WHAT a difference 3 days make – or so the saying doesn’t go – for STOCKPORT COUNTY’s season roared into life on Tuesday under the Edgeley Park floodlights in what has been a tumultuous week for the club.
Just over 72 hours earlier, there had been a mood of anger and frustration around SK3, after what had thus far been a stuttering campaign for the Hatters met its latest stumbling block, with a disappointing 0-0 draw with Bradford PA. That was followed by the departure of two coaching personnel and the sad passing of Edgeley Park Safety Officer, Gordon Taylor.
County’s lethargic start to their National League North campaign was reminiscent of similar circumstances last season, and the atmosphere around the club was beginning to curdle once more after a string of disappointing results.
Manager Jim Gannon portrayed his own feelings after the Bradford match with the observation that he, alongside County supporters, was “frustrated for the last 5 years of part-time averageness”.
The salience of this quote is in the way it encapsulates not only the last 4 seasons, but the start of this one up to that game; County hadn’t been especially poor, or good: simply average.
As has often been the case in recent years, frustrations boiled over. However, since the start of this campaign there has been a sense that better things were to come; on this blog last week, we noted that Stockport needed a ‘Fylde moment’ to bring them to life.
And that very moment appears to have come in style on Tuesday evening, as County hammered promotion rivals Southport 6-0 – their biggest league victory since beating Wycombe Wanderers by the same scoreline a decade ago. Any murmurings of discontent were swept aside.
Despite his recent frustrations, Gannon has always believed in the ability of his players. One of his greatest strengths throughout 3 spells as manager has been his ability to measure sentiment around the club, and explain his ideas with clarity and precision. It’s a trait rarely seen in the game, but one which inspires great confidence, and his latest interjection, in the programme notes for the Southport fixture, now seem prophetic: “We have players with tremendous potential. We have to work hard, but I know we will get better.”
Before the match, few expected County to win, let alone comprehensively; a string of deflating results had dampened the mood, as had the departures of goalkeeping coach Jordan Felgate and first-team coach Mike Flynn, just days apart (County legend Flynn left to take up a full-time coaching position at Rochdale). Meanwhile, Southport are a side that were relegated from the National League last season, and one which County hadn’t beaten for 4 decades (Memories abound of a 5-0 thrashing at Haig Avenue in 2012).
However, on the night, the script was torn to shreds. County started perfectly, with the three front men of Darren Stephenson, Jason Oswell and Matty Warburton combining in a delightful move, before Warburton smashed home after 100 seconds.
The Hatters were entirely dominant in the opening 20 minutes, but the complexion changed when Adam Dugdale received a straight red for shoving Oswell in the area. Warburton secured his brace from the penalty spot.
With County entirely dominant, captain Harry Winter put the game beyond Southport’s reach with a powerful strike, before Oswell made it 4-0 before the break. The second half saw the Hatters ease off slightly with next Saturday in mind, but not before Jimmy Ball got in on the action and Oswell grabbed his second to seal the rout.
Several things were impressive about the victory – aside from the scoreline – but perhaps most of all, it was the manner of the performance. It would be easy to write the score off as the consequence of the dismissal, but though it may have influenced the score, it did not affect the result; County would have beaten any National League North side that night.
While Southport were extremely poor, Stockport were unplayable; passing was fluid and the ball was attacked with pace, purpose and intent. In short, it was everything they were not the previous week, and the effect was to lift Gannon’s players.
Oswell looked his usual self and now occupies the division’s top scorer slot, both Warburton and Sam Walker enjoyed by far their strongest performances since joining in the summer. It’s for those attributes that such players were signed – experienced at this level, but with the capacity to be greater. Meanwhile, Ball continues to develop with each passing game and was outstanding in the middle of the park.
Finally, County struck a chord with their own potential by taking a game by the scruff of the neck. Another frequent frustration with this side since the beginning of last season was the lack of a cutting edge, but in this fixture they were ruthless – a far cry from the tales of caution in 2016/17. As can so easily be the case, pre-match mutterings of crisis were replaced by the electric buzz of expectation.
For balance, it is important not to over-inflate the importance of Tuesday’s victory. Indeed, it was only 3 points, and one swallow does not a summer make; it would be foolish to read any more from it than one good performance, which could easily be reversed. However, there is a chance that this was indeed County’s ‘Fylde moment’, when things began to click.
Next up for County is one of their toughest fixtures of the season, away to York City. The Minstermen were a Football League side just 16 months ago, and Saturday’s meeting will once again raise the question of how two football clubs of such stature have ended up in such a predicament.
City have thus far struggled to adapt to 6th-tier football, with gaffer Gary Mills coming under fire for a poor home record which has seen them fire blanks in 3 out of 4 matches. Staggeringly, York have won only 19 league fixtures on home soil in over 3 years.
Comparatively, County will be aware of their own foibles, with a poor record of 3 defeats from 4 on the road so far. The defensive resoluteness which served them so well last season is yet to be found away, and few venues will be less welcoming than Bootham Crescent with a home crowd low on patience.
Football is a strange game, and this has been a strange, topsy-turvy week for Stockport County, but it may prove to be a watershed in a yet relatively young campaign.