County’s first appearance for a dozen years in the Football League Cup saw a much-changed side edge through to the Second Round on a balmy summer evening at Harrogate, and, no less importantly, earn a morale-boosting inaugural competitive victory of the campaign.
Connor Jennings converted an early second-half spot-kick, which proved the difference in favour of the Hatters – who had most recently turned out in what now goes by the name of the Carabao Cup back in 2010, when it was sponsored by Carling and they were on the end of a five-goal thrashing at home by Preston.
When the Hatters had last taken to the field at Wetherby Road three years earlier, they did so in the National League with a 3G surface under their feet – but natural turf was back in place at the now-FL venue, as they emerged on it showing nine changes to the side that started at Stevenage over the weekend. Only Ryan Croasdale – who wore the captain’s armband for the night – and Ryan Johnson remained from the Saturday starters in Hertfordshire, while competitive debuts were handed to on-loan goalkeeper Vit Jaros and midfielder Connor (Lemonheigh-) Evans.
County set off on the front foot to earn a corner after only 20 seconds – and, with just over three minutes on the clock, struck the woodwork following a counter-attack that culminated in a low shot by Elliot Newby against the base of the right post.
The hosts responded with their first attack of note eight minutes later, when skipper George Thomson’s cross from the right was headed into the arms of Jaros by Emmanuel Ilesanmi. But, having made light work of his first save, the Liverpool loanee had to be at his best shortly afterwards as he tipped over Josh Austerfield’s blistering shot from the edge of the box.
The Hatters then went close again, after James Brown’s cross from the right was headed clear by Miles Welch-Hayes – but only as far as Callum Camps, whose first-time effort fizzed narrowly beyond the near upright.
Brown played creator again around the first half’s mid-point – feeding the ball towards the area, where Evans dummied for Jennings, whose poked shot, under pressure, was gathered up by home ‘keeper Pete Jameson.
Harrogate striker Matty Daly, on loan from Huddersfield, was next to try his luck – clearing the crossbar from 20 yards just after the half-hour mark. And in added time, a perfectly-timed tackle by Joe Lewis took the ball away from Ilesanmi who was looking to race through on goal.
HALF-TIME: Harrogate 0, County 0.
The lights were on to greet the teams upon the resumption – and the hosts re-started more brightly, courtesy of of Jack Muldoon whose shot was blocked and deflected behind by Johnson.
But within half a dozen minutes, and following their first corner of the new half, the Hatters earned a penalty for handball in a crowded home area. Jennings duly stepped up to fire past Jameson from the spot and into the top-left corner to give his side the lead.
Just after the hour, Thomson came close to levelling for the hosts with a free-kick from the left that grazed the far post, before being gathered up by Jaros. And a dozen minutes later, another set-piece from the captain was headed across goal by Muldoon for substitute Luke Armstrong, who stabbed the ball wide of the left upright.
But County weathered the dead-ball storm, as well as five minutes of added time at the end, to negotiate the opening round of the Cup successfully for the first time since 2007.
FULL-TIME: Harrogate 0, County 1 (Jennings (penalty), 52).
Team (3-4-3): Jaros; Brown, Lewis, R. Johnson; Newby, Croasdale (Capt.), Camps, Hippolyte; Evans (Quigley, 71), Jennings, Crankshaw.
[Debuts for the following players, each with a unique SCAN [Stockport County Appearance Number]: Connor Evans (1436); and Vit Jaros (1437).]
Unused Subs: Hinchliffe, Southam-Hales, Kitching, Sarcevic, Rydel, Wootton, C. Johnson.
Booked: Croasdale, Brown, Hippolyte.
Reporter: Gareth Evans.
Photographer: Mike Petch.