By Jamie Summers – @JimSummers93
STOCKPORT COUNTY host promotion rivals Darlington 1883 this weekend as they begin a run of matches which could be crucial in the race for the National League North play-offs.
The Hatters will be looking to bounce back against the Quakers after Tuesday night’s 2-0 reverse at Brackley Town brought a first defeat in 11 and put an end to their involvement in the FA Trophy.
The midweek fixture came ultimately as a hindrance to both sides, after last Saturday’s second-round tie at Edgeley Park ended in a 1-1 draw. In an entertaining fixture, Brackley took the lead shortly after half-time, but County fought back with Danny Lloyd’s 95th-minute screamer earning a replay. However, a ragged second-half display at St. James Park on Tuesday saw the Hatters exit the competition, as James Armson and Glenn Walker put the Northamptonshire side into the next round.
County will not be too disheartened at exiting the Trophy, which is seen by many as a distraction in the midst of a promotion challenge. Victory in the second round would have necessitated the cancellation of Stalybridge Celtic’s visit to Edgeley Park on Saturday, February 4 – and its rescheduling on a Tuesday evening would have left the Hatters with both a fixture pile-up and out of pocket financially. Furthermore, the result leaves County with almost sole focus on the league campaign, their defence of the Cheshire Senior Cup being their only other remaining challenge this season.
The leggy second-half performance on Tuesday demonstrates the pressures which a part-time side faces when playing 2 fixtures a week, and manager Jim Gannon will be hoping that his players learn some important lessons before Darlington come to town.
County’s home record has been mixed so far this campaign, with only 5 wins from 12 matches, in comparison to a sterling away record which is bettered only by league leaders AFC Fylde. As Gannon has been quick to acknowledge, however, this does not tell the whole picture, with County having played most of the top sides already at Edgeley Park, and tougher challenges to come on the road. Nevertheless, they go into this match in excellent form; Tuesday’s loss was only their first in all competitions for 2 months.
Meanwhile, Darlington have endured somewhat of a wobble of late, after tasting victory only twice in their last 11 matches, including 3 defeats in 4 away outings. But Gannon will be under no illusions about the test facing them in this and other upcoming fixtures.
September’s reverse fixture against Darlington saw County put in an excellent first-half display but ultimately they walked away from Heritage Park empty-handed after conceding 2 cheap goals.
There is also a keenness for the Hatters to sharpen up slightly for the coming weeks, in spite of recent impressive results. Gannon has spoken at length about his players’ need to make the transition from being a good to a great side as the season moves closer to its climax. Incidents such as an unfortunate own goal against Harrogate Town, and the concession of soft goals from losing possession in the fixtures against Brackley, have demonstrated that County’s rapidly-improving side will be punished against good teams at this level, if they do not take care in possession of the ball.
However, with Edgeley Park buoyed by a successful New Year period, a sense of anticipation is developing. Ahead of this weekend, County sit 7th in the National League North table, 2 points outside the play-off places, and 3 points behind Saturday’s rivals, with a game in hand; so while victory may not be essential, avoiding defeat most certainly is.
Gannon has bolstered his options with the signing of Elliott Osborne from Fleetwood, who is likely to go into the squad for Saturday. Osborne may be a potential replacement for Gary Stopforth, who plays his final match for the Hatters against Darlington before moving away to Australia. Stopforth’s work-rate and tenacity in the middle of the park have been a revelation at Edgeley Park, and his departure leaves County with a hole to fill. The Hatters will also be sweating on the fitness of Jimmy Ball after the striker picked up a knock on Tuesday, but it will otherwise be a largely fit squad to choose from.
Martin Gray’s side, meanwhile, will make the trip to Cheshire in confident mood, after securing a late victory at Gloucester City last week, which also happened to be their first clean sheet in 8.
After the Darlington match is cleared, the challenges get no easier for County. They face a tough trip to 8th-placed FC Halifax next weekend, before returning to Brackley on Tuesday week for a league fixture.
Like County, both those sides are in the hunt for the play-offs, and the remainder of January will be a real test of the Hatters’ mettle. However, there is an argument to suggest that it could work in their favour – Halifax’s own form is indifferent, while Brackley face a nightmarish backlog of matches which will test their thin squad to its limits.
Gannon likes to break down his side’s season into 6 groups of 7 games, with a points target for each group. After taking 13 points from the last 15 available, and with the National league North table finely poised, there is a sense that the remainder of January could be formative for County.
While the next 3 fixtures may not break their season, they could very well make it.