The Hatters returned to League Two action in SK3 to notch up their first win of the new year against promotion-chasing Northampton, and a first triumph over the ‘Cobblers’ for more than 17 years.
A goal in each half secured maximum points – with Antoni Sarcevic netting his sixth goal of the campaign, and a first league strike since August, to put County ahead shortly after the half-hour, before a Ryan Johnson header was deflected in for the second 22 minutes from time – that elevated the Hatters to within three points of the play-off positions.
Following a morning of rain, the Hatters took to the field in brightening conditions, and showing four changes from the line-up that had started in the FA Cup meeting with Walsall at Edgeley Park six days earlier. Recently-arrived central defender Neill Byrne was handed his County debut, while Ryan Croasdale, Ryan Johnson and captain Paddy Madden all returned – replacing Phil Bardsley, Chris Hussey, Joe Lewis and Tanto Olaofe. The latter three were named among the substitutes, and were joined on the bench by the club’s newest signing, Kyle Knoyle, whose transfer from Doncaster had been announced the previous day.
The first chance fell to the third-placed visitors, and their diminutive leading scorer, Sam Hoskins, who, with three minutes on the clock, cut in from the right before unleashing a shot that Ben Hinchliffe parried around the near post for the contest’s inaugural corner.
Three minutes later at the other end, a Ryan Rydel cross from the left found Madden, whose header was glanced beyond the far upright. And from Northampton’s second corner, delivered by Mitch Pinnock on the right, Sam Sherring nodded over.
Having had his head bandaged in the course of the final away league game of 2022, Will Collar suffered the same fate – but was, as at Walsall, fit to continue playing – in the first home one of 2023, just after the quarter-hour mark.
The Cobblers continued to monopolise the corner-count – earning another when Hinchliffe again came to County’s rescue to tip over a Ben Fox effort from the left. And after Kyle Wootton – teed up by Myles Hippolyte – had curled a shot to the right of the Northampton goal, County’s Number One executed a superb point-blank save from Hoskins.
It would be fair to say, then, that when the deadlock was broken by County, the goal arrived a tad against the run of play. But as a team effort, it was hard to beat – with Hippolyte starting the move on the halfway-line, and finding Madden. The skipper flicked on for Collar to advance into the area, where the swathed midfielder squared from the right, and Wootton back-heeled into the path of Sarcevic, who slotted past debutant goalkeeper Tom King.
Shortly before the break, the Hatters twice went close to extending their advantage – but Rydel’s rasping shot from the edge of the box was parried away by King, and a curling Madden effort was deflected behind off Jack Sowerby.
HALF-TIME: County 1 (Sarcevic, 32), Northampton 0.
The Cobblers began the second half as they had the first, by way of a Hoskins strike three minutes in – but having latched on to Pinnock’s lofted ball over the defence, the forward was once more denied by Hinchliffe whose outstretched leg deflected the effort behind.
Hippolyte was first to try his luck after the interval for County, courtesy of a long-range half-volley that whistled narrowly over the Cheadle End crossbar – and a few minutes later went close again when a low shot from just outside the box took a deflection past the left post.
But with just over 20 minutes left, the Hatters did double the lead – with Sowerby deflecting into the net Johnson’s headed effort from a Rydel corner on the right.
Knoyle and Olaofe both took their league bows for County, and each looked lively in the latter stages – although Hippolyte was the Hatter to go closest towards the end, with a low shot that fizzed past the right post a minute from time.
FULL-TIME: County 2 (Sarcevic, 32; Sowerby (o.g.), 68), Northampton 0.
Team (4-2-2–2): Hinchliffe; Wright, Byrne, R. Johnson, Rydel; Croasdale, Sarcevic (Olaofe, 80); Collar (Camps, 87), Hippolyte; Madden (Capt.) (Knoyle, 60), Wootton.
[Debuts for the following players, each with a unique SCAN [Stockport County Appearance Number]: Neill Byrne (1444); Kyle Knoyle (1445).]
Unused Subs: Jaros, Evans, Hussey, Lewis.
Man of the Match: Wright.
Attendance: 8,732 (932 away).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.