setting up two of Vaughan’s goals.
With news of Wolves losing and Barnsley winning, this result set the scene perfectly ahead of Peterborough’s late kick-off against Sheffield Wednesday. If Town’s Yorkshire neighbours avoid defeat, Town’s Championship status will be confirmed.
Town, wearing their navy kit for the final time, started like a house on fire with Novak, integral to the success.
Within the first 30 seconds good play from Vaughan won his side a free-kick to the left of Bristol’s goal 25 yards out, giving Norwood the chance to try his luck. Aiming for the far post, goalkeeper Heaton was at full stretch as the ball flashed inches wide.
Town didn’t have to wait long for the breakthrough though, which came in near perfect circumstances for the sizeable travelling support inside two minutes. Oscar Gobern’s hopeful ball over the top caught City’s defence out, with right back Foster playing everyone onside. Novak ran clear, but rather than shooting he unselfishly squared the ball to his strike partner who made no mistake in rolling the ball home.
Novak was at it again two minutes later. When Calum Woods robbed winger Albert Adomah of possession he clipped the ball down the line and centre back Bates missed an attempted interception, allowing the Town striker to run clear. Novak drove into the penalty area and tried to find Vaughan again, but his pass towards the back post was just out of his reach.
Bristol City had conceded more goals than any other side in the npower Championship and you could see why; Town’s front two were all over the centre back pairing of Bates and Lewin Nyatanga. The second goal came inside 13 minutes after Novak was tripped by midfielder Liam Kelly 30 yards from goal; Norwood sent a curling ball towards the far post, where around five Town players had lost their marker – and it was Vaughan once again who rose highest to head past Heaton, despite the ‘keeper’s valiant efforts.
The influential Novak sent Vaughan clear of the defence with an expert outside of the boot pass in the 20th minute and it looked certain that the striker would complete a quick-fire hat-trick, but somehow the goalie got a hand to his side-footed effort and turned the ball behind for a corner.
Bristol’s first half chance came two minutes later when Bates headed a set-piece high and wide, but normal service was resumed shortly afterwards when Novak turned Vaughan’s cross over the bar after Town’s top scorer had neatly turned past left back Greg Cunningham.
The tempo slowed as the half progressed and Mark Robins, a one-time Bristol City loanee, responded by switching Novak with Adam Clayton to shore things up. Home midfielder Kelly fired a long range warning past the diving Smithies’ right hand post and the Town custodian had to be alert to spring from his line and clear a ball over the top with five minutes of the half remaining, but Town deservedly led at the interval.
The second half started in scrappy fashion, with neither side getting a proper foothold in the game. As a result Bristol City boss Sean O’Driscoll introduced former Town striker Jon Stead to the game with ten minutes gone.
Town were guilty of opting for long range passes too often in the second-half, but you could understand their reluctance to lose possession in dangerous areas. Despite this, Bristol still hadn’t seriously worked Alex Smithies when the hour mark passed.
The hosts were going long towards Stead at every available opportunity, but Town’s third goal came in the 64th minute through a simple move. Once again Novak was at the heart of it; he received a pass into the right channel from Clayton and his cross to the back post was precise, landing on Vaughan’s head – who made no mistake in planting the ball home.
Bristol had a rare chance to shoot with 20 minutes left when the excellent Gerrard was adjudged to have blocked Kelly’s shot with his hand, but from the free-kick striker Steven Davies hit a poor effort well wide.
Shortly afterwards Baldock’s back heel from the narrowest of angles hit the outside of the post after good work down the right from winger Adomah.
Novak put Vaughan clear again in the 74th minute with the simplest of volleys over the centre halves, but this time the hat-trick hero’s low drive was too close to Heaton and the ‘keeper deflected the ball behind with his foot.
Adomah headed over a chipped Baldock cross with ten minutes left, but Calum Woods had been the winger’s shadow all afternoon and he made it certain that the City player wasn’t going to score from the acute angle.
Late in the game Vaughan got a standing ovation from the travelling faithful when he was taken off, which capped a superb afternoon for the striker.
However, the final goal of the game came in the final minute of the game for the hosts. With Smithies and co looking for a 13th clean sheet of the season, Cunningham’s ball in from the left was headed home at the near post by centre half Lewin Nyatanga.
There was even time left for Stead to hook a late cross wide, but thankfully – and deservedly – Town saw the job through.
Town’s team (4-4-2):
Alex Smithies; Calum Woods, Anthony Gerrard, Peter Clarke (c), Jack Hunt; Sean Scannell (Paul Dixon 86), Oscar Gobern, Oliver Norwood (Keith Southern 65), Adam Clayton; Lee Novak, James Vaughan (Alan Lee 89)
Ian Bennett, Murray Wallace, Scott Arfield, Theo Robinson