Unfinished Business - County in 2019/20
Who had ‘the season to finish with seven games left and County, unbeaten in six, in 7th place’ in the sweepstake? Well done, you’ve won a night out on Castle Street with Vernon Bear and the shirtless guy who was in the Cheadle End against Bromley.
While we wait to find out how the clubs and ultimately, the League, resolve this season, we as fans are left kicking our heels and sighing wistfully over match footage of the good old days of last month, when being furloughed, fighting over bog roll, grassing on your neighbours for leaving the house twice a day and social distancing were unheard of.
Of course, last August, the events of the last month were still the pipe dream of dystopian novel writers, tin foil hat wearers and those oddball ‘doomsday preppers’ you see on American TV documentaries, complete with a basement full of tinned sardines and a urine recycling machine to provide enough drinking water to outlast the ‘fallout’.
Oh no, back in August, County were striding out on to the Edgeley Park pitch, like the new kid at ‘big’ school; nervous yet excited. In a twist of fate our first opponents would also be our last, but Maidenhead United nicked our dinner money and set fire to our PE kit as they set the beginning of a well-worn season trend of County being bullied by well-organised, sturdy teams as they travelled back down south with all three points.
Next up though, three games against teams who would be there or thereabouts come the season’s real end in April. Notts County, Yeovil Town and Barrow. Five points gained against very strong opponents and considering Jim Gannon hadn’t made any significant signings over the summer, they were five very impressive points. Elliot Osborne’s wonder-goal saw off a poor Eastleigh side at home, thus pushing County up to the giddy heights of eighth. A few Yorkshire bedwetters behind the dugout at Harrogate Town, who were intent on giving as much grief as possible to the County coaching staff during their 2-1 victory seemed to sum up that game; annoyingly frustrating.
Never fear though, for the honeymoon-feel of last season’s National League North title win was still in abundance as County notched up (he says, rather flippantly!) wins over Chesterfield, Wrexham and everyone’s least favourite pop-up club, AFC Fylde. The fact that these teams, along with Notts and Yeovil, were expected to do very well seemed to stoke even further the excitement of promotion and contributed to us more than holding our own in the division above. The sun-soaked August Bank Holiday Monday victory over Chesterfield, the loud and boisterous atmosphere at Wrexham and the nerve-shredding win over Fylde were the highlights. In fact, it can be argued that any kind of win over Fylde and their repugnant, friend of fracking, Brexit-backing, Farage’s arse-kissing owner is one to be devoured and savoured again and again.
Of course, this is County and the phrase ‘September 2019’ will have most County fans running for cover with a bottle of Prozac. The sunny, touchy-feely, hand-in-the-bra, newlywed atmosphere we enjoyed just weeks before was blown away within the space of a month. Defeats away to last season’s National League North runners up, Chorley (I can’t emphasise enough the fact that they were runners up!), at home to Aldershot and neatly sandwiched in between two 4-0 drubbings was a defeat away to Solihull Moors, 2-0. September was the month where the title-winning bubble burst and we were laid bare, like a trollop in the stocks, and shown up for what we were; an average side punching above our weight. Worrying times.
Well, September was over and October came along, all fresh and new with its autumnal goodness. A point away to, at that point, a poor Sutton United team was very welcome, as was the clean sheet. Then the BT Sport cameras came to town as we hosted Hartlepool United, new-guy, well, new-ish, Tom Walker, finished off a fine move to give us a 2-0 half time lead. Easy, this football lark, not easy on the blood pressure though. Three points were bagged for the first time in just over a month as it finished 2-1.
The Dagenham and Redbridge game at home was postponed and a trip to York City in the FA Cup Fourth Qualifying Round saw County lucky to come away with a 2-0 defeat, BT Sports were there again and unfortunately, the percentage of the population who subscribe to their channels might have been forgiven for thinking they had accidentally tuned in to one of those YouTube clips of the worst team to ever grace a football pitch. But our season wasn’t about FA Cup progress, a decent performance would have been nice though.
Eventually, back in league business at the month’s end, we travelled to Dover Athletic, The novelty away trip for many this season, being as Dover is nearer to France than it is Stockport. In fact, many took the opportunity to sample some French culture during their weekend away, and their Marco Polo-like toil was rewarded by a goal from the halfway line by Frank Mulhern, which gave County their second league win on the bounce.
Continuing the Jekyll and Hyde theme into November, County travelled to early leaders, Bromley, for a midweek game. Overzealous stewarding failed to dampen the atmosphere as County came away with a well-deserved point. Edward Hyde-County appeared again as Woking left SK3 with the three points the following weekend and a familiar pattern of being turned over by what amounted to, mid-table also-rans, every week, fully established itself. However, Dagenham and Barnet were dispatched on successive weekends thanks to that most preeminent of goals; the injury time winner. You’d be lucky to see one or two a season and we got two in the space of seven days. Magnificent stuff.
Ebbsfleet United’s brand of pantomime villain, anti-football was served up at EP next. After taking an early lead they embarrassingly dived, time wasted, kicked the ball away, harangued the referee and at half time were filling in an application to the FA to change their name to ‘Shithouse United’. The football gods love County at the minute and they once again came to their rescue as they gently caressed Sam Walker’s injury time freekick past the waiting players in the penalty area and out of the grasping reach of the Ebbsfleet goalkeeper. 1-1. Justice.
You know when County build up your hopes and then bring you roughly back down to earth for a severe pummeling the following week? Well that was what happened when Solihull Moors visited at the end of November. A deserved lead courtesy of a Paul Turnbull screamer saw County march into the dressing room one up. However, Solihull had been in domineering form and simply said “right, lads, fags out, let’s go to work”, the 4-1 full time scoreline was neither surprising nor undeserved. Bugger, just when we thought it was all going to turn out okay.
Well, County fans, fear ye not, this was pantomime season and we were front and centre with Les Dennis, Russell Grant in drag and a camp genie. Torquay United, 4-0 winners at EP in ‘September’ were annihilated, 5-1 at Plainmoor. The ease with which County exacted revenge bordered on the hysterical. Highlights included a luxurious left foot curler by Salford City loanee, Devante Rodney, highlights also included footage of a half naked County fan tumbling down the terracing in celebration of a goal. Not just slipping down a couple of steps, mind, actually falling over the top of his fellow fans and ending up in a heap. Told you, panto season.
Last season’s panto villains, Chorley, were comfortably beaten 4-2 at home, while bogey-side, Blyth Spartans, were easily dumped out of the FA Trophy. Third-gear, mid-season comfort form from County.
Up and down we go as Aldershot took advantage of the referee’s abundance of Christmas cheer, 2-1 was the scoreline, but that doesn’t tell the full story. Upon disallowing an Aldershot goal the referee and linesman, surrounded by most of the host’s players (no doubt eager to wish the officials a happy Christmas) thought it’d be in the spirit to change their minds and actually give the goal. Bless them. Christmas is a time for giving and all that.
Christmas is also where panto season reaches its crescendo. Halifax Town were stuffed, 5-1 on Boxing Day. I say “stuffed”, but the goals; two deflections, an own goal, one through the goalkeeper’s legs and one which could have easily been disallowed for a foul rather flattered County. The game was also noteworthy for the introduction to much of EP to one Liam McAlinden, his consolation was the best goal of the game.
For the Christmas encore we visited Fylde for the last game of 2019, a year where we chalked up the third-most points in the country, that includes all 257 divisions, in fact only Liverpool and Manchester City managed to get more. See, we are dead good after all. Credit to Jim Gannon, Dave Conlon and co. especially when one looks back to where we were at the start of the year, treading water in the middle of division six, albeit on a decent run of form, to winning the title and then to being, on the whole, competitive in the league above without making any major signings is miraculous. Before that particular bubble burst in January (the new ‘September’) we strode past Fylde at their three-sided Legoland ground courtesy of Tom Walker’s final goal in a County shirt, a stunning, dipping freekick and a Dan Cowan thunderbolt. Cue pandemonium in the away end and some wonderful, warming YouTube clips of joyous pitch invasions after both goals. As a fine, upstanding parent and citizen, I obviously don’t condone it, but sod it, it happens, been there, done that, been arrested for it.
That YouTube footage and the glorious run of 20-odd goals scored in half a dozen games was to provide the sustenance as County hibernated their way through ‘January’. You can argue that we had rode our luck, that we were still an average side, bolstered by a few decent loan signings and January was to prove once and for all that we desperately needed a change, some investment, a spark of energy from somewhere as the cold winter clung around us.
1500 hardy County fans were not rewarded with a goal for shaking off the New Year hangover and turning out at Halifax, the 0-0 score suggests there may have been some truth in my earlier suggestion that the 5-1 score in the reverse game a week earlier may have been a tad fortunate.
Up stepped Boreham Wood a week later to do what Woking, Aldershot and Torquay all did; bully County into submission and easily claim a win, it was 3-1, it could have been 6-1, and it got worse.
Defeat to Dorking Wanderers proved to be the final bare-naked, gnarled, warty straw, the tipping point of the season, so, well done to them. They should have been fairly easy to navigate and most had one eye on a potential meeting with our new mates from Fylde in the next round. Dorking’s new-fangled 3G pitch and cocky, court jester feel provided the backdrop for yet another chapter in County’s recent embarrassing failures. The 1-1 away draw was bad. The 4-0 drubbing at EP was absolutely and thoroughly deserved. County looked like a team brow-beaten once too often, burnt out and as though they had given up, by saying that I don’t think I’m too far from the truth.
This was desperate, it was now in the cold light of day and strikingly obvious that the loan duo of Rodney and Walker were integral to the team and our pre-Christmas form owed a lot to their endeavours, as well as extending their loan deals we also needed a few more new signings who brought a little more fight and strength to County. Rumours suggested the board weren’t able to do so due to our financial position, but I suppose that depends on who you believe. Jim Gannon hinted as much in a string of irritable post-match quips. Jim is a passionate manager as we know and it was plain to see he was saying what we were all thinking; for all the plucky optimism we had shown it was nothing without some balls-out ruthlessness, and we had long-since drunk the pluck bar dry. Now was either a time to push on and fight for the play offs, or to write off the season and look towards the next. It was up to the board which path they chose.
Rumours of a takeover had been around since the start of the season and they became more desperate and more intense as the soulless displays piled up. Finally on 16th January in stepped Mark Stott with a plan for multiple promotions, a training ground and a massive bag of cash for Gannon to spend. To say there was much rejoicing is an understatement and just days after the loan deals of Walker and Rodney had expired, a handful of new loan signings were ushered in. None were particularly spectacular and the wave of euphoria petered out against the rocks of the Sutton United defence the Saturday after the takeover at a frigidly cold Edgeley Park. Sutton were much improved from earlier in the season and were typical of the ultra-organised, strong, athletic team which County strived to be. Patience is a virtue, but patience in this 21st century world of instant gratification via Facebook and 30-second highlights videos is thin on the ground. Within hours of the takeover and indeed within hours of the Sutton game, the more short-sighted among the County faithful were making delusional claims of promotion this season, of building a training complex which would rival St. George’s Park and redeveloping the ground to the size that mid-table Premier League side would have. Some people live in a very clouded world and it showed, but more of that another time, more pertinent was the fact we hadn’t won in nearly a month, and despite the fanfare and fantasising which the takeover brought, it was obvious County were on a severe downward spiral, tactics were disjointed and too predictable, players were very low in confidence and the goals, so freely claimed a month earlier, were now about as common as a six-pack of bog roll in Asda. Off the pitch, a late Christmas present from Stott to the County faithful wrapped in that expensive foil paper, not the cheap see-through stuff, was Danny Lloyd. He returned to County on loan from our new business partners, Salford. This was exactly what we had needed from a confidence-boosting point of view, but further defeats away at Hartlepool and at home to Dover, both without County troubling the scoreboard operator, compounded a horrid month of football for County and it highlighted just how much work we had to do on the pitch to just be competitive again.
A trip to Dagenham provided the latest performance from the pissed cabaret that is a certain element of the County travelling support. This time their vitriol was aimed at Dagenham goalkeeper, Elliot Justham, who childishly goaded the County fans behind him after his side’s injury-time equaliser. Not just in the immediate celebration following the equaliser, but also in the 30 seconds or so after that when the melee of dozens of County fans, police and stewards piled to the front of the stand. Objects were thrown and stewards were verbally and physically assaulted. I’m certainly not going to congratulate the County fans for this, but their actions were understandable given the puerile way in which Justham behaved. His behaviour was noted by the police as he was given a stern talking to by the Met’s finest before he was escorted off the pitch and down the tunnel which was situated, ironically, in the away end. A further melee ensued as the players rushed down the tunnel. Allegations of spitting were levelled at the Dagenham fans behind the County dug out to round off a particularly distasteful day. By the way, County scored in that game, an actual real-life goal. Liam McAlinden sent the travelling band into absolute mayhem with his goal two minutes from the end of a god awfully turgid game, one in which new Stott signing, Lois Maynard, made his County debut...and badly injured his ankle.
The Dagenham game began the run of form which I mentioned at the beginning, we finally won the week after as Bromley were beaten 1-0 at a stormy EP, new signing (another one!), Liam Hogan, scored on his County debut after only signing for the club a few days earlier. The signing of Hogan, not on loan, but with actual cash, showed just how determined the new owner and new Director of Football, Simon Wilson, are to get County back into the Football League as quickly as possible.
Four points were gained over the next couple of weeks as County ground out results at Woking and Ebbsfleet. Liam McAlinden escaped serious injury despite being assaulted by some clogger during the draw at Woking and Ash Palmer’s late-winner sparked some unsegregated handbags in the stands, but was the sweetest of sweet revenge on Ebbsfleet after their shithouse masterclass earlier in the season.
Barnet visited EP for what would be the final game there for the foreseeable as rumours of a league-wide suspension mounted amid the growing virus concern. This was another game of myopic linesmen and an incompetent referee as Barnet were gifted an early penalty, despite their player being so far offside that he might as well have been stood in the Cheadle End car park. County were denied two of their own as a Barnet player literally stuck out his arm to stop a through-ball and McAlinden was clumsily fouled from behind in the second half, but we shouldn’t have expected anything from the officials, remember we haven’t been awarded a penalty since Chester City away, last season. In between the nailed-on penalty shouts, Ash Palmer looped in a header in first-half injury time. Another point and more importantly, a more determined and settled performance than we had become used to against well-organised sides at home.
Who knows what the next few months will hold, but it’s a shame that the quiet momentum built up over the last month of the season will now probably count for nothing. It’s certainly been three-quarters of a season to remember; the thick blue haze at Wrexham. Shorts weather at home to Chesterfield and Nyal Bell’s curler to make it 2-0, freezing one's extremities off at Halifax. The lows of Dorking to the highs of the takeover. Four down at half time at home against Torquay. Limbs at Fylde and Dagenham. Late, late winners away at Barnet and Ebbsfleet. Sometimes infuriating, sometimes joyous, in the end though it was all worth it. Typical County, really.