Written by Ian Brown
County overcame a difficult challenge from on form South Shields, leaders of the Evo Stik Premier today, winning a closely fought FA Cup tie 2-1 with a late snorter from substitute Nyal Bell.
It really was an excellent goal with which to win the match, and immensely satisfying on another level too as it came from a Walker free kick after one of a litany of fouls from Ursene Mouanda( mostly on Stephenson).
I have said it was a closely fought game, and it was, particularly in the first half where, buoyed by the backing of most of the crowd of almost 1800, the Mariners took the lead via a goal from Carl Finnigan.
It took County just 4 minutes to equalise as Walker took advantage of a spill by Shields keeper Liam Connell, and after the break, as the home team tired, so County piled it on, and got their reward.
Thomas was chief `piler onner` for most of the match, but when new man Elliott Osborne joined the fray he was outstanding too, putting the home keeper in difficulties time and time again with his alert responses.
Of the others in County yellow, I liked the cut of Scott Duxbury`s jib, his second-half showing alone was excellent as he took time out from snuffing out sporadic Shields raids to power forward and add to their woes. Hinchliffe was first class, and Sam Walker will be pleased with his afternoon as well…a goal…a quality assist….and much much more that kept his side ticking over.
So…..overall a decent win then …and a potential `banana skin` avoided with aplomb!
Back at 3 o`clock, there was a good crowd in Mariner`s Park most of them willing a giant-killing performance from the home side, solid in the knowledge that they are in prime form sitting atop their league.
To be honest, the first 5 minutes were a none event, as both sides tried, with no great success to probe the other.
Minute 6 offered something of more substance as Thomas powered his way along the right touchline from deep to send over his first chance offering cross of the afternoon- there was no one on hand to add the necessary finish though and that was that.
Just 2 minutes later and County gave their supporters an anxious moment or two, first off losing possession allowing David Foley to dart clear. It was a good run too, and it looked somewhat bleak for County as he picked Blair Adams out nicely, but he made a hash of his shot sending the ball spiralling out of play with Hinchliffe exposed.
Walker then saw a shot go wide on the end of a run before County were again in difficulties as Hinchliffe clashed with Finnigan on the edge of the box. Hinchliffe somehow survived that moment of truth, but Shields would not let them off the hook, and the home specs groaned loudly as the pressure ended with Gavin Cogdon shooting wide.
Finnigan was there again shortly after, and it took excellent work from Cowan to see him off.
The next 5 or 6 minutes were fairly nondescript, but with 20 minutes gone County might…no probably should have been one down, being thoroughly stretched at the back setting Cogdon and Adams up with chances which both fluffed within seconds of each other with the goal gaping.
The next 10 minutes saw County working hard but failing to take advantage of a series of corners and free kick`s.
In response, the Mariners defended well and I liked Bob Briggs` input throughout this period- he was excellent whether going back or forwards.
Finnigan had just stormed clear and forced a corner, but with Shields persisting, and County unable to turn defence into attack, Craig Baxter capitalised on the situation with a neat ball into the box from the by-line that Finnigan wasted no time at all in putting away from close in!
The home specs were overjoyed, and more so as their team continued to put the yellow-shirted blues under close examination.
This probably lasted 2 or 3 minutes before Stephenson relieved the pressure with a run that had the home defence in difficulties. They settled for a corner from this, and then probably wished they hadn`t as the keeper spilled the ball for Walker to spoil the home side`s party by hurrying the ball home.
Dimaio went close after this, but the prevailing memory of the rest of the half revolved around 2 occasions when Hinchliffe was left exposed.
With just 1 minute left he was 1 on 1 with Finnigan, and how he managed to escape leaking a goal was another mystery, but he did and again… a minute later and more impressively this time faced with the same forward and with an open goal to his back.
For sure that was both good( the Hinchliffe bit) and worrying ( the fact that he was exposed so), but there were another 45 minutes in which County could put matters right.
Osborne was on for Dimaio when play resumed after the break, but the action was in County`s last third early on, as Hinchliffe twice sorted difficult situations, the second occasion a good bit of work to deny Foley as he strove to put Baxter`s cross away.
County were under the cosh for a while as corners came and went for the Mariners without notable success.
Then….about the hour mark…. there was a change, and it was County, roared on by their loyal following, on the front foot- Mulhern unlucky to find Jon Shaw in position to thwart what looked a decent half-chance……Connell on hand to hold Stephenson`s shot after good work twixt Dazzer and Osborne had opened the home back line up.
Phillip Turnbull then sent a miscued clearance straight to Stephenson, but he missed the target with his shot to the disappointment of the County following.
Meanwhile, Thomas was revving up the power, but he was also finding Adams on his case and the latest in a match long series of fouls by the latter on the former ridiculously went unpunished.
This pattern of refereeing inadequacy was a feature as the game progressed( refer Mouanda/ Thomas previously and later).
But….no matter…County were looking altogether better now than they had earlier, and it took a good save by Connell to stop Mulhern from putting Osborne`s pass home.
It went on…Palmer just unable to apply a finish to a Thomas cross, and Osborne in the van again harrying the slightly gaffe-prone keeper into almost conceding as his intended clearance cannoned back off the ex Southport Hatter to narrowly miss the net.
So often in the past, we have not put perceived error prone keepers under pressure- no such with Osborne…..excellent stuff, and Connell did well to make a save from Ossie with just 20 minutes to play!
Not long after and Bell was on for Mulhern, and his opener was to lift a shot over the bar from Thomas`s corner.
More Connell/ Osborne action followed, and a reprise of Thomas/ Adams, but without County able to punish the offender from the free kick.
With 8 minutes remaining, a dipper from Mouanda failed to cause Hinchliffe undue alarm.
Another minute and Connell was out of his box heading clear with his defence in shreds in front of him- the heat was on the home side!
County kept pressing…but without success….a replay at Edgeley Park beckoned then as Thomas headed Walker`s cross wide with 2 minutes left.
But……enter Mouanda and his second thoroughly awful foul on Stephenson in as many minutes.
We got the free kick but again the referee just had a word- totally inadequate as a response! However, Walker had the answer to our ills and there was massive justice in the foul being rightly punished when Walker`s free-kick reached Bell and he leathered the most excellent of shots home to the absolute joy of the County fans present.
Heading for the County fans, Nyal enjoyed the moment, and rightly so.
Stephenson had his moment too, getting a decent ovation on being replaced by Kallum Mantack in the game`s dying embers.
That was a good win, so well done County!
There`s another trip to the northeast next Saturday when we take on Darlington at their place.
I hope you are not tempted to miss that one!
[ See the sun-drenched pictures here! ]
South Shields line up:
Connell, Baxter, Lough( Mason 52), Shaw, Morse, Turnbull, Adams, Briggs, Cogdon( Mouanda 35), Finnigan, Foley.
Subs not used: Brown, Hunter, Wright, Lister.
Stockport County line up:
Hinchliffe, Minihan, Keane, Palmer, Cowan, Duxbury, Thomas, Walker, Mulhern( Bell 73), Dimaio( Osborne 45) Stephenson( Mantack 92).
Subs not used : Ormson, Downing, Kirby, Warburton.