After Clitheroe’s road to Wembley was obstructed by rivals Padiham, manager Paul Moore’s attention has now switched to his squad’s road to recovery.
A depleted Blues side fought doggedly at the Arbories on Saturday, but Mark Threlfall’s late strike was only a mere consolation in a 3-1 defeat in the preliminary round of the FA Cup.
Since taking over the helm at Shawbridge in May 2012, Moore has formulated an incredibly competitive squad while working on a relatively restricted budget. But in the absence of several key players, the Blues have struggled for form early in the campaign.
“At the moment we’re finding it difficult because we’ve got so many injuries,” he said. “We’ve six players missing at the moment and that’s really hurting us. We’ve just got to battle through this until we get the injured parties back. Mark (Threlfall) came back today and that’s the first bit of football he’s played for a few weeks.
“We’re missing our full backs as well and Simon Nangle but that’s football and it can be cruel sometimes. We’ll work through it and once we get through this stage we’ll come back fighting.”
A crowd stretching to 327 – the second highest of the competition that afternoon - weren’t exactly entertained in a pedestrian first half, but the fixture ignited in to life after the break.
With neither keeper tested in the opening 45 minutes – with the fixture starved of opportunities – full credit had to go to Marcus Burgess, deputising for the suspended Sean Davis, as the Storks stopper prevented Paul Moore’s side from capitalising on their early dominance.
First he narrowed the angle to foil Scott Bakkor who had infiltrated the space in behind the Storks rearguard and then threw himself at the feet of Andy Griffiths to save with his legs after Adam Birchall had supplied a penetrative pass between Jack Overson and Samuel Morris.
And those saves provided the impetus for the hosts and on the hour mark they forced the breakthrough. Kieran Pickup started and finished the move when his exquisitely measured pass with the outside of his boot found Ben Allen who, when faced with Will James and Jack Higgins inside the area, returned the ball to his strike partner to coolly drill in to the corner.
Burgess preserved his side’s lead moments later when denying Bakkor with his legs after the marksman had been slipped in by Griffiths.
At the other end, Richard Mottram was forced in to his first save when sprawling to his left to palm Allen’s stinging drive to safety after last season’s top scorer cut in from the left past Higgins to craft the opening.
The Blues continued to edge possession but, obstructed with a stubborn Storks defence, opted to fire unsuccessfully from distance or loft percentage passes in to the box.
And one such instance almost led to the equaliser when Dykes played a diagonal pass in to the penalty area, which Burgess misjudged, but Bakkor headed in to the side-netting when ghosting in at the back post.
The game was intriguingly poised, but that all changed in a frantic final five minutes. In the 85th minute, after Bradley was upended by Dykes, Allen opened his account for the season in spectacular fashion.
The 22-year-old, who scored 40 times during Padiham’s promotion season, swept the 20-yard free-kick past the defensive wall and in to the aperture between the post and Mottram to make it 2-0.
Minutes later the cushion was extended to three. As fatigue crept in, and Padiham exploited the space in behind the Blues midfield, Allen drove with purpose, switched the ball to his right to find Spencer Jordan and the substitute rolled the ball in to the six yard box for Bradley to hammer home.
But while the home side were still in celebratory mood, and concentration lapsed momentarily, Burgess was finally beaten when Clitheroe substitute Mark Threlfall – returning from injury – pounced on to a loose ball to steer an effort in to the corner, snatching a late consolation.
In the aftermath, Moore rued his side’s profligacy in the second half which the home side ultimately punished. “It’s the FA Cup so it’s very disappointing,” Moore said. “Up until the first goal I thought it was even. There wasn’t much between the two sides and nobody looked like getting the opener.
“In the second half we’ve come out and created two or three really good chances and the keeper has pulled off a couple of great saves. The game has then opened up and Padiham scored. I’ve then made changes in a bid to get a goal back and we’ve obviously left ourselves slightly open while trying to chase the game.”
He added: “If we’d have scored first then they would have had to chase the game. We created some good opportunities early in the second half but in the end they’ve scored and it was us who had to chase the game.
“We’re disappointed to go out. It’s always good to go on a cup run. There’s money involved, it helps the club, but unfortunately it hasn’t worked out for us. I thought we applied ourselves well and I thought the attitude was right, we were professional in our performance but it just wasn’t our day.”
Moore, whose side has picked up just four points from as many fixtures this term, is now hopeful of making a number of additions to his plagued squad in a bid to match last season’s success on the field.
Ahead of the game with Darlington 1883 on home soil on Saturday, he said: “We just missed out on the play-offs last year so I know we’ll do well and we’ll be somewhere close. We need to get bodies back in and get them up to match fitness.”