A Bridge Too Far For The NIne Men
League visits to Edgeley Park by County's near-neighbours from SK15 have been notoriously memorable in the last couple of years - and in a good way for the Hatters. Successive February El Clasico contests in SK3 did, after all, feature the sending off of Sean McConville, once of this parish, in 2014, and, earlier during 2015, a last-gasp effort bundled in by Nathan Woolfe to ensure victory by the odd goal in seven.
The County faithful, with hindsight, would no doubt have settled this time around for an uneventful match - provided, of course, that its outcome maintained the unbeaten opening run through a demanding set of August fixtures - and for nothing more remarkable than the pleasantly surprising shards of Bank Holiday weekend sunshine illuminating EP prior to kick-off.
In the event, the sun stuck around for the full ninety minutes. Unfortunately, two straight red cards in the first half meant that not all of County's players did. And, in spite of brave resistance by those remaining, the Hatters suffered their first defeat of the season.
Neil Young was able to select the starting line-up from a fully fit squad - including Paul Connolly and Jake Kirby, who had both joined the Hatters since the draw at Nuneaton a week previously, and Ian Ormson, whose return to County, following his release earlier in the Summer, had been announced earlier in the day.
But with County's next match a matter of only two days way, there was also an opportunity to stand down and rest some regular players - and so it was that the team taking to the field showed four changes. Connolly went straight in for a debut at right back, instead of Danny Morton, while Joe Garvin stood in for Gareth Roberts on the opposite flank. Abs Baggie also returned, following his own injury-hit start to the campaign. The Sierra Leonean international, together with Sefton Gonzales - playing as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation - replaced Lamin Colley and Kay Odejayi, both of whom were named among the substitutes.
Ormson did not feature on the bench, although Kirby was included. And the loanee from Tranmere had not long to wait before being called into action - replacing Andy Robinson on just five minutes, after the latter had picked up a knock consequent upon a late challenge.
Stalybridge - no longer including in the ranks any of those former Hatters who had plied their trade at Bower Fold last term - had made much of the running in the game's opening minutes, and continued to do so as County sought to re-adjust following the early substitution. That said, chances were at a premium, and the visitors offered little initial threat in the final third. A shot by Daniel Wisdom from just inside the home area presented Danny Hurst with a routine dive and stop, whilst Adam Farrell's effort from distance flew well wide of the left upright.
County's best move in the course of the first half-hour saw Garvin tenaciously work the ball out of defence to Lewis Montrose, who teed up Kirby on the edge of the Celtic box. But the debutant's brief chance of early-County-career glory was dashed, as he saw his attempt on goal curl wide of the right-hand post.
Just as the Hatters appeared to be settling into the game, they enjoyed a real let-off, as a Farrell free kick from twenty yards struck the underside of the bar before kindly opting to bounce away from the line. Farrell was soon presented with another dead-ball opportunity in a similar position, and opted on this occasion to chip a slower delivery that Hurst scrambled to parry clear.
With fewer than fifteen minutes remaining before the break, and within the space of just five, the contest witnessed two dramatic twists in the form of separate incidents that culminated in straight red cards for Glenn Rule and for Hurst.
Rule, whose wonder-volley at Nuneaton only seven days earlier had been the toast of Stockport, and of YouTube audiences far further afield, was the first to receive his marching orders, following his reaction to a scything touchline-challenge by Aaron Chalmers. Hurst then doubled the player-deficit after seeming to misjudge a catch, which led to handling of the ball outside his area.
Five minutes that shook the match, then. For County, they came and went in something of a surreal blur. But, as the general furore around them subsided, the cold facts were that the Hatters had been reduced to ten men - and did not have a goalkeeper on the bench. Karl Ledsham, who himself had only been introduced as a substitute just before the dismissal of Hurst, donned the Number One shirt and gloves, and prepared himself for a rather different afternoon's work than he might have been anticipating.
Ledsham's first task was, thankfully, to take a goal kick - once the free kick awarded to Stalybridge following Hurst's infringement had been blasted high into the Cheadle End by Farrell. The stand-in ‘keeper then dealt calmly and effectively with two back-passes, as the interval approached - although he and his eight remaining team-mates would have been only too aware, on leaving the field at half-time, just how long the next forty-five minutes might feel...
HALF-TIME: County 0, Stalybridge 0.
As the teams re-emerged, it seemed, just for one moment, as if Stalybridge could have done the neighbourly thing to level matters up a little - having sent only ten players out. No such luck, of course - given that this merely marked the prelude to a substitution. And an attacking one at that - involving the replacement of a defender, Peter Wylie, with Ben McKenna, whose incessantly menacing first-half forays into the County area at Bower Fold just over a year earlier had caused the Hatters untold misery.
My own pleading for Wylie to ‘Come Back' was, naturally, ignored. Wah! (Ask yer early-‘80s Dad...)
Ledsham's first dealings with McKenna, however, worked out quite nicely, as County's unplanned Number One cleanly caught a cross by the substitute from the left. In doing so, Ledsham also ensured that he would already go down in Club history as having used his hands more often that Tony Dinning did on a cold Boxing Day in 1995, while successfully guarding the sticks for the greater part of a victorious festive fixture against Carlisle.
A case for awarding Ledsham the freedom of Stockport gathered further momentum when he dived and saved with his feet from Farrell, who had been played through on goal. And, on other occasions, the visitors were looking profligate in front of goal - with both Farrell and Bohan Dixon firing efforts wide. Could an incredible County recovery be on the cards here?
Sadly not. Having kept the eleven men of SK15 at bay past the hour-mark, the nine of SK3 finally succumbed when, from a corner, Jack Higgins reacted first to head home at close range.
A second goal for the visitors - and, by far, their best of the afternoon - followed nine minutes later. Following a goalmouth skirmish, Jordan Thorniley hooked the ball away from the line, but only as far as McKenna, who, from the edge of the box, unleashed a thunderbolt that left Ledsham - and, indeed, would have left an everyday ‘keeper - with no chance.
The Hatters, to their immense credit, refused to give up the fight. Gonzales - a deserved Man of the Match - never stopped working the lonely channels up front. Both Connolly and Kirby threw themselves into the fray as if they had been playing alongside their new team-mates since pre-season. And any half-chances were seized upon - as both Calum Dyson and Montrose tried their luck with volleys that flashed wide.
There was to be one further goal - but not, alas, a consolation. With five minutes remaining, Farrell made it three for Celtic by means of a free header from six yards out.
Ledsham's emergency-goalkeeping credentials were not, in any way, tarnished by the occasion. And, indeed, he was to perform further heroics - diving to tip a Dixon shot past his left post, and arching to deflect an attempt by McKenna over the bar. He also commanded his area impressively to punch away a corner resulting from the latter save.
But, in the end, numbers told the story of the day - with a first defeat in 2015/16, two players sent off, and three goals conceded without reply. County now sit in seventh place, after playing six games. (There must surely be ways of working in references to four and five there, too, but, for this reporter, the post-match hour is late!)
Next up, Fylde - with whom, to date, the Hatters have only ever ground out dour goal-less stalemates. In the immediate aftermath of the preceding fixture, dare I say something along those lines almost sounds perversely appealing...?!
FULL-TIME: County 0, Stalybridge 3 (Higgins, 61; McKenna, 70; Farrell, 85).
Team: Hurst, Connolly, Garvin (Ellison, 52), O'Hanlon, Thorniley, Rule, Baggie (Ledsham, 36), Montrose, Gonzales, Robinson (Kirby, 5), Dyson.
Unused Subs: Odejayi, Colley.
Sent Off: Rule, Hurst.
Man of the Match: Gonzales.
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