Written by Ian Brown
County kept up the good work with a narrow but really quite comfortable win against Darlington today at Blackwell Meadows.
The score line of 1-0 hints at a muck and nettles encounter in which nerves were shredded, but it was not so. Apart from the last 5 minutes when Darlo threw everything at James Gannon`s men in a vain attempt to salvage the match County held sway throughout- defence superbly marshalled by captain Palmer, and forwards constantly fuelled from an almost ceaseless supply line from Darren Stephenson who was a contender for M.O.M.
Another contender being Sam Walker who was on top of almost everything all afternoon, whilst wide men Sam Minihan and Scott Duxbury along with the goal hungry Nyal Bell gave the home side no rest at all. Having run through a fare old list of M.O.M contenders I now dib out and opt instead to say the team deserve maximum credit- it was a very decent team performance!
There was a disappointing start to proceedings however, as County fans were denied access to the bar within the ground. They had used the facility last season and it all went off OK, and I am somewhat at a loss to understand how winding people up by denying them alcohol, beats allowing access to same in these circumstances!
No matter the sun was shining so much that I bravely/foolishly ( delete to taste) opted to shed a layer before the off.
County were straight onto the attack from the whistle as Bell quickly forced a corner. Palmer did his best to put this away, but saw his effort ushered away from goal by one of a clutch of defenders.
A second corner followed soon after as keeper Jon Maddison tipped Walker`s shot over the bar.
County were decidedly on the front foot and Keane looked crestfallen to see his shot, 8 minutes in, clear the bar.
By this time it was apparent that Stephenson was a potent force for County, his powerful run setting up a corner , and another close run thing from that.
Bell did the same shortly after , and it was something of a surprise to see Darlo hit back through experienced striker Reece Styche.
Twice Styche was clear…..the first time saw him scoot into the box with only Hinchliffe to beat. He opted to chip the County man, and paid the full price as Hinchliffe plucked the pill out of the cooling afternoon air with something approaching nonchalance to sort matters.
The long ball was looking likely to serve Darlo well, and one such saw Styche in again, but he fluffed it once more lifting a poor effort over the heads of the County supporters behind the goal.
County responded through Osborne and Bell but both saw shots dealt with relatively comfortably by Maddison.
Then…with 17 minutes gone, another chance surfaced for County`s opponents, as a cross from Luke Trotman picked out Harvey Saunders who was well placed towards the back of the box. He should have got a shot off at least, but he hesitated just long enough for the vigilant Minihan to clear his lines.
Walker had a shot charged down next, but Darlo did their best to disrupt County`s day Dave Syers and Saunders wasting half chances with a shot and header respectively- Saunders perhaps unlucky to see no one in black and white stripes following his effort up.
It went on with a Saunders/ Styche combo just halted by good work from Keane, when County struck with a heartening lethality.
Stephenson started it with another blistering run down the left topped off by a neat pass inside to the waiting Bell. Now Bell was facing away from goal at this point, before turning on the ball and smashing an unstoppable shot home with Maddison a bewildered spectator.
Credit to Darlo , they replied bravely- Syers denied by tenacious County defending and Saunders let down by wayward shooting.
That said….County were by no means done and O`Hanlon did really well to block Bell`s run at the very last gasp.
Then…of course there was still Stephenson for Darlo to contend with- his latest run forcing a corner that again saw Palmer arguably unlucky pressing County`s case in the box.
Oh….and Warburton was inches off scoring with a speculative effort with 8 minutes remaining of the half.
The County pressure continued , and a second goal did not look to be an outlandish expectation as Bell won County yet another corner. This saw Terry Galbraith clear his lines only for the ball to head back into the box again to Bell who chested it down invitingly to Dazzer, who unfortunately lifted his effort over the bar!
The remaining minutes of the half were fairly even, but synonymous by Keane annoying the referee and ending up in his book for one too many `rib ticklers`.
That situation was to prompt JG to replace Keane with the returning Jamie Stott(an altogether understandable precautionary move) but before that the writer headed off to seek sustenance and having criticised Darlo`s approach earlier to alcohol, it was good to see that none rip off prices prevailed in the modest catering unit at the away end…….Tea and Coffee £1, Bottled Water £1 etc etc…it cost me £2-30 for a water, crisps and a Mars bar !
With Stott on for Keane then County set about adding to their first half laurels, and Warburton was unlucky not to get an early corner from a decent run from him.
And yes….Stephenson was still flying….Duxbury….ditto, but having seen Minihan go close from this , a poor County corner then gifted a break to Trotman requiring quick and precise work from Hinchliffe to resolve the issue in County`s favour.
We needed a second goal- a familiar parrot cry of course…but true none the less. Despite the presence of Styche up front ,Darlo did not look that impressive, but they just might get lucky!
Trotman turned defender next stopping a lively Duxbury break with some good work.
County were building a head of steam but without notching that vital second goal, as Minihan then Walker took turns to push the home team onto the back foot.
It went on…Stephenson running at Darlo with a will…winning a corner…that came to nothing……Bell looked on to do rather better though latching onto the ball inside the box. It was not to be however and Nyal`s shot on the turn sent the ball flying over the bar into the away end.
With 10 minutes left Stephenson went off to a good reception being replaced by Thomas , but it was the home side that went close next . I say `went close` but that`s an exaggeration….Styche did well to work the opening only to then send a high …wide and not very handsome shot into the body of disgruntled home specs behind the goal.
With both sides tiring, late on free kicks started to proliferate …Walker soaking up some punishment as he made to punish County`s opponents. We didn`t however and none of the resultant free kicks came to anything.
Darlo had a late series of free kicks too, and with County defending well but content to seek touch or beyond rather than a blue shirt, the late Darlo pressure just came back again.
County spent the last minute of normal time and added time defending deep, and Stott did well smack on 90 minutes to charge down Styche`s shot, following a series of free kicks and corners.
Even Bell was back defending…seen heading clear under pressure a yard from goal- as I said earlier….a real team effort!
Hinchliffe behind all this was as rock solid as usual, and tidied up with aplomb ensuring that Darlo`s late rally came to nought!
Good stuff that and a well- deserved win that sets us up for a charge up the table.
The small matter of the FA Cup tie at Edgeley Park beckons before this, and we can face that one with some confidence now in my view.
Darlington line up:
Maddison, Trotman, O`Hanlon, Elliott, Hughes, Galbraith, Syers( Nicholson 64), Wheatley, Styche, Saunders( Vaulks 71), Thompson
Subs not used : Glover, Burn, Ainge.
Stockport County line up:
Hinchliffe, Minihan, Duxbury, Keane ( Stott 45), Palmer, Cowan, Osborne, Walker, Bell, Warburton ( Dimaio 89), Stephenson ( Thomas 79).
Subs not used; Ormson, Mantack.