Harrogate Town 4 Stockport County 1
If the weather was cold and wintry as County took on high flying full timers Harrogate Town at their Wetherby Road gaff last night, the treatment afforded to County`s travelling fans was happily back to its pre 2016/17 best with Town the perfect hosts.
On the park however the treatment meted out by the home side matched the weather precisely as County were beaten 4-1 on what was a disappointing night for Jim Gannon`s side.
At times County looked good and played some neat football, but they found high scoring Town sharper and better where it mattered most- at the sharp end.
Put simply Harrogate looked what they were….a good team honed and made better by being able to work full time. They are second in the division and score for fun, and we saw why last night.
It might be opined that the only success for County was the goal scored by new dad Chris Smalley…..but that is too simplistic.
There were a few consolations.... County as a whole kept working to try and get something from the game even at 4-1, whilst the likes of Stephenson and Thomas again gave us 90 odd minutes of wholehearted endeavour, and department by department there was not that much, skills wise, twixt the teams, except for that sharpness element and Town had it in barrow loads.
Last night though I was still hoping for the best at 7.45 and looking for a unlikely County win.
The early play was lively as both sides probed for openings.
Smalley did well to head clear as George Thomson pinged over a cross from the right.
Oswell, Stopforth and Thomas were looking interested for County at this point, but we already got a glimpse of just what we had in store as a County raid broke down and Harrogate feasted on the resultant possession. More precisely Dom Knowles did the feasting and his pace and control took him clear, only for his finishing to undo his good work.
The 7th minute saw County stir significantly as Stephenson sent Thomas on a run. Adam`s cross was decent, but Oswell had Warren Burrell on his case and the shot was blocked.
Another of those pivotal moments I fancy I see came 10 minutes in, and it involved County`s latest recruit Jamie Stott. Stott seized possession just inside the Town half from a quickly taken County free kick. A couple of paces forward and he unleashed a fierce drive that keeper James Belshaw just managed to push around the post. Had that gone in!
With thirteen minutes in the can, the battles being fought, so far, were panning out fairly evenly. Oswell and Burrell were locked in a tense dual- Burrell was sticking to Jason like a second skin, and was arguably shading that one, whilst overall ,so far anyway….County`s defence were manning up quite nicely against some pretty sharp moves from a clutch of home forwards. Knowles and Jack Emmett were probably the pick of the home players, but not by that much.
Sixteen minutes in, and I still felt optimistic, as Thomson tracked back to just dish Oswell as he made a run into the box. A corner resulted, but we wasted it , and that was not good, we needed to at least get the basics right!
Another 4 minutes and I had something to cheer, but it was at the wrong end….as Ormson pulled off an excellent diving save to keep a Knowles shot out, after he had been put in by Joe Leesley.
With Harrogate getting the whiff of blood, a series of corners then followed….but no goal…so I was not unduly concerned………. until the 24th minute, when County gave the ball away, allowing Emmett to head for goal from half way. No one in County white could get near Emmett as he made ground before firing his shot off- a neat effort that sped into the net past Ormson`s despairing dive!
Harrogate were beginning to warm to their task, and Emmett was unlucky to see an effort come back out off one of either Ormson or Stott on the line.
It continued with Town`s pacy incisive breaks beginning to make some headway against County`s solid back line. The highly rated Simon Ainge added his ten pennyworth next, taking quick advantage when a Stopforth/ Winter raid broke down. Ainge was on target with his effort but so was Ormson who kept it at 0-1 with a really good save.
Twice more, Ormson was called on to make saves with Town queuing for a pot at goal- the pressure only relaxing when Knowles sent his shot wide after Ben Parker had piled into the County back line via oodles of space down the left.
Then suddenly….everything seemed bearable again as County equalised. A decent move saw Ball`s effort deflected for a corner, which was the signal for County to muster in front of goal, and first to the ball was Chris Smalley, who fired home to give the County fans behind that goal something to cheer and shout about!
There were 9 minutes left of the half when that one went in, but any renewed optimism was short lived, as it took Town just 3 minutes to snatch their lead back. A free kick conceded just inside the County half started the rot, and Thomson finished it with a cool strike that offered Ormson no chance at all!
Credit to County…they tried to reply, but no one could get remotely close to replicating Thomson`s finish at the other end when a stupendous tackle by Winter broke up a potential Town break, and Thomas crossed into the box.
Winter was certainly applying himself at this juncture, only to find Burrell on Oswell`s case again as he attempted to do something with Winter`s pass.
There was time for Ormson to pull off another save as an Ainge header sped goal ward from point blank range, and for Burrell to deny Oswell again with a neat tackle, and that was it for the first half, and remarkably I still felt County could get something from this game, but we needed an early goal in the second half, to ruffle the home feathers!
The re-start saw Scott Duxbury on for Jason Oswell, and he was soon in tandem with Darren Stephenson probing the home defence- Stephenson going close twice in rapid order.
Ball joined in and he too would argue he was unlucky (twice). I am not sure….maybe the first time, as the keeper spoilt Ball`s run from deep with a decent save, but on the second occasion his shot missed the target in similar circumstances. You make your own luck probably, so Ball had to keep on trying.
County had done pretty well in the first 10 or so minutes of the second half, but no goal had materialised, which was crucial, and even more crucially, with 58 minutes gone, County gave the ball away again allowing Knowles to treat us to a really good goal, as he stepped inside and changed from right to left foot before sending the sweetest of shots home, making it 3 -1 to Harrogate.
Beyond the hour, McKenna came on for O`Halloran, but if Stephenson was looking to be County`s best bet ….getting the ball to him was a problem at times, as Town pounced on the slightest County mistake. Emmett did just that, after 68 minutes, but Ormson pulled off another fine save to stop him.
That was good…what followed wasn`t…..and it was 4-1 to the hosts as Terry Kennedy then rose unchallenged to send a powerful header into the net, from the resultant corner!
That was dispiriting stuff….Stopforth and Thomas both had shots charged down after this, and Stephenson worked himself an opening, only to snatch at it and blast his effort over the bar, with Belshaw compromised.
Every time Harrogate headed up the park now they looked likely to do something, and Stott did well to make a late/late saving block with Emmett and Knowles combining to damage us.
With Dixon on for Stopforth late on, County looked to at least try to salvage something from the game , but the initial effort only brought more angst as Ball darted clear only to be flagged off side.
Belshaw`s goal came under fire in the next minutes with Stephenson and McKenna both forcing corners that had the home keeper punching clear under some pressure.
Chances came at both ends though…Stott blocking Thomson at one end…..Dixon close at the other…………….Thomas storming clear but blocked……Smalley doing well with a great late block…..Falkingham stopping a Stephenson effort.
It went on…Belshaw somehow keeping a Thomas shot out, on the end of another selfless Thomas run, and Duxbury shooting high and wide from the corner.
Thomas just kept on running….running…..until deep into added time it ended when a Thomas shot struck an outstretched Town hand just outside the box.
There was time for a free kick, and for me to position myself behind the netting to catch Jimmy Ball`s kick nestling in the net, but alas that did not happen as somehow Ball managed to send the kick out of the ground.
That was the end of the disappointment thankfully as the referee Ricky Wooton blew for time.
I maintain then that the difference we saw last night was down to full time v part time, and in last night`s case a very very good full time team, in fact I thought that Harrogate were as good a side as we have met this term, and yet for skills and application County matched them at times.
It was just that extra edge in sharpness that full time training afforded Harrogate that was the crucial difference.
County will continue to be at a disadvantage until Jim Gannon`s plan to go full time are put in place.
We can trust JG to implement these plans appropriately, but in the interim there may be more pain as County come up against the other full time outfits in this division -starting with York this Saturday.
They will need our support- see you there!
[ Pictures from the game are here! ]
Harrogate Town line up
Belshaw, Fallowfield( Thewlis 52), Parker, Falkingham, Kennedy( Agnew 70), Burrell, Thomson, Emmett, Ainge, Knowles( Kitching 73), Leesley.
Subs not used: Cracknell, Beck.
Stockport County line up
Ormson, Cowan, O`Halloran( Mc Kenna 62), Ball, Smalley, Stott, Thomas, Winter, Oswell( Duxbury 46), Stopforth( Dixon 75), Stephenson.
Subs not used: Hinchliffe, Warburton.