Stockport County 1 Alfreton Town 0
County earned 3 vital points today with a hard fought win against Alfreton Town at Edgeley Park.
The margin of victory.... 1-0....reflected the amount of graft the blues were required to put in to overcome a Town side that battled ( a little too over zealously at times) from the first blast of Referee James Bell's whistle to the last.
The first blast was delayed ,by 30 minutes, until 3.30 as the visitors had had a spot of difficulty with the nations motorway system. Once on the premises however, they put in 90 odd minutes to thwart County's best efforts to put the game beyond them.
County, without ever reaching Saturday's heights at Ashton, did do enough to suggest that more than one goal would come their way along with the points though.
Certainly that was my thoughts as the teams came out for the second half with Kallum Mantack's goal separating them, but County, who had had to sacrifice captain Harry Winter( booked ) in favour of Bohan Dixon at the re-start, had to make another......forced change not long after when Mantack was the victim of an outrageous tackle from Cleron Keane.
Adam Thomas came on for Mantack , and he performed up to his usual standard, that is to say rather well, but County's rhythm had been disrupted and there lies the reason....possibly..... for the lack of further goals....that and Town's increased output.
I made Stopforth , Cowan and Duxbury County's top performers, with Hinchliffe in there as well, but will not argue with the sponsors who plumped for Darren Stephenson, who looks back to something approaching his best, after a difficult time with injuries.
There were no changes in County's starting line up then, as ...at last ......the game got underway in front of another bumper gate of over 3000.
The early action saw County in charge probing the visitors back line assiduously, none more so than Harry Winter whose neat through ball teed Kallum Mantack up with a half chance. Mantack's shot went wide .
Euan Mulhearn offered a reply for Alfreton, but County's defence, with O'Halloran in alert form, coped well enough to avert the danger.
O'Halloran then got forward sending Oswell clear, but , with Stephenson nicely placed to add a finish, County's number nine sent his cross flying high over and beyond the ex Chorley Hatter.
Mantack then won County a corner, and this probably gave County their best chance so far, but the score stayed 0-0 as Smalley's back post header flew over the top.
Oswell went close not long afterwards, and another Mantack run won us another corner after a really neat move involving Stopforth, Duxbury and Oswell. The kick was again not bad at all , but Oswell saw his header blocked, the raid ending with keeper Chris Elliott making a good diving save to deny Stopforth.
Fifteen minutes had gone by, and County were giving every impression of winding up for something special, we just needed someone to apply a finish to some of the decent approach play.
In that respect Stephenson did his best ...darting clear - his pass across the box arriving nicely with Mantack at the back post. It looked a shoo-in.....but Mantack could not force it home, the shot coming back out off a post.
Hmm.....unlucky.....but Stephenson re-doubled his efforts to make luck irrelevant, setting Mantack up once again with a pin point cross that reached him with impressive precision.
A chance...yes.....surely.... and Mantack did his best...but again it was not quite good enough, the shot coming back out off a defender. Cowan....following up....tried his luck faring precisely as had Mantack, the period of pressure ceasing when Duxbury sent his shot straight at the keeper.
Twenty minutes had elapsed now, and it was still 0-0, and whilst pretty much all the meaningful attacking was coming from the blues, County had to guard against complacency, and in this regard Cowan, who again I must say impresses me more and more every time I see him play, showed he was on the button doing really well to keep Craig Westcarr's ball to the back post from the lurking duo Euan Mulhearn and Brandon Daniels.
That was really good, but when County executed a break from this ,via Stopforth, he was crudely brought down by Thomas Allen.
Allen was booked of course but the foul declared a dividend in that the County free kick was cleared and another dangerous moment had gone away!
There was danger from Alfreton next, as County spilled possession in their own half. Mulhearn was the beneficiary but could not quite take full advantage of the fact- Hinchliffe denying him with a brave bit of work with his goal in peril.
That was , by a country mile, Alfreton's best chance so far to make a dent in County's armoury, and Hinchliffe had again come up trumps when the chips were down- possibly a pivotal moment in the game...had that gone in......
County replied quickly via Ball, but his shot was saved smartly by Elliott.
Half time was nearing now, but despite Stephenson and Oswell combining neatly , and Duxbury going close with another run down the left, it was still 0-0 ...and worse...Harry Winter had been booked.
County , for all their possession...just could not find a finish to round it all off....and then they did...
Just 3 minutes remained of the half, as Stephenson powered his way past a forest of red shirts to the by-line, from whence he replicated his earlier work in picking Mantack out, just beyond the back post, with another precision pass.
Mantack had another chance to shine, and did not disappoint....stepping inside neatly ...seeing his initial effort blocked ...before smacking the pill home in emphatic fashion.
That was just what we needed, but Alfreton came back at County in the few minutes that remained of the half, without unduly troubling the County rear guard .
It was 1`-0 then at the break, and JG acted promptly on the re-start replacing Winter with Dixon- not exactly like for like, but I could see the sense in the move, which had avoided a `Winter second card' situation.
County opened brightly with Allan doing well to stop a Mantack/ Oswell move. Pressure continued from the blues but it was alarming to see Keane launch himself into Mantack laying him out. It was a poor tackle and ended the County scorer's part in the game.
Allan by contrast received a yellow and continued to play albeit to the constant accompaniment of loud booing from the County faithful.
Thomas came on for Mantack, as County had defending to do...defending that saw Hinchliffe do well to punch clear under pressure. Tom Platt lashed one over the bar to ensure that we did not take a County win for granted, and we were definitely not doing that- Elliott doing good work to deny Stephenson on the break.
Cowan and Duxbury kept the pressure on the visitors with some good work on either flank, but the alarm bells rang, 67 minutes in, with the sight of Ryan Jennings breaking clear. He looked in decent nick to test Hinchliffe at least, but instead dragged his shot wide of his left hand post.
There were now 20 minutes left to play, and I was getting somewhat irritated by the fact that Alfreton were increasingly inclined to `leave their foot in'- Duxbury being the latest victim- Platt the offender.
Duxbury was warming to his task though ,Allan keeping Dixon from Scott's cross one minute, and the weight of red shirts blocking his route to goal the next!
County still looked the `team most likely to' but that nagging doubt did lurk that maybe...just maybe....Town would sneak one......
The 73rd minute saw Mulhearn usher in just such visions - his break slicing through County's defences alarmingly easily.
It was 1-1 for sure...and then it wasn't as Hinchliffe pulled off a wondrously nerveless save to save the day for his team. Another pivotal moment?........I think so !
Alfreton were trying hard to get that elusive equaliser, but faced with a resolute County defence backed up by the inspirational Hinchliffe... that was easier said than achieved- and indeed they were indebted to Sam Topliss whose keen defensive work stopped a Dixon / Stephenson cooperation as the pair tried to add a finish to Thomas's good work.
With Town getting ever more spritely, we needed precision work from County , but instead Ball gave away a needless free kick by climbing all over Allan.
County had been attacking....now they had a free kick to defend- this they did well enough, but that could just have cost us!
Mc Kenna came on for the last 7 minutes for Stephenson who left to a rousing ovation.
The applause had barely died down when Platt thudded into Thomas in the most reckless of fashions. County got a free kick, and Platt should have got his second yellow.....but he didn`t....just a spineless lecture from Mr Bell.
After the vaudevillian excesses of David Underwood on Saturday, I found Mr B altogether better....not great...but better....but he bottled this one.... and got it wrong!
Mc Kenna was doing well for County as County sought to add a game ending second goal, but the third of 3 McKenna crosses in this period , probably his best, saw Oswell head tamely into Elliott's arms from smack in front!
There was time for a reply from Town though, and Hinchliffe added to his honours with a diving save to keep Mulhearn's shot out, as did Cowan who cut off a late/late Town break at source.
That was excellent, and with Thomas and McKenna still taking the pressure off the County back line, with good runs, the blues negotiated 4 minutes added time with lead intact and no further alarms.
We needed that win, and those points were as welcome as they were deserved.
On to New Year's Day and the return fixture, see you at the Impact Arena then !
[ A chilly EP can be seen in these photos ]
Stockport County line up
Hinchliffe, Cowan, Smalley, O'Halloran, Duxbury, Ball, Winter( Dixon 46), Mantack( Thomas 55), Oswell, Stopforth, Stephenson( McKenna 83).
Subs not used: Ormson, Clarke.
Alfreton Town line up
Elliott, Topliss, Woods, Keane, Shiels, Allan, Jennings, Platt, Mulhearn, Westcarr( Burdett 78), Daniels.
Subs not used; Johnson, Sharp, Cover, Disley.