Gimme shelter: Stockport (a)

Cod Almighty | Match Report

by Pat Bell

8 January 2008

Stockport County 1 Grimsby Town 2

Why are we here, with the Town support spread out behind one goal on an open terrace, exposed to the elements and a tannoy that was audible but entirely incomprehensible, as though a bumble bee had got stuck in a bass drum? There was something in the air, but was it just the threat of rain?

Town lined up in a familiar 3-5-2, with Ryan Bennett moving to right wing-back to replace the cup-tied Sam Hird and Nick Fenton joining Rob Atkinson and Tom Newey among the centre-backs. Danny Boshell was still poorly, so James Hunt, Jamie Clarke and Paul Bolland made up the midfield. Nick Hegarty, Gary Jones and Danny North were where you wanted them to be, and Phil Barnes was in goal.

First half
Town kicked off, and within a few seconds had worked the ball forward to North, who bustled his way past two defenders. The Stockport keeper, Conrad Logan, advanced and North's shot bounced off his legs for a corner. A few minutes later Jones got behind the Stockport defence and shot from a narrow angle, Logan again conceding the corner. It was an encouraging start, but let's not get carried away. A wind was gusting from left to right as we watched, making fools of players who attempted cross-field passes and found their efforts sailing into the lower rows of the stand, making full-backs and wingers wish they were taller.

After about a quarter of an hour, Stockport took control. North was scrapping for every loose ball in their half and most of our hints of possibilities of chances in the first half came when he harried defenders into mistakes. Behind him, though, there was space, so Stockport were able to come forward unimpeded, Pilkington prominent in carrying the ball forward, now and again running right at the Town defence, now and again playing the ball wide where Bennett and Hegarty were affording them plenty of space.

David Poole started to skip past Newey, who accidentally deliberately got tangled up with him, and was booked. Stockport went through a phase of falling over suspiciously easily and won a series of free kicks and corners, but nothing particular came of them: Barnes managed a few decent punches under pressure from Anthony Elding; Bennett stretched to flick a header away from him, then turned and cleared a second time; and Atkinson rose to head a corner to the edge of the area, Barnes holding on to the low shot through a thicket of legs that followed.

Where Stockport did get a clear sight of goal, the chances fell to Elding. He had already missed with a shot and a deflected header when, five minutes before half time, Liam Dickinson was afforded the freedom of the left side of the Town half as Hegarty and Newey hesitated over whether to close him down. He passed low to the near corner of the goal area, into Elding's path. Barnes and Atkinson strained to make it awkward but Elding was there first, to firmly ram the ball against the outside of the top of the post.

The first half was quiet, but a storm was brewing. Given the rare opportunity to look up at the far end of the pitch when Newey curved a free kick two feet over the bar, we noticed distant flashes of light. Soon we were feeling rain on our cheeks. Hints were dropped to stewards that the covered area where the Town support had sat three weeks ago was empty. A few people began to drift to the front in anticipation of being relocated. Most self-consciously waited until the half-time whistle before joining the exodus.

We reached cover just in time, filling the section of seating they afforded us, brought together in adversity as hail bounced down onto the pitch and onto the open terrace that all but twenty of us had deserted. Suddenly, we were a unit, with a cause. A scarcely audible stadium safety announcement told us to sit down, but we remained standing. We started chanting. Now we were part of the match.

Second half
For ten minutes it felt as though the new mood among the support had communicated itself to the players. Without any change in tactics, suddenly we were getting among the Stockport defence in numbers. North received the ball with his back to goal, turned and ran into the penalty area, only to lose control, the ball bouncing off his heel to safety. Hegarty forced a corner which reached Bennett well beyond the far post, his header flopping wide. Jones, without ever moving quickly, was nevertheless everywhere, picking up rebounds, drawing Bolland and Clarke into the attack, heading down for Bennett to cross just beyond North. Clarke found himself wide on the right and crossed waist-high. North somehow swivelled and improvised a volley which curled a yard wide of the far post.

Then it was Stockport's turn. They (and let me admit here that one of the drawbacks of having moved under cover to one side of the pitch was that we could only make out in broad outline what was going on in the Town penalty area, as long as there wasn't a pillar in the way. I'll need that alibi soon) were allowed to pass and dribble their way across goal, only to shoot wildly. Again, they ran at the Town right; the ball ran loose and a Stockport player had time to take a touch, before shooting comfortably over the bar.

Our turn again. Town players - Atkinson, Bolland and Clarke - were taking turns to surge through tackles and cause a little bedlam in the Stockport half. It was becoming apparent that the Stockport skipper, Michael Raynes, was vulnerable under high balls. And low balls. And in his passing. When the ball went his way, North and Jones were ready to profit from his mistakes.

With an hour gone, North laid the ball back to Clarke, 25 yards out. He shot hard and straight, the ball heading a few inches below the crossbar, but with Logan in line. Logan parried the ball up, up, up and then down again, turning in the wind back towards goal. Logan seemed to have the situation under control. For a moment it seemed as though we might be able to clutch at the straw that he might have caught the ball behind the line, but a Stockport defender rushed to help him, only to get in his way, and between them they allowed the ball to bounce near the goal line and then up again, nestling briefly against the inside of the netting before coming to rest indisputably in the Stockport goal.

From the first move after the restart, Stockport fired a cross diagonally to our right which Bennett, under not too much pressure on the edge of the penalty area, headed out for a corner. It was taken short and Town were afforded a couple of chances to hack it clear before the ball ran for Pilkington to shoot inside the penalty area. My view was obscured by a pillar - and Barnes's view may have been obscured by bodies in the box, but he could only get a touch on the ball which rolled on into the bottom right corner of the goal.

Not long ago, a Town side that conceded such a quick equaliser might have faded, but if nothing else, this Town side has begun to believe in winning, and in hard work. North sold Atkinson short with an ambitious lay-off from the edge of the penalty area, but Atkinson sneaked in ahead of a Stockport foot and rumbled forward to win a free kick. Newey tried to emulate Clarke, but Logan this time deflected the ball high and out of play for a corner.

Stockport had three attempts to take the lead - a low shot which Barnes watched roll past his left post and a couple more that he saved - but Town were getting stronger. Where earlier, odd individual moments were creating chances, now Town were playing as an attacking unit, Jones linking the runs of North, Hegarty, Bolland and Clarke. North had been causing Stockport concern all match with his willingness to run at their defence and take on the last man; now he paused, held the ball up and laid it off for Hegarty to speed down the touchline and send over a waist-high, hard cross which Jones stooped to head narrowly wide. It was the match's best move. It deserved the goal that followed minutes later, as Hegarty again found space on our left, and again crossed low and hard. Raynes at the near post swung his foot and the ball sliced and looped and swerved and spun across the goal, beyond Logan's dive and into Stockport's net.

And it was still Town's turn. Jones and North played a one-two, but the ball just ran loose beyond Jones in the empty Stockport penalty area. Logan failed to control a back-pass and Hegarty ran him down, hurling himself at the ball as the goalkeeper tried to complete his clearance. The ball rebounded back towards the goal, bouncing in line with the netting, one side or other of the goal, but finally bouncing off the hoardings, a few inches wide. Finally, Clarke and Jones exchanged passes and Jones crossed for North, six yards out. A goal would have capped a gallant performance - he seemed to have been running on empty from the hour onwards but had kept chasing and working - but he could only place the ball in Logan's hands.

Finally, Stockport had their last turn. Michael Rose took a free kick 25 yards out, curling the ball over the wall and dipping, for Barnes to dive and save low inside his left post, punching clear. Dickinson headed wide and Pilkington headed over. Three minutes of injury time stretched to four but County's last chance to attack bumbled beyond reach as a player miscontrolled for a goal kick.

As we filtered out, the storm had abated. The wind, and the breathless second half had blown themselves out, leaving limbs numb but the possibility of something good lingering in the atmosphere.