As vital games go, this game was way up there!
It was not that it was a `must win` fixture- it probably wasn`t, but with the blues sitting nicely in 5th spot, and Chorley just one place, and 6 points behind in sixth, but with 2 possibly crucial games in hand, with home playoff spots up for grabs, it was vital all right, and definitely a `not lose` occasion.
In the event, Jim Gannon`s Stockport County, turned up trumps and gave their supporters who were there in big numbers something to sing about on the journey home, after seeing off the very considerable challenge of promotion rivals Chorley last night at the Victory Stadium.
In doing so, County had to come back from one down, at this most difficult of venues for visiting teams, to come away with a hugely creditable draw thanks to Scott Duxbury`s second-half goal.
It was so ……so….deserved as well, as they withstood frantic efforts from the Magpies to salvage the win the Lancashire side fancied they already had sorted.
Regrettably I have to report that much of the Chorley impetus late on, was fuelled by a succession of incomprehensible decisions from Referee Tom Parsons, that served to baulk County time after time whilst galvanising a Chorley effort that looked to be fast disappearing for a time after County`s goal.
Dan Cowan and Andy Thomas produced the equaliser for Duxbury whose execution of same was truly awesome, but this was another top-notch team performance- have no doubt!
There were stars…….I had Bully and Harry Winter, along with Thomas and Hinchliffe as my pick of those in County blue ( please …please keep us playing in blue if it is possible from now on ), and Stephenson for his injection of pace and invention when he came on after the break. His input infused County with a new vitality and they were very much `fit for purpose as they went after Chorley with renewed energy.
That said…..….I have mentioned a `team performance` and that was what it was- they were all heroes!
Back at 7.45, there were 3 changes in the County line up as they took the field – Duxbury for O`Halloran, and Winter for Oswell who has not recovered from being Telforded on Saturday, and a bold move perhaps by JG who brought Hinchliffe back in place of Ormson!
I was disappointed not to see Dazzer line up at kick off time, but he would for sure be on at some stage, most thought
Dazzer`s absence meant a start for Rhys Turner, and he was chasing a through ball in no time, but without success.
County actually started fairly confidently, and pressure from Warburton nearly paid off with an early dividend, prevented from doing so by Jordan ‘s intervention as he conceded a corner. Smalley did well to get his head to this but Leather was able to clear for our hosts.
Warburton looked in decent nick at this point, and his shot, with 4 minutes gone, was deflected for another corner from Ball`s by-line pull back.
Duxbury and Winter did their best to keep County`s forward push going from the corner, but eventually, Chorley were able to clear, and they looked pretty businesslike playing the ball out of defensive positions, more than once, with cool precision.
No one did this better than Andy Teague for Magpies, and some excellent work by him did for what looked like a decent run from Thomas.
Chorley were shipping free kicks though, which enabled County to apply pressure again, on what by reputation and in practice is as parsimonious a defensive set up as you will find at this level. At this juncture Jordan did the biz for the Lancastrians, heading the kick out.
Turner and Winter were not even close with efforts next, Harry`s speculative shot thudding into the advertising hoardings atop the covered terrace behind the goal. Harry would shine later though, and it was interesting to see us happily utilising two such tenacious midfield performers as Harry and Paul in the same 11.
County had done a fair bit of attacking in the early minutes, but were thankful to Ben Hinchliffe, back in action and in top order too, as he smothered the ball negating Newby`s run with welcome confidence.
That was good to see but the next bit wasn`t as a loose ball across the back almost let the same player in again. Thankfully the forward failed to take full advantage and County were able to regroup and clear the danger.
Thomas was instrumental in clearing that last bit of nonsense up, and he did well to then bring the ball out of defence, giving it to the lively Warburton. Matty was off and heading for goal in no time, and a sharp intake of breath was called for as he unleashed a lovely effort that curled viciously as it sped goalward. It was going in….but keeper Urwin had other ideas- his timely dive keeping the shot out to applause from the home specs.
County were not deterred, although Thomas would have been excused if he had been, as another run from him down the right, saw him sorted well and truly by a classy bit of work from the excellent Teague.
Twenty minutes had gone, and it was anyone`s game, but County had to tighten up as Thomas had more `tidying up` to do after another bit of loose play almost saw the blues tee an opener up for Chorley.
The error seemed to boost Chorley and they fancied that they should have had a penalty, 24 minutes in, but with someone as favourably disposed to our hosts as Mr Parsons was, in charge and unwilling to give it, you need not linger long over that one.
The referee was more obliging 3 minutes later, however, the free kick he awarded wide right, looping into the box where centre-back Leather added a tasty finish.
Bugger….that was a set back for sure, and County now had work to do, to sort matters.
Both defences were in charge for a while after the goal, the nearest thing to another goal coming from Harry Winter who was unlucky to see his shot miss by inches, following a neat cooperation with Duxbury.
It was nip and tuck to the break with neither side really getting one over the other, but I noted that Mr Parsons was warming up giving Ball a lecture for pretty much nothing.
Four minutes added time came and went and it was time to seek out that meat and potato pie!
Pie sorted…it was back to the second half, and unsurprisingly Stephenson was now on for Turner
Stephenson looked to have a free role, but with time up front in the middle a priority, and Ball was deployed just to his rear, and the duo linked up well in what followed- not always with max success, but always good value and inclined to undermine the Magpies confidence.
Chorley still wanted a second to make things a touch safer, but County, in response, defended really tightly and when a shot came in like it did from O`Keefe on 47 minutes, Hinchliffe was on hand with a confident save.
There was a fair bit of defending for County to do, and they were grateful for Winter`s intervention as he did just enough to ensure Molyneux headed wide when well set, 4 minutes after he had come on as a sub.
That was as good a patch as Chorley had had in the game, as County re-doubled their efforts via a neat link-up twixt Stephenson and Ball. A couple of corners were County`s only reward from this, and worse….from the second of these we were howling in raw anguish as Stott `s effort came back out off an upright!
County were looking altogether more threatening now that Dazzer was aboard, and he had a shot charged down, on 65 minutes as County piled on to the attack with gusto. It looked really promising…more so…but then it didn`t as Mr Parsons obliged County`s opponents with a relief bringing free kick which at best I am moved to call `audacious`.
Ball and Stephenson were undeterred by these shenanigans, but they just may have been when the near side ( exceedingly slow and myopic) liner, ended another good move involving the pair, by flagging Ball offside when flagrantly he wasn`t.
No sweat…. back came County, as brilliant approach play by Warburton, Stephenson and Ball saw the latter one on one with the keeper. He probably should have scored, but Matt Urwin denied him with the speed and efficiency of his advance off his line.
Then Teague stepped up again thwarting yet more Ball/ Stephenson forward play.
Add more liner induced trauma, and by the 73rd minute the writer was in need of counselling, but then he wasn`t as, as if by magic……County magic….. all was well, as County scored.
`Great things from little acorns grow` we are told, and the little acorn on this occasion was a throw won and taken by Mr Consistency Dan Cowan. This went from Dan to the ever available Adam Thomas who promptly lifted a belter into the box where, amidst all those labouring to get to it, the excellent Scott Duxbury climbed the highest to send an imperious header home to wild acclaim from the large County following.
Wow…that was simply fantastic, but……… ..hang on…..Chorley had not quite given up the ghost, and with Mr Parsons largess allowing the home team to proceed despite having mugged Bully on the way. It was Newby doing the Bully bit and on the ball inside the County box, so it looked like County`s lead might just be short lived as he lined up a shot. When it came it was a lethal strike and should have….would have….gone in but for Hinchliffe who did superbly well to make what was an incredible save under massive pressure!
Some of the forward play from Matt Jansen`s side was frantic in the extreme now, and their supporters, so bullish earlier, were silent now as their chances of a home tie ( against us) receded with every over hit cross or wasted free kick ( and you know who was giving them plenty).
And…..with County attacking with increasing confidence, at the back the previously unmoveables were miss placing passes…..conceding throws ….
With 9 minutes left, a long throw put County back on the defensive, and Hinchliffe again did well to keep Teague`s header from a yard out……out!
Great stuff….. and more had to follow as , ignoring a foul on Stott, the referee gave Chorley another free kick, thus placing County under the cosh once more. The delivery was good for the free kick and Newby met it with a fierce drive that was heading in until somehow Hinchliffe twisted in mid-air to claw the ball from under the bar to safety!
Have I said` brilliant` yet?….. yes?……..well here goes again…that was brilliant( and worth far more than 2 exclamation marks!!)
So Chorley were proving worthy opponents and were trying hard to dish us, it was just that Jim Gannon`s boys had answers now for everything!<BR><BR>Smalley was particularly prominent in these last minutes, stepping up to the mark nicely under some real pressure, but with O`Halloran and Clarke on for what remained of the game County were resolved to take that vital point home with them down the M62.
Ninety minutes came with Hinchliffe again saving, this time with his legs from the tireless Teague.
If Teague had been immense for Chorley so had a whole host been for the blues, and one such , Paul Turnbull looked in his element breaking up attacks…surging forward…getting fouled….pushing on, as the minutes ticked away.
Three minutes were added, and I must admit to expecting the referee to do a Chesterfield 96/97 on us, but he didn`t and it was all over and time to …justifiably …celebrate which team and fans duly did.
That was truly excellent and well worth the trip and the frayed nerves involved.
This sets us up nicely for the build-up to the play offs, and hopefully that home tie!
See you at Blyth Spartans on Saturday then( the Flyer leaves Finger 9.30/ Mercian Way 9.45)!
[ Super pictures…here !]
Chorley FC line up
Urwin, Challoner, Blakeman( Molyneux 60), Teague, Leather, Jordan, Newby, O`Keefe, Carver, Walker( Hughes 40), Cottrell.
Subs not used: Anson, Whitham, Brewster.
Stockport County line up
Hinchliffe, Cowan, Smalley, Stott, Duxbury, Turnbull, Winter, Thomas( Clarke 90), Ball, Warburton( O`Halloran 88), Turner( Stephenson 46).
Subs not used: Ormson, Minihan.