County lost out in a sometimes pulsating encounter with promotion rivals Kidderminster Harriers, at Aggborough last night.
The 3-1 scoreline did not flatter the Worcestershire side – being, in my view, just about a fair reflection of how things panned out, as County struggled for cohesion against a fantastically well drilled ( full time) outfit held together brilliantly at the back by Jim O`Connor and Fraser Horsfall.
They were also well served up front by the returning Dan Bradley and, although County could point to much possession and time on the ball, it was Harriers who could say, with some conviction, that they defended better and attacked with greater precision than their opponents.
It was as long and short as that really, County were outplayed where and when it mattered and undone by errors at crucial times.
That said ?the blues did score a fine goal?a real belter really?from Jimmy Ball that equalised Jack Ironside`s opening goal, and for a time the thought /conviction was abroad in the decent sized County following, that perhaps this was County`s night.
Sadly it wasn`t and they were punished severely for a couple of lapses and struggled thereafter to haul themselves back into it.
Both sides set about matters with a purpose from the first blast of Referee Amy Fearn`s whistle?Thomas twice running at the Harriers back line with power and energy.
Elton Ngwatala responded for Harriers and looked lively down the left, but Winter saw this early threat off nicely.
Things were going nowhere special, 5 minutes in, and there seemed not to be any threat as Ironside latched onto the ball outside the box.
The situation called for someone in blue to challenge the Harriers number nine, but no one did, and then it was too late as Ironside had sent a firm strike across the goal ?beyond Hinchliffe`s dive?..into the far corner of the net, to give our hosts the lead.
That was a real set back to County`s ambitions, but they came back at their opponents quickly and with determination, keeper Brandon Hall saving well from Ball, and Pearson in position to hack the ball off the line with Oswell rounding on the ball.
Thomas was in the van of the response from County and Sam Austin had to work hard to contain him at this point.
Then?.just 4 minutes after they had conceded?County were level, and it was a real cracker too- started and finished off by Jimmy Ball, who at this point looked in superb nick. A charging run from County`s number eight succeeded in eviscerating the Harriers cover, capping a lovely bit of work by passing inside to Turner before receiving the ball back.
A shot of supreme beauty followed- still rising as it thudded into the back of the net!
It was 1-1 and the County following was in its element, belting out `The Scarf` with impressive gusto!
This was beginning to look like a winnable game now, and an exciting contest too, but if County were going to make any headway at all, they were going to have to be quicker to combat some of the runs from Ngwatala and Bradley who, with 10 minutes gone, was starting to look lively.
Ngwatala emphasised County`s task as he won a corner with his latest nippy run down the left.
Hinchliffe eventually sorted that one, but there was a pace and incisiveness about the home sides play that did not bode well.
Fair do`s though?County were trying hard, and it took good work from Horsfall to thwart a Warburton/ Thomas combo.
By the 17 minute mark, crosses were pinging in from the right as well, with Declan Weeks joining the fray, and Cowan earned plaudits for some fine defensive play to see the threat off.
County came under much pressure in the 2 or 3 minutes that followed, and it was heartening to see Thomas again show us how good a defender he is when the chips are down, and they were ???.as Ngwatala made for the ball from another Harriers corner.
Thanks to Thomas and good work also from Clarke and Duxbury the danger was averted, but this proved to be a false dawn as, with County not reacting, Mc Quilkin seized the ball, drew Hinchliffe to him, and slotted a cool finish beyond him into the net.
Another slack bit of work from the blues?..another goal conceded, and with Bradley seemingly on song, things were not looking all that great for County suddenly.
Bradley was also something of a lucky lad as he chose to `indulge himself` at Duxbury`s expense- 2 fouls in rapid succession both of which might have merited more than a free kick from the referee.
Amy missed another, a minute or so later, as Horsfall reacted to Turner`s presence on the edge of the box with a clear push in the back.
The referee`s error might not have been crucial, as the ball reached Jimmy Ball, and had he reprised his earlier effort, but alas he did not?instead dragging a poor effort well wide of the target.
It was a good game was this?..and end to end too as Hall claimed Thomas`s cross off the head of Oswell.
But?at the other end of the park, County had their work cut out to contain Kidderminster as crosses pinged in from right?.and then left as Austin`s cross to the back post took all County`s resolve to clear.
Some 6 or so minutes from halftime, and with the home specs getting at Oswell, he had a `brief encounter` with keeper Hall. It was classic panto with Ossie installed in the role of villain by the Harriers support. It wasn`t even handbags really and just a few soothing words from Amy and it was all done with!
Then County almost went further behind, as Bradley took advantage of oodles of space on the right side of the County defence. It was another decent strike from Bradley and was going in until Hinchliffe flung himself to his left to tip the ball over the bar- a fine save!
The last few minutes of the half saw both sides have a go?.O`Connor thwarted by Clarke who cut his cross out nicely?.and Turner worked hard without result for County in reply.
There was no further addition to the score, and it was 2-1 to Harriers when the teams went in at the break.
County took the play to Harriers as the game restarted, and O`Connor did excellent work to see off a threat from Oswell and Thomas. Cowan joined in, but Stott shot over the bar from the resultant cross.
There was 5 minutes of sustained County pressure next, that briefly offered hope, but Bradley rained on this parade by stealing possession in his own half and darting clear.
Only a corner came from that one?or so I thought until Hinchliffe and Stott joined forces to do their `after you Claude` bit and somehow set Croasdale up with an open goal. It was shoo in?.I could have put it away?.but somehow Croasdale contrived to push the ball onto a post thus?.amazingly and ridiculously? allowing Hinchiffe to scramble back and gather the ball.
That was too awful for words?.for both teams!
County came back at Harriers?.Oswell going close, and an almighty `handball` cry going up from behind the goal that was ignored by the referee.
County needed to sharpen up, but they did the opposite, losing possession again giving Ironside a chance to make the game safe for his side. He didn’t?.instead shooting tamely into Hinchliffe`s arms!
County were still trying, however, and a one-goal deficit was not totally insurmountable, was it? Warburton was unlucky seeing O`Connor`s last ditcher dish his run into the box around the hour mark.
The corner again offered County hope, but no more than that and this soon disappeared as Bradley stole clear again feeding on some slack work from the blues to slam a glorious drive past Hinchliffe into the net.
It was 3-1 now and despite all County`s bluster that was now looking to be somewhat beyond us to reverse.
Turnbull came on for Winter next, and Sonupe for Bradley for Kidderminster, and Sonupe wasted no time at all rattling in a tasty shot that whizzed across goal and out.
By contrast, things were going a touch off the boil now for County, as Stott sent a free kick straight at Hall.
With Stephenson on for Duxbury with 20 minutes left, County did their best to make a decent fist of what remained of the game.
With Stephenson getting on the ball, for a time it looked promising, but despite corners coming and going, there was no sign of a goal that might ignite a small flame and drag the Hatters back into it.
Warburton did go close with one free kick though, and Turner closer, and should have done better with a chance than he did – hesitating too long when put clean through, thus allowing Horsfall time and opportunity to rob him?.which he duly did!
If it was a stats game, County would be winning it – possession wise it was no contest, but on quality of that element Kiddy had the definite edge and were always a real threat on the admittedly fewer occasions that they had the ball.
But?.County kept plugging away?Stott with a decent run down the right and another from Thomas continued to excite without producing that vital goal. Clarke did look on for one on the end of that Thomas cross until a glorious/ desperate ( select to taste)last ditcher from substitute George Waring saved the day for Harriers.
One really stand out chance did come County`s way with 6 minutes left, and it fell to Oswell as keeper Hall contrived to throw the ball straight to him on the edge of the box. The goal was gaping and un-manned as Oswell shot, but any thoughts of a goal quickly vanished as O`Connor somehow got a touch on the ball as it left the County number nine, sufficient to deflect it wide!
Bugger! hardly covers it, with or without exclamation marks, and we more or less knew for sure now that the game was lost.
Oswell and Stephenson went close in what remained of the match, but soon enough it was all over and the points were Kidderminster`s.
A disappointing result for sure, but we have no divine right to win although for a time at least recently perhaps we have all been tempted to think that we have.
Nothing changes for me, Jim `s the man, and County can and will come back from this.
See you at Edgeley Park on Saturday for the game with AFC Telford!
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Kidderminster Harriers line up
Hall, Perason, Austin, Croasdale, Horsfall, O`Connor, Weeks( Digie 83), McQuilkin, Ironside, Bradley( Sonupe 61), Ngwalata( Waring 71).
Subs not used: Truslove, Brown.
Stockport County line up
Hinchliffe, Cowan, Clarke, Stott, Duxbury( Stephenson 66), Winter( Turnbull 60), Ball, Thomas, Oswell, Warburton, Turner.
Subs not used: Ormson, Smalley, O`Halloran.