Perfect Farewell Gift Leaves Us Just Dotty About Stotty!
The Hatters came from behind at Broadhurst Park to defeat relegation-threatened near-neighbours FC United of Manchester by the odd goal in three – ending January with seven victories out of seven for the month, and a ninth one running, in all competitions.
And in true Roy of the Rovers fashion, the winning goal, two minutes from time, was courtesy of the 21-year-old, on-loan central defender Jamie Stott – making his final appearance in a County shirt before returning to parent club Oldham Athletic.
County took to the field in light Moston drizzle, showing the same starting 4-2-3-1 line-up for the third successive match – which also featured nine of the 11 players who had been present for the reverse-fixture’s kick-off, leading to a 5-1 win, at Edgeley Park on the opening day of the season. The hosting ‘Red Rebels’, by contrast, included only five survivors from that occasion – although two ex-Hatters, in Stephen O’Halloran and captain Harry Winter, were among their number.
The Hatters created the earliest chances of the afternoon, with Darren Stephenson and Adam Thomas drilling efforts wide of the right post within a minute of each other. But with 10 minutes gone, they were to go behind – an experience not known to them since before Christmas.
Kurt Willoughby, who had scored FC United’s consolation goal in SK3 nearly six months earlier, struck the early blow, after getting behind Ash Palmer, latching on to a long ball, and then cutting in from the left to fire past Ben Hinchliffe and into the top-right corner.
The Hatters responded with spirit, as leading scorer Matty Warburton – who had scored a record eight goals in nine appearances against FC United with both County and Curzon Ashton – fired narrowly over from distance, and his side forced four corners during the first half an hour or so.
Stott then gave an early indication of how he might like to sign off as a Hatter, by unleashing a low drive that home goalkeeper Lloyd Allinson dived to smother. But, as half-time approached, the hosts twice went close to doubling their lead, as Dale Whitham headed O’Halloran’s cross from the left beyond the far upright, before Michael Donohue was played through on goal – only to see his shot deflected by Hinchliffe’s legs, before Sam Minihan cleared in front of an empty net.
And how crucial that clearance proved – when, in the 45th minute, County got back on level terms. Sam Walker’s free-kick on the right was met by a goal-bound header from Palmer that Allinson did well to parry – but only to Frank Mulhern, whose angled shot from the left flew into the far top corner for a welcome, and deserved, equaliser just before added time was announced.
HALF-TIME: FC United 1 (Willoughby, 10), County 1 (Mulhern, 45).
The hosts earned their first corner within two minutes of the resumption – and came close to getting their noses back in front from it, as Whitham headed on the delivery from the left, but saw his effort brilliantly kept out by Hinchliffe.
County, from that point, moved into the ascendancy, courtesy of several opportunities which saw Mulhern head over a Walker corner, Stephenson fire into the right side-netting, and Jordan Keane blast over from the edge of the area.
Another former Hatter, Chris Sharp, was introduced for the hosts – and he looked to leave an impression on his old club by executing two shots on goal that were successively gathered by Hinchliffe and hacked clear by Stott.
With fewer than 10 minutes remaining, the Hatters went close, as Mulhern’s free-kick from 25 yards was punched over by Allinson, before Walker bundled a chance just shy of the right post.
But, after 88 minutes, Walker, for the second time in the match, launched a dead-ball delivery that led to a goal. His corner from the right was headed clear – albeit only as far as Sam Minihan, who, from the edge of the box, recycled the ball for Palmer to nod on for Stott to volley home at the away end.
Cue jubilation in the immediate vicinity of the goal – where, following the final whistle, Stott was given the most privileged of County send-offs with a guard of honour from his team-mates. And fully merited it was, too, following 20 impeccable performances this term, topped off with a goal that keeps the second-placed Hatters within four points of the summit.
FULL-TIME: FC United 1 (Willoughby, 10), County 2 (Mulhern, 45; Stott, 88).
Team: Hinchliffe, Minihan, Duxbury, Keane, Palmer (Capt.), Stott, Thomas (Cowan, 66), Walker, Mulhern, Warburton (Osborne, 82), Stephenson (Kirby, 74).
Unused Subs: Ormson, Turnbull.
Attendance: 2,987 (808 – officially – representing The Twelfth Man).
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.