The Hatters’ inaugural fixture of the new League campaign saw them suffer a late single-goal defeat against Gillingham in front of a 9,000-plus crowd at Edgeley Park.
Substitute Robbie McKenzie’s 86th-minute strike settled the game in the visitors’ favour, as well as extending a run of successive opening-day defeats to five for the Hatters, who are still seeking a first win against the ‘Gills’ since their victory at Priestfield – also in a season’s curtain-raiser, albeit two tiers higher – during the first half of August 2000.
Twenty-three years ago for that encounter, Kent had been bathed in warm sunshine, but, by stark contrast, the weather at EP was rather overcast and damp as County took to the field with Ibou Touray (who, on this occasion, wore the captain’s armband in Paddy Madden’s stead), Nick Powell and Louie Barry all featuring from the outset for their debuts-proper. The starting 11 incorporated three changes from that for the 140th anniversary celebration-friendly in SK3 against Preston a week earlier, as Macauley Southam-Hales, Antoni Sarcevic and Tanto Olaofe were brought in for Jayden Richardson, Will Collar and Josh Popoola, respectively.
The visitors, who had last suffered defeat in SK3 a few weeks into County’s memorable 1996/97 campaign, included among their starters midfielder Ethan Coleman, who had turned out for the Hatters as a trialist during the 2020 close season.
Visiting skipper, Shaun Williams, picked up the first yellow card of the contest – and, as it turned out, in the whole of League Two for 2023/24 – when he was penalised for his foul on Olaofe with just over a couple of minutes played. Ten minutes later, the Hatters, for their part, earned the initial corner – which, following some neat interplay between Barry and Ryan Rydel on the left, led to a Powell volley that fizzed across the goalmouth and beyond the near post.
Jonny Williams, making his debut, produced Gillingham’s first effort on goal around the quarter-hour mark, but the shot lacked pace and was comfortably gathered up by Ben Hinchliffe. And, at the other end, Barry, having been fed by Olaofe, saw an attempt deflected behind off Max Ehmer.
Cometh the half-hour, cometh the rain – although the deterioration in the conditions failed to prevent some good moves and chances, as Rydel’s cross from the left found Southam-Hales whose bullet of a header was parried by goalkeeper Jake Turner, and then Scott Malone, on the edge of the box, lifted a shot on to the roof of County’s net after an effort from Tom Nichols had been blocked.
On a day when the rain came courtesy of Storm Antoni, that weather phenomenon’s namesake, Sarcevic, sought to stir proceedings up as the interval approached, but sent his volley wide of the left upright. And Rydel went close during time added on with a first-time shot that narrowly cleared the crossbar.
HALF-TIME: County 0, Gillingham 0.
Eight minutes after the resumption, the first corner of the new half saw County go close, as Rydel’s delivery from the right was headed towards goal by Touray – only to be blocked at point-blank range. It also heralded a spell of pressure for the Hatters, as a speculative lob from distance by Powell soared straight at Turner, before Fraser Horsfall skewed a curling shot past the left post.
Madden was introduced just after the hour, as County continued to enjoy the greater share of possession – with Sarcevic striking a low shot from 20 yards that flew narrowly shy of the right post, and Kyle Knoyle glancing the bar after being played through by Madden.
The visitors, through Malone, almost delivered a sucker punch 10 minutes from time, but the shot from the edge of the area was brilliantly palmed away by Hinchliffe. Then, half a dozen minutes later, they went one better by actually doing so, as Cheye Alexander’s free-kick from the left induced a bout of pinball in the County box, before McKenzie fired home from close range.
Eight minutes of added time were announced in accordance with the League’s new arrangements, and were not without their drama as Madden had a goal disallowed for offside, and substitute-debutant Jayden Richardson struck the right side-netting.
FULL-TIME: County 0, Gillingham 1 (McKenzie, 86).
Team (3-4-3): Hinchliffe; Knoyle, Horsfall (Evans, 90 + 1), Touray (Capt.); Southam-Hales (Richardson, 90 + 1), Camps (Wright, 79), Sarcevic, Rydel; Olaofe, Powell, Barry (Madden, 63).
[Debuts for the following players, each with a unique SCAN [Stockport County Appearance Number]: Louie Barry (1449); Nick Powell (1450); Ibou Touray (1451); and Jayden Richardson (1452).]
Unused Subs: Smith, Byrne, Pye.
Man of the Match: Sarcevic.
Attendance: 9,116 (739 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.