[ Written By Ian Brown ]
A very decent Tuesday evening crowd of well over 3000 turned out at Edgeley Park last night to urge Stockport County on in their quest for promotion.
Wanting 8 wins in 8 to be champions, County duly won the first of them against an Ashton United side that must have feared the worst pre-match having been thrashed 6-0 at Hurst Cross back in December.
In truth…despite County establishing dominance early on, there was never any likelihood of that earlier scoreline being repeated.
Yes….County looked capable of winning from the off, and Ashton looked decidedly average, but an essential cutting edge was missing from the County mix last night, which is probably to be expected after the rigours of the last 2 games against Fylde.
It took the blues 37 minutes to get the first goal, via a cheeky back-heeled effort from Nyal Bell, and another 30 before Adam Thomas doubled their advantage with the aid of a massive blooper by the United keeper. It must be said though that, twixt these goals, both Bell and Thomas were distinctly unlucky to be flagged offside just before the hour- a couple of goals then would have sorted matters pretty much.
So…it was still 2-0 73 minutes in, and Hinchliffe had not had a shot to stop all evening, but this changed in the 74th when Ashton’s first shot on target, from Tomsett, went in!
Ashton, who had looked way out of it up until that point, suddenly started believing, and with ex Hatter Kallum Mantack impressing, they put County under a fair bit of pressure late on, but their lack of a decent striker told in the end-County weathering the late storm to take 3 valuable points that represent a good start to their pursuit of leaders Chorley.
This game was massively important for James Gannon’s side, who would be looking to slip back into something akin to their recent top-notch form. In this respect whilst opponents Ashton United’s form of late is not good, the fact that they beat Chorley recently should have given the blues a warning, that …and the fact that 4 ex Hatters were in the visitors 16 and would be pulling out all the stops to pull off a surprise.
The team sheet revealed that JG had made 3 changes to the starting line up. Paul Turnbull was in for Jordan Keane, Dan Cowan for Sam Minihan, and Matty Warburton replaced Elliott Osborne.
It was no surprise to see County on the front foot early on, and United content to block the road to goal whilst remembering where the touchline was in extremis.
A neat move involving Walker, Stephenson and Duxbury was the pick, winning County the first of a seemingly endless string of corners, but….like the rest….this first one came to nought as new boy Tony Lees saw that the eager Ash Palmer was kept at bay towards the back of the box.
Duxbury continued his acquisitive quest for an early opener with a shot that was no more than a foot or so above the bar.
Five minutes had gone…then six….as Nyal Bell introduced himself by hustling up a second corner, but once again County`s prime mover on the end of this …. Palmer found the way to goal blocked.
In comparison with the over-egged air of continual angst and apprehension present on Saturday, this was a low key affair, and County had to adjust their game accordingly- Stephenson`s shot on the turn winning a corner again 12 minutes in that had Ashton in difficulties clearing their lines.
A throw put the pressure back on Jodie Banim`s side who would have been grateful to see Matty Warburton`s drive narrowly miss out.
Warburton was warming up now, and his next run took him to the by-line. His cross was decent, but ….on the end of it….Bell could not get sufficient power in his header to cause visiting keeper Josh Ollerenshaw any issues.
On it went….Warburton and Duxbury both close with efforts, but with 20 minutes gone, despite County trying loads to break the impasse, it stayed 0-0.
That said….the County momentum was beginning to build now and the Ashton back line did well to ensure Bell’s shot went just wide. It was yet another corner then, and County piled in, both Palmer and Warburton unlucky not to nick one midst the excitement.
Surely it would just be a matter of time before County opened their account!
Well…maybe…but the Robins were sticking to their task well, and making life difficult for the Blues.
Between the sticks for Ashton, Ollerenshaw was being kept busy- taking 2 go’s to deal with Sam Walker’s snapshot on 23 minutes, but doing much better several minutes later faced with another Duxbury corner- getting up bravely to punch clear under pressure.
This pressure kept on building, as did the number of corners coming County`s way, but no goal, as the solid line of red shirts kept all that Walker, Duxbury and Stott pinged in at them out.
It was beyond 30 minutes before anything of note surfaced at the other end of the park, as County conceded a free kick that was inconveniently positioned near the edge of the box almost on the by-line. I wondered for a moment……would the Robins get a first shot in…would they nick one?
But….no worries…Stott did the biz and cleared his lines nicely to end the briefest of County blips.
It was another 5 minutes before anything further of substance happened, and it was started by M.O.M Dan Cowan`s incisive diagonal run that posed questions for United to answer. They managed to charge Duxbury`s latest effort down, but …being unable to fully clear the ball, then conceded a free kick.
Although the kick was way out near the Danny Stand touchline, it was not a million miles away from where Walker had produced that small miracle a game or so back, and he was lining up to take this one too!
Well….no miracles this time….not immediately anyway, but Sam`s kick put the skids under the United back line, whereupon Nyal Bell broke the deadlock with the smartest of finishes- a delightful back-heeled effort that had the net bulging in no time.
That was simply excellent and hopefully would set County up to make the game safe.
Well….they tried….Walker, who had done brilliantly to block an intended Ashton break, with 5 minutes left of the half, then went close twice as we approached added time.
There was only one minute of this, but this was time enough for Referee Steven Copeland to irritate us with a couple of Ashton free kicks, the second of which was on the edge of the County box. Thankfully neither troubled Hinchliffe who went in for the break still not having had a single shot to save.
My irritation, with Mr Copeland, continued after the break as, with Stephenson, Cowan and Walker in the van, County pushed on, racking up more corners. No goal though as Ollerenshaw twice did well to punch clear, and there was a double whammy from the Referee also in the shape of stress relieving Ashton free kicks at decisive moments.
Then County had another free-kick to contend with and this was near the by-line at the Cheadle End. This was a potentially dangerous moment, but one that captain Paul Turnbull sorted with a firm diving headed clearance.
Turnbull was thriving in the captain’s role, and was soon driving his team forward into the opposition`s half, where his ball into the box, had Ollerenshaw fumbling encouragingly.
Bully induced, loose play from Ashton won County their……err……sorry…lost count…..another corner, and this saw Ollerenshaw do altogether better holding onto Stott’s ball delivered to the back post, under pressure.
Enter the liner to my right ( a severely challenged official ) who within a couple of minutes plumbed the depths with his flag-waving excesses…two absolute lulu’s!
First off it was Thomas …played through…..onside …scores….flagged offside!
Then Bell….much the same, with the same appalling nonsense from the liner again ruling his effort out!
This was massively disappointing but seemed to stir County again, but still, we could not make those corners count.
Not long after JG made a change, bringing Osborne on for Stephenson, whilst ex Hatter Kallum Mantack came on to replace Reed for Ashton.
County kept the pressure on now, and when Ollerenshaw grabbed a deliberate back pass, we had the apparent gold of a free kick inside the box. Sounds easy doesn’t it….but with 21 players inside the area ( and most of ’em less than 10 yards from the kicker) it was never going to happen was it, and sure enough, the kick hit the (moving) wall.
The Robins angst though was not over and a foul on Thomas increased it via the free kick that was deflected for a corner ( don’t ask ….!).
Osborne was unlucky with a neat flick from the flag kick, but County`s luck at last improved from the follow-up play that saw Ollerenshaw drop the ball allowing Thomas to slot it home, and double County’s lead!
This signalled more of the same from the blues …more attacking…..more corners…..Palmer just kept out again from one such, and close once more along with 3 or 4 others striving to apply a finish to a Walker effort!
Then suddenly…..it changed, and Ashton nicked one!
It started with Aaron Chalmer’s run and cross, and ended with the visitor`s first shot on target, from the impressive Liam Tomsett hitting the back of the County net!
Duxbury replied for County with a couple of dangerous sorties up the park, but that liner was there again to stop United`s rot with a flagging to thwart Warburton in the act of shooting.
But that goal had done something to the Robins, and Mantack was beginning to look the player he did whilst with us sometimes. Long throws pinned County back as Mantack found time on the ball, but without that added space to make this count.
Tomsett meanwhile looked lively still down the left, as from being a virtual basket case the Robins were now very much in the game!
County needed inspiration from somewhere, and I could hear just that coming from Pop Side Yellow Block to my left, who were belting out the support with their usual gusto!
With 10 minutes to go, Mulhern came on for Warburton, but the ball was still heading Hinchliffe`s way as a shot from Tomsett came back out off a sea of legs.
Yes…..it was a good effort from Ashton, but there was no way through as ex Hatter Craig Hobson`s shot from Tomsett`s set up, was blocked, and again as Hinchliffe had to head clear beyond his box with red shirts around and about him with time running out.
A second yellow for Kay, with 5 minutes left, eased County’s problems a touch, as much of what remained of play took place around the Ashton goal- Ollerenshaw doing well to punch Cowan`s shot out, and Duxbury ‘s late run and shot denied by a line of red-shirted defenders.
An ovation awaited Bell as he was substituted with a minute left( Keane coming on), and a Thomas header that flew inches wide of a post in added time, was pretty much all that remained before the referee brought the proceedings to a close.
‘Good teams win ugly’ we are told, but I would not use that word in the context of this game. Rather that County did the job asked of them, and secured three vital points whilst doing so.
Blue engines are re-charging and it is to the team’s credit that they did not lose their way on a potential banana skin of a game!
More to come on Saturday with the visit of Darlington, so I will see you there then!
[ Super photos, including of the Yellow Block partisans can be found here! ]
Stockport County line up:-
Hunchliffe, Cowan, Palmer, Stott, Duxbury, Turnbull, Walker, Thomas, Bell ( Keane 89), Warburton ( Mulhern 80), Stephenson( Osborne 62).
Subs not used : Ormson, Minihan.
Ashton United line up:-
Ollerenshaw , Crowley, Regan, Chalmers, Lees, Kay, Sheridan, Goulding, Hobson, Reed ( Mantack 60), Tomsett.
Subs not used: Swaby- Neavin, Ennis, Freeland, Hendes.
Attendance : 3257