MACCLESFIELD Town lead the National League for a reason, and they showed it on Saturday.

Barrow AFC travelled down the Silk Road to the Moss Rose unbeaten in three and with a good away record under manager Ady Pennock.

What’s more, for the first 45 minutes, they stayed with the relentless pace of their hosts, and even went ahead when Luke James scored his third goal in as many games.

But the Silkmen just ooze class on the ball, and their pushing, their pressure, their non-stop hustle, was eventually going to pay dividends.

Mitch Hancox fired them level with a goal from the same top-drawer from which James had produced his before the break, and after that they steadily assumed the ascendancy.

Barrow were resilient for a long spell, but Andy Whitaker’s penalty after Jack Barthram brought down Hancox, and Elliott Durrell’s third gave them the spoils and kept them atop the pile.

The Bluebirds were far from humiliated, and they had carved open their own chances, but the leaders were in imperious form, and when top plays relegation battlers that kind of class can shine through.

At least Barrow’s rivals did not take advantage of their slip-up.

Solihull went down at Sutton United and remain two points adrift in the final relegation place, while Guiseley and Torquay lost as well, and now look all-but doomed.

FC Halifax Town and Maidstone United did take three points to give them some breathing room, and how the games in hand AFC possess take on even greater importance going forward.

Those matches came from the postponements suffered in recent months – indeed it had been 17 days since they last played when Barrow turned up at the Moss Rose. It may have been raining, and patches of the pitch were muddy and cutting up, but there was no chance they would have to wait any longer.

New recruits Nathan Waterston and Lewis Walters started the afternoon on the bench for the Bluebirds.

Waterston had joined his hometown club from Workington Reds on a deal until the end of the season in midweek, with Walters arriving on loan from Championship side Nottingham Forest just before Friday’s deadline to feature.

Pennock chose to give them some extra time to acclimatise, with Grant Holt, Jordan White and Luke James starting in the attacking positions for the visitors.

It was the home side who did most of the attacking in the first half, however, pressing down the flanks, with Barrow relying on their ability to break to cause a threat.

An early indication of the danger posed out wide by the Silkmen came when Elliott Durrell – named as February’s National League player-of-the-month on Friday – curling a ball over the defence from the left and finding Scott Wilson. He stretched out his boot but could only direct it over the bar.

The play had been almost exclusively inside the AFC half for the first 10 minutes, and yet it was Barrow who broke the deadlock.

It was all down to the individual skill of Luke James, as he took the ball on the edge of the area, controlled and turned inside. The Forest Green Rovers loanee skipped across the field past two defenders and picked his moment to take a swing with his left boot, picking out the bottom corner perfectly to beat the dive of Shwan Jalal.

That silenced the previously-boisterous home support momentarily, and they stayed silent as James was given another opening on the left.

The defence stood still and allowed the Barrow man to run on into the area, but support was slow in coming and he was forced to cut inside onto his right foot and take a shot himself; his effort at the near post easily gathered by Jalal.

Jalal’s opposite number Steve Arnold needed to work harder at the other end to keep his side in front.

Firstly, a Durrell cross from the right beat the defence and found the diving head of Hancox, barely five yards out. The ball came off it like a bullet, and Arnold was well-positioned in its path, but he still needed all his reflexes to turn it upwards and deny what seemed a certain goal.

Another cross to the near post was then diverted towards his own goal by Ollie Cook, with Arnold alert to the danger and reacting well to stop the ball resting in the back of the net.

Jalal pulled a stop from his top-drawer soon after.

Kingsley James had played the ball out wide to the left for Grant Holt, and he quickly played it back in behind the defence for the well-timed run of Luke James. The forward got a touch to divert it towards the bottom corner, but the home keeper reached out his left hand to redirect the effort past the far post.

That would have made it 2-0 and put an entirely different complexion on the game, and what was to follow.

Instead, it was the home side who struck back before the break as a cross to the far post from the right was scrappily dealt with and only cleared as far as Hancox, 25 yards out. He pulled the trigger with an effort that rocketed along and found the far bottom corner, leaving Arnold with no chance. The scorer simply stood and soaked up the adulation from all around.

The pattern of Macclesfield pressing and Barrow breaking continued unabated without further chances in the first half, but was taken to the next level after the break.

The hosts forced a succession of corners and played a number of balls into the area, with the AFC defence scrambling left, right and centre to cut them out, and throwing themselves wholeheartedly in the way to block long-range shots.

Somehow, it was Barrow who actually carved the first real chance, as Luke James was played away down the right and made it into the area, only to drag his effort across the face of goal.

The Silkmen started to get closer and closer – Arnold producing another great save to turn a rasper from Durrell over the bar as it headed for the top of his goal – before they gained their penalty.

Hancox was past Barthram and into the area from the left and there was a clumsy coming together. Referee Matthew Dicicco was in no doubt it was a penalty, even if Bluebirds on the field and in the dug-out were.

Whitaker fairly blasted the spot-kick past Arnold, who went the right way but had no chance, and from there on in it seemed the result was inevitable.

Arnold saved low down from Wilson as he was played into space behind the defence to prevent one opening, but could do nothing with the next as Wilson put Durrell in and he fired into the near bottom corner.

Waterston, Walters and Harry Panayiotou were all on the field now as Barrow looked for a way back, but it was not forthcoming.

Walters made a couple of mazy runs, and in stoppage time was through into the area before shooting over, while Waterston looked lively and got into some good positions, but the game was done.

Pennock stood to shake the hands of every Macclesfield player as they came off the pitch. He too knew they had put on another showing worthy of promotion, while his side battled hard and gave their all before eventually being overwhelmed.

More winnable matches await AFC in the weeks ahead, and they must ensure they take advantage of them if they are to stay in the National League as the Silkmen seem destined for pastures new.


Macclesfield Town: Shwan Jalal, Jared Hodgkiss, David Fitzpatrick, Keith Lowe, George Pilkington, Elliott Durrell (Courtney Richards 88), Scott Wilson, Nathan Blissett, Mitch Hancox (Scott Burgess 84), Danny Whitehead, Danny Whitaker.

Substitutes Not Used: Sam Ramsbottom, Tyrone Marsh, Kieran Kennedy.

Barrow AFC: Steve Arnold 8, Dan Jones 6, Jack Barthram 6, Moussa Diarra 6, Ollie Cook 6, Kingsley James 6, Asa Hall 6, Bedsente Gomis 6 (Harry Panayiotou 65), Luke James 7, Grant Holt 6 (Lewis Walters 57, 7), Jordan White 6 (Nathan Waterston 77).

Substitutes Not Used: Calum Macdonald, Bradley Bauress.

Referee: Matthew Dicicco.

Attendance: 1,738 (146 from Barrow).

Next Game: Maidenhead United v Barrow AFC, Saturday, 3pm.


STEVE ARNOLD: The keeper made a succession of high-class saves to keep Macclesfield at bay in the first half, and again after the break.