[ Written by Ian Brown ]
After seemingly endless years or disappointment, heartache and ill fortune, Stockport County at last had something of substance to celebrate today, as a well merited 3-0 win against bottom club Nuneaton Borough saw them crowned champions of the Vanarama National League North.
Long time leaders and close rivals Chorley also won…. 3-2 but it made no difference as James Gannon’s excellent side’s emphatic win, and their form particularly in the last half of the season, saw them secure the Club’s first championship title for 52 years.
Long awaited, and well deserved!
Goals from Palmer, Warburton and Thomas did the trick for the yellow shirted blues, who never really looked in danger of missing out against a game but generally lacklustre Borough side.
I never cease to like the work of bot Turnbull (fantastic captain with a grasp of everything that needs to be) and Walker, who was buzzing all over the place as usual, and they both went through their fulsome repertoires today, Bully excelling particularly well when crowd issues took centre stage after the final whistle.
It was not a great game….too much hidden tension in the air for that. And then there was ‘the wind’, and whilst the rain miraculously gave the Liberty Way a miss, the wind certainly did not, carrying any ball lifted above ankle level every which way. It could have been a great leveller – it is to the credit of JG’s side that it wasn’t.
County attracted a ground record crowd of over 4000 to the Liberty Way ground inside which their fans occupied three and one half sides of the 4 available, but despite the title being still possible to miss out on at the start, there was a generally buoyant mood of optimism abroad with the travelling fans as the game got underway with sunshine tentatively trying its best to replace the rain that had been our constant companion be it on the M6 or elsewhere travelling down.
Before the game, there was an opportunity to acknowledge the passing of County Legend George Haigh.
The banner which was taken around the ground by George’s family and County board members was received with respect ad warm applause , as was the short ceremony pre match kindly put on by the Nuneaton club.
Minihan for the departed Stott was the only personnel change in the Blues starting line up as they set about establishing a bridgehead deep in Borough’s territory from the start.
If Duxbury was mostly the prime mover, prompted by Walker down the left, the returning Minihan was no less prominent early on down the other flank, working closely with Thomas.
Duxbury thought he had won a corner 3 minutes in, and I did too, but Sam Mulhall the referee, who I thought had an excellent game generally, thought otherwise signalling a goal kick.
No matter….Kirby fared better next, his surging run opening up a gap that did win County a corner. Turnbull took this , and his delivery picked out Palmer nicely beyond the back post. A firm header followed, but sadly cleared the bar.
County steadily increased the intensity of their attacking after that last action, Thomas unlucky with one strike that went wide, and Keane similarly fated with his header from one of a growing number of County flag kicks.
Play was very one sided, but over-elaboration at the back almost ushered in a shooting chance for our hosts as James Caton did his best to capitalise. With County recovering quickly however, the shot never materialised – but it was perhaps a warning.
The pressure from County did not relent though, and keeper Cam Belford did well to push a snappy drive from Duxbury round the post. Another corner ushered in another Palmer moment , at the back post, but the home defenders managed to block him and keep it 0-0.
It went on with a Walker free kick increasing Borough’s discomfiture, Minihan just a foot out with his follow up shot.
Kirby went close next…and Walker who felt a defender’s arm had kept his strike out.
We were 25 minutes in now, and there was no let up from County – Kirby unlucky to see his shot fizz wide with the keeper a spectator.
Then…27 minutes, as Keane’s header from County’s umpteenth corner, narrowly cleared the bar.
It really was one way traffic, to be sure, Kirby, Duxbury, and Kirby again close with efforts, but with news from Chorley in short supply, we needed County to turn all this dominance into goals, but the 35th minute saw Mulhern’s glancer just miss out.
County looked well aware of the urgency of their situation, and their constant pressure paid off, just 2 minutes later, as their latest corner resulted in Palmer meeting the kick with immaculate timing beyond the far post. It was a good strike was that, and County were quick to celebrate with the section of the travelling support behind the Borough goal.
A foul on Thomas, almost smack on half time, saw Palmer blocked this time, but into added time the Blues had their supporters celebrating again, as Warburton lashed a superb strike home from the edge of the box.
The half ended with both Mulhern and Walker having shots saved by Belford, and Nuneaton giving us another brief warning to keep that back door locked.
There was no change from County upon the re-start, as they continued to take the game to Borough, and a Turnbull screamer from outside the box, just 3 minute into the half, deserved better than to just miss the target.
Minihan and Thomas had set that one up, and Sam followed Bully’s example testing Belford to the full with a rasping drive.
The hour mark brought Nuneaton their first chance as Kelly-Evans played Allen in, but the chance went begging as Allen lifted a poor effort over the bar by a distance.
That was Kelly-Evans’ last action, as he was replaced by Dunkley, as County re-doubled their efforts to force a third goal.
Walker was a prime mover at this point, his insistent pressure on anyone in blue/white an inspiration. Keane just failed to capitalise on this, and a wave of County corners ensued as Mulhern joined Sam in harassment duties, being thwarted by a neat bit of work from Morrisson.
There were 15 minutes left when that last action went down, and in just one more minute that much sort after third goal came about, as a concerted County attack peeked with a strike from Thomas that almost unhinged the netting from its moorings.
County fans encroached on the field of play at this point for the first but not only time.
Stephenson was next to enter the field of play for Kirby, followed shortly after by Bell who came on for Mulhern, and Warburton’s late substitute Osborne.
Both Stephenson and Bell were quickly at the heart of the action, neither enjoying any luck at all.
Keane fared likewise with a late snap shot, and with much of the County following seemingly intent on ignoring appeals from the home club to not encroach on the pitch, the referee blew for time – just the signal needed to send much of our 3450 paying customers surging to where the players were gathered.
It took an age to get even close to clearing the specs from the pitch and this ruled out the anticipated pitch side presentation of the trophy and medals, eventually the players emerged with medals on the balcony, and later the trophy was held aloft by the team and staff in turn, with fans, players and staff enjoying the moment to its full.
A fantastic day…a brilliant result to end a season put together with thought and skill and executed immaculately.
So there now awaits the rigours of the Vanarama National Premier, and the mass of long journeys this brings with it, and I feel that, under James’ guidance, this group of lads can do well in the higher division.
What was that ….you cannot wait?
Neither can I !
[ Spectacular photos from this glorious day can be found HERE ! ]
Nuneaton Borough line up:
C Belford, Obeng, Sharpe, Barlone, Addison ( Morrisson 45), Lundstram, Allen ( T Belford 88) Lussey, Caton, Kelly- Evans ( Dunkley 61), Edmunds.
Subs not used : Halil.
Stockport County line up:-
Hinchliffe, Minihan, Palmer, Keane, Duxbury, Turnbull, Walker, Thomas, Mulhern ( Bell 86), Warburton ( Osborne 87), Kirby ( Stephenson 81).
Subs not used :- Ormson, Cowan.