[ Written By Ian Brown ]
County came…saw…and all but conquered National Premier promotion contenders AFC Fylde today at Mill Farm – a stadium under a constant battering from rain driven ever more furiously in every which way by the wind.
It mattered not what the elements threw in their direction…County were up for it, and a Wembley final looked decidedly on the cards as James Gannon’s side came away with a more than creditable 0-0 draw against the free scoring Lancastrians, in the FA Trophy semi-final first leg.
It was an excellent showing, and County might have been 3 up inside a 10 minute period early in the first half as the home side struggled to cope with the power of rampaging trio Adam Thomas, Darren Stephenson and Nyal Bell- something they never managed game long!
JG went with Elliott Osborne rather than Matty Warburton , and it worked a treat, Ossie getting through a mountain of work for 90 odd minutes. Keane and Walker completed the midfield picture and it was something of a Rembrandt that left the likes of Danny Rowe bereft of even a semblance of a chance- an almost unbelievable statement bearing in mind the ex Hatter`s scoring record currently.
It was…as I say…an excellent performance, one backed by probably the best display of support I can recall (apart from the flare) from County supporters who greatly outnumbered the locals in a decent crowd of 2600. The singing and chanting was loud and could only have added lead to the collective County pencil faced with another batch of supposedly superior opponents.
County went straight onto the attack from the first whistle, but it was 4 minutes before a chance occurred, and it came via Minihan’s run which scattered white shirts before him like so much wheat in the wind. It was high speed stuff as well, and Neill Byrne did well to deny Stephenson as he shaped to shoot. Arlen Birch did the rest for the shell shocked Fylde side by hooking the resultant corner clear.
This became a recurring feature of Fylde’s game- they were happy to find touch when faced with rampant attacking play from County- which they were frequently.
Thomas’s power was on show next, and within a minute, as Osborne joined in sweeping the ball to Stephenson who again was unlucky not to hit the target.
Things calmed down a tad next , indeed Fylde shaded possession for probably 4 or 5 minutes as they sought a way through what would turn out to be an impenetrable County back line. True….they did create 3 corners in this period, but I was unable to record one single moment of alarm in County ranks as, after much huffing…and some puffing from the men in white, County were able to re-take the initiative established earlier.
And they did it well, with Thomas again running at the home defence with menace and purpose. The pass from Adam picked out Stephenson, then Keane took a hand as the move looked to be possibly ebbing, and Birch again earned browny points with a crucial block to stop Keane opening the scoring.
We were looking in good nick, but it must be said that we were getting nothing from the officials especially the stand side liner, who took 74 minutes before giving County a positive flagging- he was an odious character- using his flag once to rule Bell offside when 2 men in white occupied space twixt him and the keeper.
It went on…Minihan cutting sporadic Fylde raids out and switching the focus with powerful runs that deserved better.
Bell deserved better too, surging onto Osborne’s pass 28 minutes in before cutting a swathe through the left side of the home back line. He was clear…..but Stephenson on the end of it had no luck once again.
The support wasn’t there minutes later as Bell again made light of Fylde’s cover to ping over a cross-his first timer found no takers!
We were heading for half time, and that b@@@@y liner would have us to hell in a handcart…his flag again raised to stop a Stephenson run with not even a hint of offside in the air.
This could have disrupted County pattern, but it did not, and Jay Lynch, the home keeper had a moment to forget as his fumble almost set County up from yet another Stephenson effort from Bell’s pass. A melee ensued from the fumble, but no goal , and again the Lancashire outfit had survived somewhat fortuitously.
Lynch did better next- making a decent save to keep Walker’s free kick out on 42 minutes.
Another minute and Fylde came as close as they would to nicking one, as a corner saw Byrne slide in at the back post from a corner, but fail to make contact with the ball.
Osborne saw a shot charged down , after a neat run from deep by him, with County piling the pressure on, but I reckon no one in the County following were overly worried or disappointed as the team`s went in at the break level at 0-0.
That was pretty good going really and I felt that Fylde …over all…would feel relieved to not be at least one down.
Undaunted…County continued to attack upon the re-start.
Fylde were to get more of the ball in the second 45 , but…crucially without ever looking to have sorted the key to stopping County `s game plan which was working perfectly.
Ryan Croasdale looked to be the home side’s top performer, constantly trying to drive his men forward, but he earned a rare rebuke from the Referee some 10 minutes into the half for a ‘no nonsense’ tackle on Walker.
Nick Haughton had a shot charged down…but this only led to Osborne breaking from deep and threatening mayhem- he was ultimately thwarted by Byrne’s good work.
This did not end County’s interest- the keeper having to punch clear under pressure from one of a few County corners that followed. Duxbury was in overdrive at this point but found the wind carrying his shot high over the bar.
Corner followed corner for County…..then Fylde fashioned a break, but when Hardy ran out of steam it set Osborne off again with a brilliant run from deep that almost put Stephenson in.
We were past the hour mark now and the wonder was how Bell had kept his shirt on, with Byrne constantly striving to pull it from his shoulders. He did it again at this point but Bell still got his pass in, teeing Keane up for a shot the whizzed and fizzed inches over the top.
The penetrative attacking was all coming one way….towards Lynch, and the best that the home back line could do mostly was find touch when under the cosh, which was often.
Another break by Osborne sent Bell clear again and whilst his shot was true, Lynch did enough to see it off and keep it at 0-0.
If there was any criticism to be sent County’s way, it would probably be that the final ball was lacking occasionally….example being Thomas whose run, 70 minutes in, contained all the raw power of those before, and no zing when it came to the ball inside on the end of it, but I nit-pick of course!
Not long after this, I imagined I heard a small buzz of excitement from the home specs ( if I was correct, it would have been the first all afternoon ) as Fylde got a free kick in a reasonably promising position. Buzz…or no buzz….it soon petered out when Hinchliffe punched clear under pressure.
We were into the last 10 minutes now, and whilst County were showing no sign of a let up in their resolve to dominate affairs, Fylde were ringing the personnel changes , their second seeing Philliskirk on for Tasdemir.
But County kept at it- brilliant work by Walker and Duxbury denied a corner by myopic men in black.
No matter…back they came again through Bell and he was no more than an inch or so wide with a powerful drive with 8 minutes left.
With 7 minutes to go, Warburton replaced Thomas , but the next action saw Rowe flagged offside after having stolen possession from Duxbury.
Another throw of the Lancastrian’s dice brought Alex Reid on for James Hardy for Fylde and he shaped pretty well in what remained of the match- teeing Philliskirk up neatly with a chance with just 3 minutes now left. The move ended with Haughton lifting a shot over the bar, but had Philliskirk not elected for a theatrical dive in the box rather than a shot, the substitute`s eventual shot might have proved unnecessary…..ho hum !
Into 3 minutes added time we went with Lynch just managing to push Warburton’s shot onto the angle of bar and post, and Hinchliffe doing well at the other end to keep Reid’s shot out after Haughton had put him through.
Warburton was in the thick of much of the action, along with Duxbury, in the game’s dying embers, but the final half chance fell to Bell , deep in stoppage time, his shot being carried by the wind high and wide.
Game over…..and that was one fine performance from County who look nicely set for the second leg next Saturday on home turf.
I am finding it difficult to decide just what it is that is making County so consistently and irresistibly good. Is it spirit (there’s bags of that for sure)….maybe organisation…..well JG sees to it that that is in place, and he has a team that are playing for each other and supporting one another brilliantly (sitting pitch side with Matty Warburton a foot or so to my right warming up…obviously disappointed not to be playing, but late on still shouting helpful encouraging words to the likes of Nyal Bell- now that sort of stuff is priceless).
No…I cannot pin point just what it is……but I am sure JG knows and will keep them on an even keel on a testing run in at the season`s end, starting next Saturday at Edgeley Park with the FA Trophy second leg!
See you there!
[ Photos from rain-sodden Lancashire can be found here! ]
AFC Fylde line up:-
Lynch, Francis- Angol, Byrne, Tunnicliffe, Hardy ( Reid 86), Croasdale, Rowe, Crawford, Birch ( Odusina 45), Tasdemir ( Philliskirk 79), Haughton.
Subs not used:- Griffiths, Brewitt.
Stockport County line up:-
Hinchliffe, Minihan, Palmer, Stott, Duxbury, Keane, Walker, Thomas ( Warburton 83), Bell, Osborne, Stephenson.
Subs not used :- Ormson, Baines, Cowan, Turnbull.