Stockport County 3-1 Walsall

The Hatters returned to action after a 12-day break and demonstrated the benefits of a good rest by returning to winning ways against in-form Walsall at Edgeley Park.

One stoppage-time goal apiece immediately before half-time – with the opener coming courtesy of an Akil Wright strike – saw the two sides go in at the break on level terms, before an early second-half header by Tanto Olaofe and Paddy Madden’s fourth successful penalty of the campaign in all competitions secured an inaugural County victory for 2024, as well as a first home triumph over the ‘Saddlers’ in five attempts since 2007.

The Hatters took to the field on a relatively mild mid-January afternoon, and showing four changes from their starting line-up in SK3 against Mansfield on New Year’s Day. Minnesota United loanee Ethan Bristow was handed his debut, returning Hatter Connor Lemonheigh-Evans, following his recent recall from AFC Wimbledon, went straight back into the side, and Neill Byrne and Olaofe were also handed starts, replacing Kyle Knoyle and Ethan Pye – both of whom had suffered injuries during the Mansfield game – as well as Ibby Touray, who was on international duty for The Gambia in the Africa Cup of Nations, and Madden.

Ryan Croasdale took the captain’s armband in place of Madden, who featured on a bench that also included teenage right-back, Jid Okeke, newly recruited from Oldham under the Emerging Talents programme at EP.

County spent the opening stages dominant in possession – winning four corners before the quarter-hour mark, with the fourth being earned after visiting goalkeeper, Jackson Smith, had tipped over, on the bounce, a header by Odin Bailey, who was playing his first match since his loan from Salford had expired and his signing as a Hatter been made permanent.

The visitors, managed by a former Hatter in (appropriately enough, so far as their nickname was concerned) Mat Sadler – who had turned out 20 times for County whilst on loan from Watford during 2010 – and looking for a sixth victory in seven league matches, fashioned an initial opportunity 11 minutes before the break, with a long-range effort from Tom Knowles that was safely gathered up by Ben Hinchliffe.

During a half in which chances remained at a premium, the main incident of note looked as if it would be the tumble taken by an Assistant Referee after colliding with Byrne by the left sideline. In the event, it would not be – although indirectly it did affect proceedings, as each team scored during the consequential five minutes added on.

Shortly after Liam Gordon had headed over a Knowles cross from the right, Wright, at the other end, put the Hatters ahead with a low shot from outside the box that flew into the bottom-left corner. But County’s joy was short-lived, as, a couple of minutes later, Douglas James-Taylor headed in at close range after connecting with a corner by Knowles on the right.

HALF-TIME: County 1 (Wright, 45 + 2), Walsall 1 (James-Taylor, 45 +4). 

Visiting skipper Donervon Daniels saw an effort deflected past the near post by Kyle Wootton, following a Knowles free-kick from the right, shortly after the resumption. And Hinchliffe dived to smother a dangerous cross by Isaac Hutchinson, as the Saddlers made a promising start to the new half.

But within 10 minutes of the re-start, the advantage swung back in County’s favour. A free-kick by Callum Camps on the left struck the crossbar and then the far upright, before Olaofe dived in a packed six-yard box to head home.

Lemonheigh-Evans and Wootton forced saves from Smith in quick succession, and Byrne skewed a shot over, before Hinchliffe was called into action to turn around the right post another attempt from distance by Knowles.

The Hatters sought to freshen up their attacking effort by introducing Madden and Nick Powell – and within three minutes, the former stepped up to make the game safe by converting with typical aplomb from the spot, after Lemonheigh-Evans had been hauled down by Gordon.

The win maintains County’s two-point lead at the top of the table, while results elsewhere saw the cushion above the play-off places increase to five points.

FULL-TIME: County 3 (Wright, 45 + 2; Olaofe, 55, Madden (penalty), 76), Walsall 1 (James-Taylor, 45 +4).

Team (4-4-2): Hinchliffe; Wright, Horsfall, Byrne, Bristow; Lemonheigh-Evans, Camps (Madden, 73), Croasdale (Capt.), Bailey; Wootton (Powell, 73), Olaofe (Cotterill, 88).

[Debut for Ethan Bristow, with a unique SCAN [Stockport County Appearance Number] of 1465.]

Unused Subs: Jordan Smith, Mee, Okeke, Johnson.

Booked: Bristow.

Man of the Match: Wright.

Attendance: 9,742 (686 away).

Reporter: Gareth Evans.

Photographer: Mike Petch.


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