WITH the National League North season well underway, patience is the order of the day as STOCKPORT COUNTY seek to win promotion at the fifth attempt.
Jim Gannon’s side remain one of the favourites to taste success after a whirlwind end to last season but fans are becoming increasingly frustrated after an inconsistent start to the new campaign.
To an extent, it was a case of rebuilding over the summer for Stockport after losing star men Danny Lloyd and Lewis Montrose to higher-league club, while the frontline required major reconstructive surgery after failing to cohere as desired last term.
Such recruitment was strong over the close-season, but a return of only 11 points from the opening 8 matches has served as a reminder of the task at hand. All of County’s defeats thus far had an element of bad luck about them, but an honest assessment leads to the conclusion that this new-look side remains a work in progress.
The first of those defeats came against newly-promoted Spennymoor Town on the opening day. The first fixture of the season often throws up surprises, and so County found as a side with the momentum of multiple promotions and hefty financial backing announced their arrival at National League level. A 1-0 defeat there could have been very different if a penalty from Matty Warburton, a summer signing from CURZON ASHTON, had found the net.
The second defeat came at media-darling juggernauts SALFORD CITY, whose full-time status and quality ultimately saw them over the line with a 2-1 win, and the third was a 3-1 turnaround at Tamworth. In between those matches were 4 spirited performances which got points onto the board.
Perhaps the main concern for County will be their away record, despite this campaign still being in its infancy. Last season, the Hatters had the best record of any side on their travels, excepting champions AFC Fylde, with just 3 defeats in 21 matches.
This time around, they’ve been beaten 3 times in their opening 4 away games. In statistical terms, this means they must already average more than 2 points for each of their remaining games to match last season’s record – and matching it alone isn’t enough. However, each of those defeats serves as a lesson in the fine margins of the game at this level, and learning from them is key.
Another slight concern is their defensive record. In 2016/17, County had the best defence in the entire division, conceding only 37 goals all season. However, they have at times struggled early on this time, allowing Salford to race into a 2-goal lead, shipping 3 at Tamworth and having to recover from another 2-goal deficit to draw 2-2 at home to joint-leaders Harrogate Town. It’s a habit which must be broken quickly.
In amongst all this, there have also been plenty of positives to offer encouragement. Following Lloyd and Montrose’s departure, Gannon has recruited well, and on the whole, County look a stronger, more balanced unit. The arrival of Warburton sees a player that has lit up the division for the last two years now playing in County blue, while former MACCLESFIELD TOWN full-back Dan Cowan has shown glimpses of settling in well.
In particular, the signing of ex-Newtown AFC man Jason Oswell appears to have been both a revelation and somewhat of a coup for County. Oswell secured the League of Wales player of the season award and offers the kind of forward’s instinct that has been sadly lacking at Edgeley Park for many a year. Fitting snugly into the ‘9’ role, the Welshman has already surpassed the goal-scoring record of all of County’s front-men last season, and should he stay injury-free, will surely push Harrogate’s born-again striker Simon Ainge for the league’s golden boot award. Add to this the eventual return of the so far perpetually-unlucky Adam Thomas from injury, and County should be well-placed to better their 58 goals of last season.
Furthermore, the Hatters have re-signed the tenacious Gary Stopforth, instrumental in the middle of the park in the first half of last season, after a brief period in Australia came to an end. In truth, County never really looked as creative after Stopforth’s departure at the end of January, and he will at least give them another option.
Last season, after a similarly slow start, eventual title winners Fylde visited Edgeley Park in late September. Few gave County a chance but what was probably the performance of the season developed a sense of belief between supporters and players. Though they actually lost that game in the most Stockport County of circumstances (from a sloppy free-kick deep into stoppage time), it was the platform for 6 months of steady progress.
This time around, County are once again in search of a ‘Fylde moment’ (preferably without the defeat) to kick their season into life. It didn’t come on Saturday, as the Hatters drew 0-0 at home to a Bradford PA side with whom they are joint-9th in the table.
But the season remains young. Indeed, last year’s runners-up, Kidderminster Harriers, find themselves down in 14th place; play-off finalists Chorley are in the relegation zone; and York City, a Football League side just 16 months ago, have failed to score in 3 of their 4 home games. At the end of the campaign, all 4 sides are likely to have improved markedly.
Southport came down with York and have adjusted to life at non-league’s second tier much better, beating Darlington 2-0 on Saturday to go joint-3rd with Salford. The Sandgrounders are next up at Edgeley Park on Tuesday night so perhaps beating a potential promotion contender will provide that ‘Fylde effect’.
Undoubtedly, there is hard work to do. The standard of football at this level improves dramatically each season, and as the division becomes increasingly professionalised, part-time status seems ever-more unsustainable. But for now, there is a lot of football to be played. This opening month may not have been ideal, but don’t write off Gannon’s men just yet.