By Jamie Summers – @JimSummers93
THE National League North’s record attendance was blown away at Edgeley Park on Saturday, as 5,630 spectators saw STOCKPORT COUNTY emerge victorious over local rivals FC UNITED.
The build-up to this fixture had been dominated by police instructions which made the occasion all-ticket, only for a last-minute change of heart which drew criticism from most quarters. It was to have no depressing effect on the gate, though, as the attendance far surpassed the previous league record of 4,787 – set in the same fixture last season.
On the face of it, this was not the huge game to be expected for this level of interest; sure, County are chasing promotion, but FC are settled comfortably in mid-table, wit little chance of bothering either extremity of the table. In reality, there is very little needle between these local ‘rivals’ – but as the two highest-profile clubs in the division, they always have a little extra spice.
Last time these two sides met, it was the Moston outfit who ran out the winners in August, as Jim Gannon’s newly-assembled side were still acclimatising to each other and fell to a frankly deserved 2-0 defeat.
Since then, though, Karl Marginson’s men have consolidated in the league while County have had few other major upsets to speak of, and with the race for the play-offs tightening, this was a game targeted by the Hatters’ hierarchy as an essential one to win.
The lead-up to this game had the feeling of something bigger, more tantalising, than has become the norm at Stockport – from the atmosphere in the local watering holes, to the sheer number of people taking an interest. Once in the ground, Edgeley Park was bouncing with an electric atmosphere not seen at this historic old ground since the Hatters fell into non-league football, a little under 6 years ago.
There were 2 debutants for the home side, as Connor Hampson, signed last week from Curzon Ashton, went straight into the side, while Sefton Gonzales kicked off his second stint with the Hatters on the bench.
County started the match brightly and looked on course for a routine victory early on. Parked inside the FC half, Hampson introduced himself to the home crowd with a delightful nutmeg to play in Danny Lloyd for the first effort of the match, before the lively Sam Minihan saw a decent shot well saved by visiting keeper David Carnell, in for the suspended Adriano Basso.
Josh Amis then headed wide before Kaine Felix got in on the action but he couldn’t find a way through. The deadlock was eventually broken on the brink of half-time, as Lloyd threaded a sublime ball to Elliot Osborne, who slotted home from 6 yards in his final appearance on loan from League One Fleetwood.
Stockport started the second half as they ended the first, playing lively, attacking football – but the Rebels, to their immense credit, remained resolute. With a partisan crowd soaking up an excitable atmosphere, Minihan and Amis both had further efforts, before Lloyd drew an outstanding save from Carnell.
As the match wore on, FC appeared to warm to the occasion, and their first – and in reality, only – meaningful attempt on goal from open play came when captain Harry Winter unleashed a fierce effort; yet, much like his opposite number, County keeper Ben Hinchliffe pulled off a fine save.
Amidst a flurry of substitutions, Felix made way on 67 minutes for Scott Duxbury, who looked to have made the points safe 3 minutes later when, after Lloyd’s second assist of the day, he slotted home to make it 2-0. It is testament to Gannon’s tactical astuteness that this was the 13th time a sub had scored for the Hatters this season.
However, if things were done the easy way, this would not be Stockport County, and the Rebels were handed a route back into the match when Amis slightly tarnished an otherwise solid performance by handling the ball in rather comical fashion in his own area. No protests were made about one of the most blatant penalties ever seen – and Jerome Wright duly obliged to reduce the arrears with 16 minutes left.
In previous years, County would have crumbled at this point, going on to draw at best, but here they didn’t allow the setback to faze them. Gonzales made a cameo with 15 minutes remaining, and showed glimpses of why Gannon has brought back a player which his predecessor released a little over 12 months ago. In the closing stages, County continued to press for a 3rd goal, and in added time, FC’s day was summed up when Chris Chantler saw red for leading with his elbow on man-of-the-match Minihan.
The away side’s 957 supporters didn’t see a vintage display from their team, and can have few complaints about a match which Stockport could – and perhaps should – have won by a considerably greater margin.
For County though, this was very much their day. Perhaps it was the sense of anticipation which saw the home supporters revel in the occasion, but it had the feel and complexion of a Football League match. That attendance of 5,630 was higher than any other in non-league, was more than double that at League One Rochdale, and, incredibly, was even higher than the figure at Burton’s Championship game against Norwich. Many will point out correctly that gates do not correlate with success – indeed, if they did then the Hatters would never have ended up in this division; but it is a barometer of potential.
For many County supporters, it is a source of frustration and even sadness that the club finds itself in its current position, with such a strong fanbase behind it. Past mistakes at board level weigh heavy on this great club; but it is also a signal of hope – if County can draw almost 6,000 in step two of non-league, the club has a bright and healthy future ahead of it.
In the league table, this result shakes things up a little. FC, on 34 points, now sit only 6 clear of the relegation zone – but there is little danger of the Rebels flirting with the drop; they will almost certainly finish mid-table. County move on to 54 points, and despite being outside the play-offs on goal difference, they are now only 2 points away from 2nd place.
Had a few other results not ended as they had – last week’s wrenching draw at Alfreton, for example – County would perhaps be eyeing up a chase of leaders AFC Fylde. That ship has probably sailed, but the club’s target must now surely switch from finishing inside the play-offs to finishing 2nd and having their destiny in their own hands.
The next few matches, all against fellow play-off contenders, will be the strongest challenge so far for County; in reality, next week’s trip to Kidderminster will be a far tougher test. But this match, from the result on the pitch to the electric buzz off it, was another milestone in an exciting season. The Hatters have not been beaten for 3 months in the league, and they fear no-one.
In a tight finish to the campaign, it seems that Stockport County are peaking at just the right time.