THE end of the National League North season is now firmly in sight, and STOCKPORT COUNTY will be hoping that their juggernaut continues when AFC Telford visit Edgeley Park this Friday.
The clash against the Bucks is the first of an Easter double-header which will go a long way to deciding the fate of several clubs, including County and their local rivals SALFORD CITY.
There has been an almost semi-permanent state of ‘what if’ surrounding a clutch of clubs at the top of English football’s 6th tier since the turn of the year, but as the regular campaign draws to a close, up to 8 clubs still have an interest in the promotion picture.
Last weekend, County knew that they had little room for error, as they went toe-to-toe with a Gainsborough Trinity outfit whose place in the National League North is slipping away rapidly. Footballing clichés are often so well-worn as to be meaningless, but they are often based at least on partial truths – and it was always likely that this affair would be tighter than it seemed on paper.
True to form (aptly), that was exactly as it played out. Prior to the match, Gainsborough had been winless in 10, and County went in with the 2nd-strongest away record in the division. But Trinity played the role of the wounded animal, and it took a penalty from the pacey, sparkling light of Danny Lloyd to snatch all 3 points for the Hatters. At this stage of the season, however, that is all that matters: Jim Gannon’s men got their points on the board, and the relentless hunt for a shot at promotion continues.
What that gritty 1-0 win means for Stockport is that they now sit outside the play-offs on goal difference alone. A solitary point separates Salford in 4th from County in 7th, and the margins are so fine that just 4 goals divide County, Darlington and Chorley with only 4 matches remaining. Things are so tight that, at half-time, with the Hatters drawing and their closest rivals all winning, the race for the play-offs looked if not over, then at the very least a long shot. But 45 minutes of football later, and the picture was substantially brighter.
The fact that the thinnest layer of paint divides 4 clubs means that factors such as form and upcoming fixtures are amplified. It is temptingly easy to while away hours trying to work out all of the permutations, but it is little more than educated reasoning, and given that so much can happen from the sublime to the ridiculous, it’s anyone’s guess.
County gaffer Gannon’s belief (which is rarely too far from the truth) is that somewhere in the region of 76 points will be worthy of a play-off berth. Other estimates suggest slightly more is required.
It is widely accepted that AFC Fylde and Kidderminster Harriers will form the division’s top two, in either order; but beyond that, 6 clubs are jostling for 3 positions. Halifax have a 4-point cushion but face a Fylde side desperate to cling on to 1st place, as well as tough trips to Harrogate and Chorley.
Salford must also play Darlington before the season is out, and the Ammies look the likeliest of all of these sides to fall away after a recent wobble; conceding 3 penalties in the final 10 minutes last Saturday to draw 3-3 after leading 2-0 and 3-1 indicates a side struggling under the pressure of another gruelling promotion campaign.
Darlington themselves are looking strong but face some tough matches, while Chorley’s own hopes have been damaged by a run of only 2 wins in 7. Brackley Town, meanwhile, must win all of their matches and hope for some extraordinary results elsewhere.
All of this plays into the hands of Stockport, who know that on the final day of the campaign, the 4 sides directly above them face each other. There is little complacency here, though. County fans are more likely to err on the side of caution, with little bullishness to be found around Edgeley Park. This is perhaps the effect of the last 9 sobering campaigns, but it is worth remembering that Stockport have now lost only twice in the last half-season.
As recently as 3 weeks ago, it looked as though Gannon’s men would be facing three relegation candidates in the upcoming fixtures, but the movement at the bottom of the table means that both Telford and Bradford Park Avenue can count themselves safe. With the pressure off, this perhaps works in County’s favour – with only Worcester, mired in the relegation battle, desperate to pick up points.
Nevertheless, with players across the division jockeying for new contracts, it is at this stage that the phrase ‘no such thing as an easy game’ comes into its own – these contests are likely to be hard-fought, regardless of whether points are needed. However, for County, it is merely a case of continuing to do what they do best. Of their 18 victories so far this season, County have won 12 of them by a single goal, which is testament to a side which knows how to grind out results.
So, then, professionalism is the order of the day. Distractions are aplenty, with a niggling injury to Chris Smalley and increasingly-loud mutterings of Football League interest in County poster-boy Danny Lloyd; but there is no need to change tack.
Similar to last week, the Hatters’ task is to claim maximum points from their two Easter skirmishes – against Telford on Good Friday and away to Worcester on Easter Monday. If they can do that, they may find themselves inside the top 5, with their fate under their own control.
With their closest rivals having to take points off each other as the curtain is lowered on the campaign, this could be the weekend that turns County’s good season into a great one.