Football League action returned to a sold-out Edgeley Park for the first time in over 11 years – and it did so with an entertaining flourish, although the Hatters ultimately found themselves beaten by the odd goal in five against Barrow.
It was County’s fourth successive opening-day defeat, after the visiting ‘Bluebirds’ had made it a sobering first 45 minutes for much of the five-figure crowd with three well-taken goals that put them well in control of proceedings at the break. The Hatters struck back shortly after half-time through Antoni Sarcevic, before skipper Paddy Madden added a second – but were unable to fashion an equaliser, and also saw a late penalty award overturned.
The weather was rather overcast and damp, but the atmosphere decidedly upbeat and sparkly, as County took to the field for their first-ever competitive fixture in July, with Cal Camps, Fraser Horsfall, Joe Lewis and Kyle Wootton all featuring from the outset for their debuts-proper. The starting 11 incorporated only two changes from that for the friendly at Altrincham a week previously, as Mark Kitching and Sarcevic were brought in for Ryan Johnson and Connor Lemonheigh-Evans, respectively.
The visitors, for their part, featured their recent signing from County, Ben Whitfield, among the starters, whilst a second ex-Hatter, and newly-appointed Barrow vice-captain, John Rooney, was named among six substitutes – one fewer than the maximum now permitted for FL matches. Two other Bluebirds – Tyrell Warren and Billy Waters – as well as their manager, Pete Wild, shared the distinction of representing Halifax, the last opposition to have visited EP on County’s National League title-winning day 11 weekends earlier.
Warren it was who fired the first shot of the contest, as he raced into the County box with less than a minute played – with Ben Hinchliffe standing tall to gather up the effort.
But County’s Number One was unable to get himself in the way of the second, from Josh Gordon five minutes later, as the strike flew into the bottom-right of the Hatters’ net from 25 yards to give Barrow an early lead.
And after 20 minutes, the visitors’ advantage was doubled – with Whitfield cutting in from the left, before haunting his old club with a low drive that fizzed into the far corner.
The Bluebirds were flying as the first half reached its mid-point, and their two former Shaymen combined to good effect, with Waters crossing from the right for Warren to head into the far side-netting. And with the half-hour mark approaching, the Hatters tested visiting goalkeeper Paul Farman twice in quick succession – as his hands were stung by a Ryan Rydel free-kick, before he dived to smother Camps’ follow-up shot.
But just a few minutes later, Barrow stunned County again with a third – as Waters jinked his way into the area and curled the ball past Hinchliffe to emulate Whitfield with a goal on his debut. And as a whopping six minutes of added time were announced for the Hatters to endure before having a much-needed opportunity to re-group at the interval, misery was further compounded as rain began to fall.
HALF-TIME: County 0, Barrow 3 (Gordon, 6; Whitfield, 20; Waters, 33).
County rang a couple of changes upon the resumption by introducing Myles Hippolyte and newly-arrived Blackburn loanee James Brown. And within four minutes, the Hatters had reduced the arrears as Sarcevic bundled home from close range and under pressure, having been fed from the left by Madden.
Sarcevic tried tried his luck a second time as the Hatters continued their improved showing – with the goal-scorer connecting to a looping delivery from the right by Macauley Southam-Hales and directing a header into the arms of Farman.
Two of the debutants – Wootton and Horsfall – fired over, and Rydel and Mark Kitching saw respective efforts from the left deflected on to the roof of the net and caught by the Barrow ‘keeper, before County netted for a second time, with Madden heading in from another cross on the right by Southam-Hales.
The visitors looked to respond through Waters, whose angled shot from the left was parried around the near post by Hinchliffe, whose opposite number, Farman, then brilliantly kept out a header from Horsfall – albeit from an offside position.
Another six-minute allowance by way of added time kept the Hatters’ hopes alive of salvaging a point. And they looked to have earned themselves a chance of one when Referee Yates pointed to the spot for a County penalty, following Niall Canavan’s handball – only to rescind the decision after his linesman had raised a flag for offside.
FULL-TIME: County 2 (Sarcevic, 49; Madden, 69), Barrow 3 (Gordon, 6; Whitfield, 20; Waters, 33).
Team (3-4-1-2): Hinchliffe; Lewis (Brown, 46), Horsfall, Kitching; Southam-Hales (Quigley, 89), Collar, Camps (Hippolyte, 46), Rydel (Crankshaw, 65); Sarcevic; Wootton, Madden (Capt.).
[Debuts for the following players, each with a unique SCAN [Stockport County Appearance Number]: Callum Camps (1431); Fraser Horsfall (1432); Joe Lewis (1433); Kyle Wootton (1434); and James Brown (1435).]
Unused Subs: Jaros, R. Johnson, Croasdale.
Booked: Hippolyte, Madden.
Man of the Match: Madden.
Attendance: 10,011 (991 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.