[ Written by Ian Brown ]
The struggle in situations like this…is to keep a grip on reality and not lose yourself in a specious wave of angst-ridden emotion.
With County just one point up on Chorley at the top of the division, the tension was rife today at Edgeley Park, where County, who had been unbeaten in the league campaign since September, came unstuck at the hands of Alun Armstrong’s excellent Blyth Spartans side.
County’s defeat was a narrow one….1-0, but the north easterner’s win was well-deserved none the less in a game in which the away side established command of the areas that mattered on the park and never really looked like relinquishing their hold on same throughout 90 odd nerve shredding minutes.
The unwary amongst us, possibly buoyed by County’s superb form, might have taken the Blyth challenge lightly. That would have been decidedly unwise as Spartans own form of late has been impressive, and their fans filled the pubs of Edgeley telling us so before the game, so we were warned.
JG needed no prior warning, setting the Blues up with a touch of added steel in midfield, where Keane joined Walker and captain Turnbull. This meant Warburton was on the bench, and we did miss the link he provides twixt defence and forwards ……..and his goal threat, but there was plenty of threat emanating from the visitors, so a ‘gung ho’ approach was not necessarily the correct one to adopt come 3 o’clock.
County did turn the revs up a touch after the break when Warburton emerged with Osborne in place of Keane and Cowan, and late substitute Frank Mulhern did illuminate his 10 minutes or so on the park with one effort that twanged the bar with Peter Jameson, an excellent if somewhat irritating keeper, beaten, but overall …try as they might…and they most certainly did…..the Blues could not find a way through a rock solid Spartans back line in which Nathan Buddle impressed.
Then…..just as I was tempted by that aforementioned onrushing wave of angst-ridden emotion……I realised that dear old Altrincham had nicked two late goals to beat Chorley 5-3 , improving our goal difference at the top of the pile!
Just about 2.59 we rather sensed that today just might be a difficult one – it is not the first time this term that the opposition has forced us to attack the Cheadle End first, but it felt like a body blow when Spartans did it on this occasion.
With Spartans playing the ball about in lively fashion early on, County were soon on the back foot, Maguire forcing Palmer to concede a corner. Hinchliffe dealt with this comfortably but we had already had a glimpse of what to expect from the visitors whose supporters were in good voice at the far end of the Pop Side.
Eventually, a series of free kicks edged County up the park, but Walker’s lofted ball into the box saw Stott no more than inches from putting the chance away.
The fifth minute brought Blyth a rather odd free kick, as Tom Parsons (a none too wonderful custodian of the whistle) penalised Duxbury’s choice of after shave. County did defend this well however, and almost turned matters to their advantage when Hinchliffe went long sending Thomas darting deep into the visitors half. The lay off from Thomas was neat, but the strike by the onrushing Stephenson went inches wide.
That was the seventh minute…..another three and Hinchliffe went for a reprise and this time it was Bell on the end of things. Great…..he was heading for goal…he had company….but it was another opportunity……and then it wasn’t as the Danny Stand liner flagged him ( erroneously ) offside.
It went on…..County ….with Duxbury and Thomas providing impetus down the flanks, gently working at increasing the pressure on the north easterners goal, but the best that Turnbull and Bell could come up with ended with Thomas just missing out.
Duxbury was looking good at this point and Rivers did well to stop the rot albeit at the cost of a corner, that brought Stott centre stage with a spectacular effort that sadly went the way of others before it.
Beyond 15 minutes, and the pressure from Blyth started to increase and I thought , when Stephenson ended a couple of minutes of determined play ( in County’s half ) from Spartans, that the angst was over, but it wasn`t as Cowan lost possession to Dale who really should have done better than he did, instead lifting a poor effort high over the bar.
County survived that to hit their opponents on the break, only to lose the ball again , this time to David Atkinson who held onto it and ran the ball deep into Blue territory before releasing it to Kieran Green. County were on the rack, and needed the ball but just could not keep hold of it eventually allowing Dan Maguire to net from close in to give Blyth the lead.
Cowan went close…and Duxbury continued to peg away in search of a chink in the Blyth armour, but with 2 …sometimes 3 men on him…that chink was increasingly hard to find.
The blues were definitely on Blyth`s case, but a goal continued to elude them – Jameson doing well at one point to tip a shot from Walker over the bar.
Nothing came from the corner, but County did get a free kick ( and Atkinson a booking) after he had joined Nicholson and Rivers in their endeavour to thwart Duxbury. So…..the pressure was on Blyth again, and Turnbull did get a shot off, only to see it deflected for another corner , which Bell headed wide from Walkers prompt.
There was seemingly no way through the Blyth back line, which was something that County could work on, but they were also being harried into losing possession by the visitors and this was not helping the blues cause at all- indeed their angst might have increased more than a notch or two had Atkinson not wasted a gift by failing to test Hinchliffe, sending his shot harmlessly over the top.
Blyth were camped in the County half , with 5 minutes of the half left, and a second goal to them did not look at all unlikely as Hinchliffe was forced to make a terrific point blank save to deny Maguire, with the green and white striped Spartans playing the ball about with a speed and accuracy that was worrying to watch.
Driven on by Palmer`s refusal to allow attacks to break down, County kept trying to square the circle, but the closest effort , from Duxbury, climbed up and over the bar from close in to end the first half with Blyth still 1-0 up.
The re-start saw Osborne and Warburton on for Cowan and Keane for the blues who were clearly now set up better to go on the offensive.
Corners did start to pile up for County in the opening 10 minutes of the half- Stephenson thwarted by the liners upraised flag, but there was no raised flag next as play switched ends , and with County unwisely , if justifiably, appealing for offside, Maguire went about his business sending Rivers in on goal. It looked all over 0-2 …..but somehow Rivers contrived to hit the underside of the bar with his shot- a very definite escape!
More pressure ensued from Blyth , relieved eventually by good work from Palmer and Stephenson, who was inches from reaching the ball on the end of a Ossie / Warby/ Dazzer combo not long after.
Beyond the hour, and County were trying to wrest control back , but Warburton must have winced to see Jameson save his shot from Bell`s left wing cross.
But it was probably JG who was wincing not long after as County fed the Blyth forward push with slack work…..one minute a rushed and inaccurate clearance from Hinchliffe…..then a mid air mix up twixt Thomas and Turnbull aided the visitors cause. Thankfully Blyth did not take full advantage ….but how long could we rely on that state of affairs appertaining?
There was real pressure on the County goal now, and Turnbull did well to get a head to a Blyth free lick whipped in at pace from the right touchline. He did well to send Thomas clear moments later too, but then County could not make anything of the corner that followed , and that was that.
With County still under the cosh, Mulhern came on for Bell with just 10 minutes of normal time left- Frank slamming the hoardings in disgust after Jameson had grabbed his opening shot/ cum cross.
Jameson was busy now…up to punch Duxbury`s corner out under pressure, but he was nowhere at all when Mulhern again rattled his cage almost smack on 90 minutes. Despite an unlikely angle …Frank managed to slam his shot onto the cross bar. Did County deserve that to go in? Possibly not….but we needed it to….and it stayed out!
Jameson kept topping our angst levels up meanly – holding onto Walker`s shot from the edge of the box, on 91 minutes……..disappointing Thomas a minute or so later after he had pretty much burst a gut getting down the flank ( from his now RB spot) to ping one over – the keeper clutching the pill to his chest to cheers from the Blyth support to my left.
That was pretty much it…..County did keep trying, whilst Blyth were increasingly content to aim clearances towards the next County, and soon enough time ran out and the visitors had their win, which was well deserved!
Still in there though and we will realise tomorrow morning that with all the top 3 losing, and Chorley losing by 2 , our goal difference was the only top 3 change- it was better!
There is absolutely no doubt you will get behind the team at Chorley- they will need that to be so!
See you there then!
Stockport County line up:-
Hinchliffe, Cowan ( Osborne 45), Palmer, Stott, Duxbury, Keane ( Warburton 45) , Walker, Turnbull, Thomas, Bell ( Mulhern 80) , Stephenson.
Subs not used ; Ormson, Minihan.
Blyth Spartans line up:-
Jameson, Nicholson, Liddle, Green ( Horner 73), Buddle, Watson, Rivers, Mullen, Maguire ( Wrightson 86), Atkinson, Dale.
Subs not used ; Armstrong, Butler, Hutchinson.