[ Written By Ian Brown ]
Stockport County belied their position one division below National Premier Harrogate Town by handing the North Yorkshire high fliers something of a lesson in the 3rd Round of the FA Trophy today.
The weather might have been cold but County ignored it with as hot a performance as you would want to witness in a tie that most experts would have made Town favourites to win.
Despite Harrogate taking a lead 19 minutes in, that prospect was never on as County, with new boy Lewis Baines slotting in seamlessly, scored within 90 seconds, notching a second within a minute of that.
The problem for Town was that (like myself in Rusholme and District Division 2 in 19 hundred and frozen to death) they needed time on the ball, and County were just not having any of that, and their habit of not accepting a ball was lost, allied to a crucial alertness of mind, personified by the excellent Frank Mulhern, and the tireless Adam Thomas, that ensured that any slip was punished and both Frank and Matty Warburton did just that after the break as County cruised into a 4-1 lead and sent their supporters into raptures (a state most of them are by now getting used to).
A late goal for Town probably flattered them, but whose counting… 4-2 will more than do as County tee up a Wembley trip to go with their push for a place in National Premier.
Harrogate were probably at their best early on and they looked sharp …passing the ball about nicely and largely on the ground.
But, a finished product is required for success, and early doors there seemed no sign of that from our hosts, and it was County causing most of the issues going forward, as both Minihan and Duxbury worked keeper James Belshaw with crosses of some quality.
It was 8 minutes in before Hinchliffe had work to do, and this was routine, as he caught Burrell`s high ball at the back post with Mark Beck threatening.
County continued to occupy territory in the Town half, in the minutes that followed, a period punctuated briefly, but not to great distinction, by Liam Kitching who scuffed a poor effort high and wide.
At the other end though, Harrogate were toiling, Warren Burrell hooking the ball clear under pressure from Minihan, while Belshaw did well, making a decent job of seeing off a County free kick with 18 minutes gone.
That action ushered in what looked to be a game changing moment as almost straight from the clearance by the keeper, Town hit on the break down the right where Emmett hit a dangerous ball towards goal where it ricocheted into the net off Jordan Keane who could do absolutely nothing about it!
Harrogate 1 County 0… wow, the home specs thought Xmas, New Year and their birthdays had all come at once, but they were a touch premature, as within a couple of cool North Yorkshire minutes County were level. It began with some neat hold up play by Stephenson, who then ushered the ball on to Thomas. A shot was probably on, but no one expected what we got, as Thomas unleashed a quality strike that beat the keeper, going in off the far post!
The cheers from the County following from that one had hardly died down ( I certainly had not finished note taking from the previous goal ) when another followed, and the white shirted Blues took the lead!
Frank watchers will know how fatal it is for defenders to relax, or be forced into error and that’s what happened next I guess as Mulhern snaffled the loose pill in typical style before slotting it under Belshaw`s on rushing body into the net!
Town must have been shell shocked, but they kept trying to snatch one back, but Beck`s downward header went wide from Kitching’s cross.
Thomas and Mulhern were looking irresistible at this point, Jack Muldoon happy to track back at one point and concede a corner as another lethal cross headed goalward from Thomas. Palmer tried for the incoming flag kick, but despite something of a melee in front of goal, Town were able to clear their lines.
We then saw Lewis Baines’ metal, on the half hour, as with Emmett breaking through the middle, County’s new central defender took one for the team, collecting a yellow, but stopping the rot in the process. I can add also that the two corners and the free kick they followed, were defended well by County.
The rest, apart from a scare when Belshaw spilled the ball whilst under one of Frank`s spells, was relatively low key stuff.Good work by Minihan was wasted when no one in white showed to apply a finish,Stephenson went close with a minute left and Beck did well to head clear with Warby and Mulhern straining for a third goal.
It stayed 2-1 though, but I saw nothing but smiling faces from the County following at the break.
I was just thinking how quiet things had become when the game resumed after half time, when it rather exploded again.
Hinchliffe had just made short work of what might have been a difficult catch under pressure from Burrell’s cross, when his clearance found its way to Burrell. No matter, he went to pass back to Belshaw, but before he realised it, or the keeper could react, Warby nipped in, stole the ball, drew the keeper, before slotting a neat finish into the net!
Fantastic hardly covers that, but it will do.
There was work for County next as Town replied, but an imperious header from Palmer snuffed out their best work at source.
And, there was attacking to do for JG’s boys too, Minihan seeing a shot charged down.
Thomas was still firing on all cylinders, let me confirm, winning a corner around the hour mark. A melee ensued in front of Belshaw`s goal, before the move sadly ended with Warburton’s shot carrying the bar.
Harrogate, to be sure, were doing their level best to stop County’s progress and get back in the game, but there was nothing at all special about their work, and County could just bide their time and wait for the loose ball.. the error..
And when those occurred County had the equipment to punish the Yorkshire side, and they knew it and Mulhern was carted just outside the box by Kitching, who got a yellow for his pains.
Belshaw excelled himself by pushing the free kick over the bar, and seeing the ball out of the ground from Walker`s follow up corner. We were way past the hour now and Cowan was now on for Warburton.
But those tempted to see this as a defensive move needed to think again as it took 3 defenders to fend off Duxbury’s run.
That said, County did have defending to see to, and Hinchliffe did really well to make a crucial save with Harrogate buzzing around his box like so many angry bees.
The Hinchliffe save brought Town a corner, and then another, but there was simply no way through for them beyond the impenetrable grip Palmer and company had on proceedings.
If there was a fair bit of pressure around this time from Harrogate, they also must surely have addressed the tendency of theirs to fall asleep at the metaphoric wheel.
Well Duxbury had just gone close again, and the next action gave us our answer, as Thompson lost the ball to Mulhern, who then drew 2…3 defenders his way before slamming the ball home to make it 4-1.
With just under 10 minutes left, County now had Kirby on for Mulhern (Turnbull had replaced Stephenson earlier), setting their stall out to stifle the Harrogate raids (of which there were a number) whilst offering to hit their opponents on the break.
Mostly the late attacking came from Town, and they were able to nick a late one with 2 minutes left when Fallowfield’s cross was fired home from close in by Thomson.
As I said earlier, that late goal probably flattered Town, but by then it was a case of ‘job done’ for James Gannon and this excellent County team.
Catch you at Guiseley for a repeat!
[ Some cracking photos from the game can be seen here! ]
Harrogate Town line up:-
Belshaw, Fallowfield, Falkingham, Howe ( Senior 84), Burrell, Thomson, Emmett ( Leesley 61), Beck, Kerry, Muldoon ( Williams 73), Kitching.
Subs not used :- Cracknell, Woods.
Stockport County line up:–
Hinchliffe, Minihan, Palmer, Baines, Duxbury, Keane, Thomas, Walker, Mulhern ( Kirby 81), Warburton ( Cowan 66), Stephenson ( Turnbull 75).
Subs not used ;- Ormson, Osbourne.