[ Written by Ian Brown ]
County made it 3 wins and a draw from 4 variously interesting and valuable pre- season outings last night with a 2-1 win against a lively Altrincham side.
There were over 800 inside Moss Lane to see Neil Sorvel’s National North side give County a good game.
With just one goal in it, they had a fighters chance, and did nick the only goal the Robins have managed against us for a while now, but James Gannon’s side had just enough oomph and know how to see the challenge off, coming back from being a goal down to win it via strikes from Connor Dimaio in the first half, and Elliott Osborne after the break.
I made Dimaio County’s top man, always making himself available and looking for a chance to get a shot in, but JG must be pleased with the way both his candidates for the number ten spot continue to shine. For Robins I was impressed by Toby Mullarkey at the back and Nathan Arnold who gave County debutant Ben Jackson lots to think about down the right.
Jackson, a product of the Huddersfield Town system, stuck at his task pretty well, keeping it simple – a good game plan on his first outing in County colours.
It was fiendishly humid upon arrival at the ground, and I soon had distracting thoughts of 2016-17 in my head, and a bit of a yen for a touch of the wet stuff that thoroughly did for my spoons solo that day.
The feeling did not last that long though, there was news to digest. I have mentioned Ben Jackson earlier, but Darren Stephenson, having hopefully given his previous agent the bums rush, had signed up once again. He was received well by County fans and gave his usual forceful contribution, in the 30 minutes or so that he was on the park, with Sam Minihan a surprise left flank link up partner late on.
So…..game on then, and County went on the attack from the first blast of referee Adam Davies’ whistle, as Frank stole possession with typical ingenuity. On it went from the County number nine to Dimaio …to Kirby….and back again to Dimaio. A shot was on, and Connor obliged, but the ball flew a foot wide of goal.
The experienced Steven Dredge, in the Alty goal, watched that one go by, albeit with a hint of alarm, but he had work to do next, and did it well, holding onto a shot from Mulhern just minute later.
Both sides proceeded to probe for openings after the early exchanges and it must be said that our hosts, with Mullarkey prominent, were in it every bit as much as were the blues.
It was fully 13 minutes in however before anything of substance occurred and Dimaio started it carrying the ball from deep into opposition territory. Upon receiving from Dimaio, Mulhern was fouled ushering in a free kick and some real pressure on the Robins back line. They handled Walker`s incoming kick reasonably well, conceding a throw, but with the build up of pressure from County increasing a foul on Jackson, who had darted across the edge of the box, brought more, and Drench did well to keep the free kick out.
Jackson was getting forward now, if with an understandable degree of caution, his pass,18 minutes in teeing Kirby up for a shot that climbed up and over the bar.
County were seeking that first goal for sure, but Walker`s through ball was just too strong for Mulhern a minute later.
It continued much in the same vein with County probing, and Robins using the flanks well via Arnold and ex Hatter Connor Hampson, in response.
It was a surprise though when Alty took the lead. It was a disappointment too as I had 29 minutes in the ‘Golden Goal’ thingy, and it came one minute earlier, started by Johnston`s surging run and cross from the left. Despite Hulme lurking with intent, it appeared that County had matters covered, and Hinchliffe did make a save, but I was wrong as the ball pin balled off one possibly two defenders before going in. Hulme, like a good ‘un, claimed it of course, but then you would wouldn’t you!
That was something of a shock too, as Alty had not managed a goal all last season against us, and more nearly followed as Hinchliffe had to react quickly to snatch the pill from Hulme after a loose back pass almost doubled County`s woes!
And Hinchliffe`s work was not done, as within a minute of that last action he was called on again to push a shot from Arnold around the post.
This was beginning to look like determinedly insurrectional stuff from Robins, and we needed a response from County to put it down!
It came 5 minutes later as indiscipline on Robins part cost them dearly, as Turnbull`s free kick from the right-hand touchline set things up. Bully`s kick was blocked, but the ball ran clear to Dimaio, and a shot of brutal lethality set about lifting the netting behind Drench off its moorings!
It was 1-1 and the good-sized County following within the decent pre -season crowd celebrated the fact.
More celebrations looked on within a minute as Keane won the ball sending Dimaio charging for goal. It did look a real chance, but the referee halted the raid to penalise Keano for a foul I confess I could not see.
If County were disappointed by that, there was no time to dwell on it as Hampson`s cross cum shot almost sneaked it at the other end.
Not long after that one Arnold made it to the by-line for Alty with a mazy dribble, being crowded out by weight of numbers when there.
Arnold was a lively lad though…..but so is Frank and another `steal` by him almost gave County the lead, instead his pass to Dimaio saw him lift his shot over the bar.
Frank was buzzing now with the break approaching, and a long ball from Hinchliffe saw him clear on goal as well, only for the referee to again thwart the blues with another mystery free kick to our hosts.
I was still trying to work that one out when the half time whistle went.
County looked to be bristling with JG induced menace upon the re-start- Osborne in no mood to concede the number 10 spot to anybody testing fresh keeper Tony Thompson with a fierce drive.
This was good, but 5 minutes in and it was still 1-1 as Kirby`s through ball to Mulhern had too much on it.
At the other end, Alty were still intent on having their moments, but when one showed Arnold sent his shot straight at Ormson ( now in goal for County).
Kirby`s run, just before the hour mark, offered much and his cross even more, but put through with a decent scoring chance Jackson sent his shot beyond the far post.
That was a chance for sure, and Alty got one themselves not long after this time via Hampson , and he will think himself unlucky to see Ormson unfurl one of his standard snuff outs as he spread himself to keep a good effort from the ex-blue out.
The hour saw County ring the changes with Cowan, Curran and Stephenson on for Dimaio, Kirby and Jackson, and Curran took up a fairly advanced position as County set about getting that winner.
Meanwhile, Minihan who had had a pretty quiet first half at RB, was now set up behind Stephenson on the left and he soon started to show more of his usual zest and vim from that relatively unaccustomed position. Indeed borderline great work from Sam, through the middle, almost nicked one for County, but his work went to waste as the ball ran clear to Thomas, as Minihan went to ground, and Adam`s shot went tamely into Thompsons waiting arms.
Robins were not done however, and Ormson again had to make a save to prevent Williams giving the lead back to our hosts.
Into the last 20 minutes we went with both teams striving for supremacy- County perhaps looking the `more likely to`- Stephenson winning a corner from which Alty just survived.
Still though Alty contrived to nick the odd chance here and there, but they needed to take them when they surfaced but no one in red/white could apply a finish as the ball pinged across the County goal from the right with just 14 minutes left.
Mulhern then replied teeing Stephenson up for a shot that missed out by a foot or so, and some further excellent work by Frank, in the form of a lovely reverse pass to Curran, very nearly gave us that lead. It was close again but……
Yes tension was mounting now, on and off the park, as the desperate/ highly entrepreneurial ( delete as appropriate) food vendor to my rear announced loudly “ pies half price/ burgers £1.50”.
Irresistible obviously…..as was Osborne`s shot that almost immediately followed. It started with a run from Cowan, restored to RB after doing well on the other flank in other games. Dan`s shot/ cross came back off Alty legs to Ossie who promptly lashed a belter in off the keeper`s far post!
Brilliant, it was 2-1, but was the tension easing? Well County were doing their best to ease things, but Jones did exceptionally well to prevent Palmer from storming in for a County third goal from one of a number of blue corners around this time.
It went on with Thompson rising to beat Dazzer to a Cowan high one, and Mulhern deprived of yet another goal by a wave of a flag ( I gave that lulu 3 exclamation marks in my notes).
On….on….as Stephenson`s cross saw Curran shoot wide with 2 minutes left.
Then a snap-shot from Frank narrowly missed out as we looked for the referee to end proceedings.
The required whistle blast did not materialise quite yet however and Alty had a go in what remained of the game forcing a diving header out by Palmer as their late pressure mounted.
Josh Hancock did get a decent chance, as the sun set engagingly in the near distance, but then fluffed his lines by dragging a poor effort well wide of goal.
Ridiculously there was still time to play after that action ushering a save by Thompson to deny Minihan…… and more as County conceded a free kick in a scoreable position( JG must have been livid!), but again Alty squandered the opportunity as a poor kick failed to test the County keeper.
County were still defending at the end but in more comfort…and our friend the food vendor was now offering burgers at £1.15- I gave him a swerve and headed for the car!
Worth doing was that and will give JG plenty to chew on before a fairly stiff test against Oldham this coming Saturday.
Hope to see you all there.
Altrincham line up:-
Drench, White, Hampson, Mullarkey, Hannigan, Branson, Arnold, Richman, Hulme, Harrop, Johnston.
Densmore, Hancock, Chadwick, Jones, Williams, Peers, Gabbidon, Thompson, Morgan.
Stockport County line up:-
Hinchliffe ( Ormson 45), Minihan, Palmer, Keane, Jackson ( Cowan 60), Turnbull ( Osborne 45), Walker, Thomas, Mulhern , Dimaio ( Curran 60) , Kirby( Stephenson 60) .
Subs not used : Arthur, Czubik, Downing.