[ Written By Ian Brown ]
A late goal, deep in added time, from new Harrogate signing Alex Bradley, sent County to disappointing defeat at sun-drenched Wetherby Road today.
Bradley, ex of West Brom and Lincoln City in the FL, was massively influential for Town, and played an essential part in a second half revival from the home side that had County rocking at times.
The Blues ,and their supporters( loud as ever and there in huge numbers again) felt the game was salvaged along with a point as tigerish determination from Osborne teed substitute Nyal Bell up for a quality goal that looked likely to sneak a point for County, but it was not to be, and a certain fallibility down our left flank resulted in Bradley`s winner.
That said crosses pinged in from both flanks throughout the second half, and Palmer and Keane again got through mountains of work to keep County`s under pressure craft afloat.
At this point I think that it is pertinent to give Referee Martin Woods a mention- he was simply awful in the second half, reeling off a bewildering number of free kicks to Town for either trivial or non-existent offences. You know that I am…by nature….. slow to criticise officials……but that had to be said, as the freekicks constantly broke up County`s rhythm.
Unsurprisingly there were no changes in County`s starting line up come kick off time as they went straight onto the attack with almost 600 cheering them on loudly from the Wetherby Road stand and terrace to my right.
It was Thomas and Minihan supplying the ammunition, a state of affairs that would continue for much of the game.
Thomas`s first offering…. a tasty ball fed low into the box, found Mulhern`s side footed effort pushed behind by James Belshaw in the home goal. Palmer was up for the resultant flag kick, but with no luck.
A free kick kept the pressure on, but from the corner that followed, Belshaw went full stretch to stop County nicking a goal, and the pressure eased.
Harrogate replied through Jack Muldoon, but he found Keane in improbably good nick, stopping the forward`s gallop with a fine blocking tackle.
More from Minihan and Thomas next, but the pressure from County could not be sustained and in quick order both Bradley and Falkingham returned the favour, prompting more good defensive work from the County back line in response.
To a degree, an `end to ender `was developing- we just needed to make our moments in the attacking spotlight count, but despite Minihan and Jackson both winning further corners, nothing materialised from either, although I should point out in mitigation, that midst much pressure resulting from the second of the kicks, the Referee came to Harrogate`s aid with a truly mind boggling decision to penalise Mulhern, who looked more sinned against than sinner, with a Town free kick.
The pattern continued however….Town giving it some , and Palmer having to head imperiously clear under pressure, followed by much the same from the white shirted blues , who saw Thomas`s shot smothered comfortably by Belshaw.
Twenty minutes had now gone, and Kiernan had just pinged over one from the left, which County cleared without undue problems, when he lanky Warren Burrell took a turn down the left . The cross was a good one, and Jackson did well to stop the rot with yellow and black shirts circling the waggons just outside the County box.
Meanwhile, I found myself writing ` Thomas is on fire` and he was certainly giving his usual energetic display of hard working athleticism, but Belshaw was doing OK for Harrogate too, and he saved the shot from County`s number seven with his legs, 22 minutes in.
Emmett stepped up to whip another cross over from wide, but Cowan sorted that to calm County nerves that were possibly beginning to jangle ever so slightly.
This was the point in proceedings when the referee called a halt for a drinks break- an entirely wholesome and worthy decision in my view, but I found myself thinking about the travelling specs who would have been deprived of any bottled water they had on their person as they entered the ground. OK…..they were told that they `could take the bottle in but without the cap`- an insane move with temperatures clocking 25 and more!
Play resumed with Osborne in behind the home back line, but he dragged his shot wide, which was disappointing.
Then we saw Bradley on the ball for Town, but having picked County`s defensive lock, he sent a poor effort wide, with Hinchliffe exposed.
On it went and Thomas was inches away with a shot from Jackson`s cross, on the half hour mark.
This prompted a response from our hosts but despite another leggy run from Burrell, he could not hit the target with his shot.
County were probably shading it as half time neared, but not by much, but I was given fresh energy as Frank went down in the box under pressure from Will Smith. He made it clear, from his position on the deck, that he wanted a penalty….I perhaps unsurprisingly would have obliged him, but Mr Woods would not.
The pressure from County was starting to build again – Turnbull throwing up a dangerous lob that Belshaw did well to deal with. It continued, almost seamlessly, with Minihan threading a ball into the box for Thomas to run onto. The move was fine, in fact better than fine, but Belshaw had no issues in holding on to Thomas`s shot.
Have I said it was ` end to end` ? Well it was ,and the 40th minute saw Hinchliffe in action denying Bradley , then Palmer working small miracles to stem a growing ( largely Kiernan induced) Town pressure.
Then Bully slipped giving possession to the men in yellow and black, and Hinchliffe did really well to keep Falkingham`s shot out.
An oooo moment then awoke the home specs as Bradley fell down in the box. Mr Woods was as impressed as myself and did not give a penalty.
County had a late pop at the home defence, Osborne initiated, but it stayed 0-0 as the teams went in to cool down.
The mood was generally up beat from County fans, as far as I could make out as the game resumed.
County went on the attack early on with both Keane and Palmer hunting hungrily for scraps in the opposition box, and a considerable scrap appeared to have materialised but County`s penalty appeals made no impression on Mr Woods.
Forty eight minutes had gone, and by now the referee was warming to his theme, the first of his second half plethora of punitive measures severely derailing County`s momentum. The free kick was headed out by Keane but the home side had been given impetus, and they pressed County back again forcing a corner, that saw Muldoon`s header blocked in front of goal by Cowan.
The pressure from Harrogate increased to the extent that I began to actually hear the home specs supporting their team, and it paid off….or I thought it did, as Kiernan threaded a ball in from the right to Mark Beck who could have / should have scored, but instead he sent a gloriously poor effort wide of the goal!
Walker replaced Dimaio on 52 minutes, but the pressure from Harrogate did not diminish but continued apace, and in response….County cracked! It was started by Falkingham who sent a neat through ball Fallowfield`s way. The Town number 2 did just what his team required by pinging his cross inch perfect to Beck who scored from almost under the bar!
That was a bummer, but not that unexpected, and we had been warned!
County looked somewhat shell shocked as Town came at them again via George Smith whose cross from the left had Keane scurrying across to head clear.
Hinchliffe was the next County man called into action, and he had to look sharp about it too, as Bradley wheedled his way to the by-line on County`s left flank, with only County`s keeper twixt him and glory. Did I say `only`? Well I should not have, as Ben was superb leaving his line to fling himself at the ball to thwart what had looked another cert for the blues opponents.
It did not end there though, as the resultant corner saw Connor Hall in on goal sending a blistering shot in that would have beaten any other keeper in the land. Instead Hinchliffe again excelled himself flinging himself upwards and backwards this time to push the ball onto the bar and behind. Palmer did the biz from the kick that followed.
The Palmer defending saw County, at last push up the park, but Mulhern`s shot did not test Belshaw after Jackson had made ground down the left.
This brought Bell on for Thomas, and Bell was quickly in the mix, alongside Minihan who, attacking wise was still doing the biz. But Cowan`s cross was cleared, and Keane again had to come to his team`s rescue as County again gave the ball away in midfield.
Bell missed out on the end of a nifty through ball from Osborne next, prompting some un-called for derogatory remarks aimed in Bell`s direction by someone within the County ranks behind me.
Needless to say , he will have enjoyed the moment, less than a minute later, when County drew level.
Osborne started it, but really had not a prayer really with the defender on the ball just inside the box. Nobody had told Ossie however, and he relentlessly pursued his quarry, waiting to the last moment to steal the pill and push it inside to Bell, who finished with something approaching immaculate precision!
It was 1-1, and I thought that would do all things considered!
A right old bru ha ha was enacted next around the dug outs. It went on for a time with Mr Woods doing precisely nowt to stop it. He was scribbling in his diary but I am guessing it was more about his evening to follow rather than the current action.
One of the Harrogate number had spent copious amounts of time goading County fans. I am guessing this was a repeat of that, but really I could not see from my vantage point.
Eventually play re-started and County looked to build on their unexpected success, but Minihan`s latest run, saw Belshaw make a save to keep it out.
On…..on….it went , with Osborne`s shot appearing to have hit the arm of a defender. The Wetherby Road County following were up in unison “ handball!” but Mr Woods would have none of it!
He did `see` a `foul` though, by Walker on Smith, which was annoying if unsurprising.
The last 10 minutes saw Kirby on for Mulhern, but Bell`s shot not long after cleared the bar with a bit to spare.
Nyal did altogether better almost immediately however, only for him to be mugged by Will Smith. It looked nailed on a pen to me, but not to Mr Woods who awarded the free kick to Town!
That was truly…outstandingly bad refereeing!
County kept plugging away in what was left of normal time, but a bonzo 5 minutes were added and this saw Town pushing forward in an effort to snatch the game.
It did not appear to be working out so, for Town, as County looked to be weathering a run of free kicks and corners, with decent defending. But…..they just could not fashion a reply at all – the result being that eventually one of those clearances came back via Kiernan who took the ball to the by-line before picking Bradley out with a lovely pull back. Bradley did the rest giving the diving Hinchliffe no chance whatsoever of getting to it!
Game over, County had lost, but against a team well motivated and re-energised by the inclusion of Bradley.
No matter, James will sort for sure, and get the team ready for another challenge on Monday with Chesterfield the visitors to Edgeley Park.
Time to redouble our efforts as supporters, and get behind the team, as I am certain you will!
See you Monday!
Harrogate Town line up:-
Belshaw, Fallowfeld, Falkingham, Burrell (G Smith 45), Emmett, Beck ( Stead 79), Kiernan, Bradley, Muldoon, Hall, W Smith.
Subs not used: Cracknell, Leesley, Brown.
Stockport County line up:-
Hinchliffe, Minihan, Palmer, Keane , Cowan, Turnbull, Thomas ( Bell 61 ), Osborne, Mulhern ( Kirby 81), Dimaio ( Walker 52), Jackson.
Subs not used : Ormson, Arthur.
Attendance 1326 ( 526)