Written on March 10, 2017, by Jamie Summers – @JimSummers93
STOCKPORT COUNTY enter the first of their final 10 matches of the season by measuring up against neighbours CURZON ASHTON on Saturday, with the race for the National League North play-offs becoming increasingly tight.
Both sides will feel that they have more to give in the last 6 weeks of what has been a long campaign. Yet while realistically there is more riding on this tie for the Edgeley Park side, the lay of the land for this season suggests that each of these clubs can look forward to bright futures.
There is a hackneyed cliché within the game that a week is a long time in football; but while it is well-worn, it carries with it a certain air of truth. Some have suggested a creeping concern that Stockport have had the stuffing knocked out of them in recent weeks, after their stellar unbeaten run stretching back to November was ended abruptly at Kidderminster. This has been compounded by failing to find the net in the last 180 minutes of football.
But while the momentum may have slowed slightly for Jim Gannon’s side, it is worth remembering that this is a team which has tasted defeat only once in a third of a season. Context shows us that their defeat at Aggborough came against a Kidderminster side which has won 11 from 11 at home; and in their 0-0 draw last Saturday, County did everything but score against a Chorley side which boasts the division’s meanest defence.
So, while excitable talk of a late title surge for County has dissipated, they remain very much in the hunt for the play-offs, sitting outside the top 5 on goal difference only. At this stage of the season, of course, every game has a huge bearing on how things pan out, but there is a sense that with trips to 2nd-placed Salford City and table-topping AFC Fylde to come, the next 2 weeks will make or break the Hatters’ campaign.
First, though, they face a CURZON side which has its own ideas. It would not be unreasonable to say that 4 or 5 years ago, the Nash were considered Tameside’s 4th club, but they are now the healthiest outfit in that region by some distance. John Flanagan’s close-knit side enjoyed their highest-ever finish of 11th in the National League North last season, and despite having the smallest budget in the division, they are aiming to better it this time around.
It is a measure of their ambition that Curzon are disappointed not to be higher up the table, but sat on 41 points, they have no relegation worries to speak of, and can spend the final period of the campaign consolidating and building for the season ahead. It has been a remarkable turnaround after a difficult start to the campaign, which looked initially as though the Nash would suffer from ‘Second Season Syndrome’. However, once things clicked, they pushed on, enjoying a good run in the FA Cup and beating National League side York City – a club with which they have built a close rapport – along the way.
Since the turn of the year, Flanagan’s men have also shown their credentials by becoming only the 3rd side to beat Fylde in the league this season, and last week’s 0-0 draw at home to Brackley followed up back-to-back wins over Alfreton and Gainsborough, leaving them 12th in the table.
Having made progress off the pitch since becoming a 6th-tier outfit, Curzon harbour hopes of a play-off push in 2017/18 – ambitious for a side with such scant resources, but being bold has done them no harm in recent years, and County gaffer Jim Gannon has spoken highly of his opposite number’s role in their rapid rise having won back-to-back promotions in 2014 and 2015.
Ahead of this Saturday’s clash, County have bolstered their midfield options by bringing in the experienced Harry Winter from FC United. Winter captained the Reds in their 2-1 defeat at Edgeley Park 3 weeks ago, impressing with a stinging effort on goal which showed his credentials. Having been involved in promotion-chasing campaigns with FC Halifax and Chorley, he also brings some experience to the Hatters for a crucial part of the campaign. While long-term absentees Adam Thomas and Adam Etches are not likely to feature for a further few weeks, Gannon has few injury worries to speak of.
Curzon will no doubt miss the presence of Jonathan Hunt and Matt Flynn at the back due to injury, though the impressive debut of 17 year-old Oliver Thorniley in last week gives the Nash an exciting prospect for the next campaign. It will also be the first time that Flanagan’s side come up against Connor Hampson, who swapped the Tameside Stadium for Edgeley Park last month and has impressed with solid performances in County colours. Curzon have also been buoyed by Matty Warburton’s form since the front-man returned to the club from Salford in January.
Many County fans are correctly highlighting the importance of this game for giving their season a boost, ahead of a nail-biting period of games. Currently sat on 55 points but having played a match more than 2 of the sides above them, the challenge for the Hatters is to keep the pressure on their promotion rivals whilst staying ahead of the chasing pack hot on their coat-tails.
The long-term trend in County’s form suggests that they do have the ability to reach the play-offs, but perhaps they need to find another gear at crucial points. One slight criticism from some quarters has been their forwards’ profligacy in front of goal, but if they can find a way to be more clinical, things look good for the Cheshire club.
The competitiveness at the top of the National League North suggests that as many as 77 points could be required to finish 5th – meaning that Stockport may need to find a minimum of 7 wins from their final 10 matches. With such challenging fixtures further ahead, they will view this game as a golden opportunity.
However, Curzon will be no pushovers, and as they plan for a 3rd season at step 2 of the non-league ladder, they will want to leave Edgeley Park with the spoils. This fixture last year was the final match of the campaign, and both sides served up one of the dullest 0-0 dead rubbers imaginable – but with so much to play for this time around, it promises to be a very interesting battle.