[Written by Ian Brown]
County extended their current unbeaten run to nine games last night, with a well deserved 1-0 win, thanks to Darren Stephenson’s third goal in three consecutive games against a gritty Leamington side.
Jamie Hood epitomised the home sides grit – constantly thwarting County raids, particularly in the first half. If he headed dangerous crosses out once, he did it umpteen times.
He needed to, as Stephenson, Thomas, Minihan and Duxbury relentlessly pinged over tasty morsels for others to feed on. Only one such morsel was converted into the gold of a goal, and that came from Thomas. OK, it took a deflection en route, but that was quickly forgotten as Darren Stephenson headed home.
That was 8 minutes from the end of a first half in which, the Brakes did well to contain a County side clearly intent on continuing their current impressive run.
There were around 350 County supporters in the ground, as I made an unsuccessful search for sustenance before kick-off.
It was pleasing to see Leamington forget segregation and allow the two sets of fans to mingle, which they did amicably as far as I could see. It did not escape my notice however that an attempt was made by stewards to capture the County drum, as they have done before in the past siting ‘neighbours complaints’ (see pic of the Brakes closest neighbour here!). Thankfully common sense prevailed which was a relief.
It was a relief also, after the Flyer had driven through blizzard conditions from SK3 to way beyond Brum, to find it was positively balmy as the teams came out.
County were unchanged from Saturday, and they quickly went on the attack, starting where they had left off so emphatically against York.
Minihan was in imperious form straight from the off, linking up with Warburton first. County’s first corner followed, and Hood showed us his heading ability for the first time as a result.
A somewhat baffling free kick then put County briefly under pressure, but this was ushered away from the danger zone nicely by County sending Minihan on another raid into enemy territory. A quick one/two with Thomas, and Minihan saw a shot charged down, and Mulhern was unlucky, seeing his shot blocked a yard out.
Corners kept mounting up as County continued to pile the pressure on – Hood again doing well to head clear after Mulhern and Warburton had combined to force a corner.
It was something of a procession really, and only Hood’s head seemed to stand twixt County and two or three, and he delighted the locals by heading Duxbury’s inviting cross out under pressure.
Fourteen minutes in and no one could stop Mulhern’s dash but his header flew inches wide.
Then Warburton dazzled with a run through the middle that was ruined by hand ball by a defender as County’s top scorer sped goal ward. The free kick was nicely positioned, but after the mandatory pre kick mime from Warburton and Walker, the former sent the kick wide.
Then we had the first keeper/Frank moment as the vastly experienced, and highly entertaining Tony Breeden remembered all the facebook vids he had seen with Frank steeling improbable goals from nothing. Breeden made some good saves last night, but his efforts to ensure he did not join the list of Franky-duped keepers were undone by a nervous tick as Frank came within a yard or so of him. It was an ‘oooo’ moment for sure, but old Tone survived, just!
Another minute and Stephenson’s pass to Mulhern was a tad too strong, but Lane was forced to concede a throw. The ball flew from Minihan to Keane and on to Mulhern from this but his header missed out by a foot.
The pressure from County was unending and Mace settled for conceding yet another corner as Stephenson surged through down the left. Palmer went for the corner but was beaten to it by Hood, who increased the irritation by foiling Mulhern in the next attack.
Murphy fashioned some relief for the Brakes, 30 minutes in, and his cross to the back post promised much until Keane saw the danger off with a cool intervention.
The 33 rd minute saw County re-double their efforts, and Warburton looked anguished to see his neatly struck shot turned around the post brilliantly by the diving Breeden.
Obeng and Edwards did well for Leamington next, but they needed to produce an extra something to beat this County defence and they couldn’t and again Hinchliffe was un-troubled.
Back came County through Thomas, but no one could turn his cross into a goal worthy effort, and disappointment was still lingering, when Thomas nicked the ball again and headed off down the right flank in his usual impressive style. Inevitably a cross followed, but it took a slight deflection off Lane (I think) before spiralling upward towards a clutch of white shirted blues in the box. Stephenson was first to it and made no mistake heading past Breeden into the net to give County the lead.
County continued to look for goals as the game headed for half time, but with just 2 minutes remaining of play, Leamington forced a corner, and from this a chance surfaced. The kick was delivered to the back post where Obeng was on lurking duty. He really should have done better than he did, but instead he shot tamely wide.
The half ended with applause for a fine run from Stephenson, another Hood moment from a County corner, and a second attack of nerves for Breeden as Frank came into view.
It was suitably amusing end to a satisfactory half – a goal or two more might have been good insurance against a fight back from a side that is notoriously hard to beat.
We had another 45 minutes in which to sort that out and this County side gives you every confidence that they might just oblige.
And, I had approximately 15 minutes to obtain sustenance and I did this impressively purchasing a magnificent hot dog…real sausage… fresh-ish bread…. delicious onions, and just £3. I was set up nicely for the second half!
County opened on the front foot- Walker and Mulhern seeing shots charged down, and Stephenson seeing his deflected for another corner. Thomas took this,but Stott’s header went narrowly wide.
It continued in much the same vein as a powerful run by Stephenson teed Mulhern up nicely, but County’s number nine was unlucky to see his shot miss out. If Frank was unlucky then Stephenson was more so next, as a push when Dazzer was about to size up a strike, was missed by the referee next. Stephenson was virtually unplayable now and his cross, on 58 minutes, deserved better than Mulhern’s strike which sent the ball flying high over the bar.
Keane meanwhile has impressed me greatly of recent months – commanding as a defensive mid fielder and inventive going forward. He had two strikes around the hour mark – neither being successful, one saved by the keeper, the other watched by that very same person as it climbed up and over the bar.
Into the last 20 minutes we went with Leamington ringing the changes, but it was still County asking the questions, their zillionth corner resulting in Palmer’s header going out off the shoulder of a defender. The only question that remained unanswered however was just why the ref gave a goal kick for that last action?
Ho hum, .it was ever thus!
The County pressure continued with Breeden surprised by Minihan’s effort that ended up caressing the bar. If the keeper’s pulse was racing from that one, it did not show as he pulled off an immaculate save next to keep Warburton’s impressive volley out! A response from Leamington was overdue, but when it came County had the men to deal with same, Palmer blocking a run impassively, Walker doing likewise turning defence into attack.
A Brakes free kick came and went, as County rang the changes bringing Ian Ormson on for Jordan Keane, err sorry no, I was listening to the PA, Cowan for Warburton, and Osborne for Thomas. Less than 10 minutes remained, and Leamington were definitely upping the effort to nick one, but despite getting a free kick in a decent spot, it went wide and any chance was gone.
JG took Stephenson off with 5 minutes left, and he went off to an ovation, Kirby taking his place and getting involved straight off winning a free kick near the by-line off a less than greatly chuffed Junior English.
Stott got a powerful header in from the free kick, but it carried the bar to the disappointment of the lively County following who were giving their team excellent support.
It was panto time next, and I had wondered, nay marvelled at how well Breeden had contained his usual flair for the vaudevillian!
But, I had forgotten about him and Frank and the duo came together in the most innocuous of manners near the edge of the box. Cue the vaudevillian coming out in old Tone as he outrageously mimed being punched on the jaw, falling to the ground. It was supremely unimpressive stuff from the rotund keeper, but the referee bought some of it showing yellows to both.
Leamington got the free kick for that which Breeden was allowed to take half a pitch length forward from where the fracas took place as the referee struggled to make it back up the park. Only a corner came from this and Mace headed that wide so we went into added time still 1-0 up.
A fair amount of pressure was exerted on County in the last minutes, but they never ever looked likely to concede, indeed at one point Kirby broke from deep scattering defenders before him as he went, eventually reaching the by-line where a precocious bit of work won him a corner.
The final minute or so saw Breeden save well as a shot came at him through a forest of bodies in the box, and as the pressure mounted so the first verses of the ‘win away’ ditty pierced the cooling night air.
Soon the game was over, the points were won, and won well!
This continues to be impressive stuff from James Gannon’s team, who just grow and grow in stature.
The supporters too are doing their bit and they were very supportive last night! Back to it again on Saturday with a visit to FCUM.
I hope to catch you all there!
Leamington FC line up ;-
Breeden, English, Lane, Clarke ( Wilding 65), Mace, Hood, Murphy, Flanagan ( Taylor 70), Bishop, Edwards, Obeng.
Subs not used ; Bowen, Gittings, Newey.
Stockport County line up :-
Hinchliffe, Minihan, Palmer, Stott, Duxbury, Keane, Walker, Thomas ( Osborn 83), Mulhern, Warburton ( Cowan 79), Stephenson( Kirby 85).
Subs not used : Ormson, Bell.
Attendance : 604