By Jamie Summers – @JimSummers93
STOCKPORT COUNTY head to Gainsborough Trinity tomorrow knowing they require a victory to reinvigorate their play-off charge.
With only 5 matches of the regular season remaining, the race at the top of the National League North remains extraordinarily competitive – so much so, that only perfection will guarantee a place in the top 5.
At the beginning of the campaign, most forecasts indicated that a record-low number of points would be required to reach the play-offs. The growth of money-soaked AFC Fylde, combined with the arrival of a swarm of high-profile sides, and the resurgence of a Stockport team emerging from almost a decade of decline appeared to suggest that, with sides stealing from each other, the average points haul would fall. In fact, the opposite has been the case.
For County, the ‘business end’ of the season, as it is summarily dubbed, could hardly have higher stakes. Despite taking a respectable 4 points from a possible 6, a sense of frustration has seeped into the air around Edgeley Park. The first match of a home double-header was seen as an opportunity to solidify the Hatters’ promotion credentials, as Tamworth – who realistically required victory in all of their remaining matches to retain an interest in the play-offs – came to town. However, 2 gruelling away trips to Salford City and Fylde weighed heavily on County, and it took a monumental effort to snatch victory from the jaws of a likely defeat.
On that occasion, Jim Gannon’s side came from 1-0 down to claim a gritty, unpolished 2-1 win, but demonstrated excellently the kind of relentlessness required for a promotion charge. As the old adage goes, it is the sign of a good side to play poorly and win. However, last weekend’s clash against an in-form Nuneaton Town side left a somewhat more sour taste in the mouth.
A tough match saw Stockport take the lead through the irrepressible Danny Lloyd but, in a cruel microcosm of the Hatters’ day, the visitors took a share of the spoils after a stray shot took a wicked deflection off Michael Clarke to claim what was a thoroughly-deserved draw.
It seems almost churlish to point to the imperfections of what was a fair result, but the nature of the campaign leaves almost no room for error. With 15 points to play for, the Hatters find themselves 2 points outside the play-offs, and realistically having to win at least 4 of their remaining 5 matches to make the top 5, despite being one of the most steady units in the second half of the campaign.
Nevertheless, this topsy-turvy season holds such an air of unpredictability, that a victory tomorrow could change the complexion entirely from nervousness to elation. County visit a Gainsborough side which is clinging on to National League North status by its fingernails. The Lincolnshire club have struggled to adapt since the departure of manager Dom Roma earlier in the campaign, and are without a win in 10 games.
With matches to follow against Salford and Kidderminster, Trinity will be desperate to claim the points they need to move out of the drop zone – though they are also hampered by the absence of captain Matt Wilson through suspension. It is these types of games which can define a season; the occasions when sides fighting the drop can spring a trap. The task for Gannon’s side is to avoid the banana skin and, if they are professional, their natural quality should shine through.
One of the most remarkable things about County’s season has been their consistency, which is typical of a Jim Gannon side. Throughout his managerial career, the Irishman has crafted sides which stick to core principles of professionalism, fair play and organisation, and reap the benefits as a result. Indeed, the Hatters have now lost only once in 19 league matches, but where they have successfully converted the losses of last season into draws, those draws now have to be turned into wins.
Gannon himself has spoken candidly about the value of chasing a win, when it would perhaps be easier to settle for a draw. On many occasions this season, County have taken a point when 3 were in reach, but it is testament to the evolution of this side that they now see anything but victory as a bad day at the office.
Going into this game, County have a slight injury concern, with Chris Smalley having been diagnosed with a fractured foot. This season has seen Smalley forge a strong relationship with his defensive partner Clarke, and it is hoped that he can see out the campaign without a spell on the sidelines.
More generally, County have lacked some of their sharpness in recent weeks, which shows the demands placed upon part-time players – but a well-rested group adds the layer of quality required.
Nevertheless, for the first time in 9 years, the Hatters are going into the final straight with a very genuine shot at promotion, and they can draw upon inspiration from previous, fruitful journeys to the Northolme (not least a barnstorming 5-1 demolition job there 3 years ago). After months of posturing, we have reached an exciting part of the campaign where, for local sides Salford and Stockport in particular, it is time to be counted; matches become hotter, tenser, and more challenging.
The biggest challenge for County’s players is to play the game rather than the occasion. If they can do that successfully, and return home with another 3 points, then they will set up an enthralling final 4 games of the season.