Covid, Cups and Life on the Road, part one: Reviewing December 2020

Welcome back, I hope you enjoyed my look back at County's fortunes in the FA Cup which replaced the November review? There has been a lot of focus on the Cup recently and I couldn’t completely leave out everything that happened in November. I’m going to cheat a little and go over our first game back after the enforced Covid-break, Yeovil Town at home in the 2nd Round of the FA Cup. 

County entered the game quietly confident of a result against a side who hadn’t won a league game all season, but just peeping out from under the surface was a little apprehension, the apprehension that we hadn’t played in nearly three weeks and a lack of match sharpness and the worry that later in the game fatigue would sap the energy reserves. We barely had time to contemplate these theories when Matty Warburton (who else?) fired the visitors in front. One could hardly comprehend what had happened, but it had, not many players had received the adulation from the EP faithful in modern times like Warburton had and he was here, trying to dump us out of the Cup. Luckily we had 88 minutes to put things right. 

To be fair to Yeovil, they belied their lowly league place and were a match for County for the majority of the game, but unlike the stagnant mess which was the Weymouth defeat, County drove right at the visitors after the opener, barely allowing them to settle into a comfortable rhythm. The leveller, another John Rooney penalty, was more than deserved. 

County, as we know, don’t make life easy for themselves, and it has been a worrying trait over the last month (in fact it is an aspect to our game which has hung around most of the season) that we may have ground out results in a both physically and mentally testing way, we have also been careless in allowing teams to hang around, or simply gifting them chance after chance. This hideous trait continued against Yeovil, as they built up a steady momentum after half time and eventually took the lead after the hour, not for the first time a player scored from close range with relative ease. Back to square one, and with barely half an hour left, County could waste no time….and they duly didn’t, as Ash Palmer tapped in the equaliser literally minutes later. 

The aforementioned fatigue had already begun to take effect and it appeared extra time was inevitable, especially as County didn’t look likely to score. The very fact that Yeovil nearly did, through a contentious penalty with just minutes left, marvellously saved by Ben Hinchliffe, may well have spurred County towards a second wind. Extra time produced few chances, but the one which was wonderfully powered in via the forehead of Connor Jennings brought smiles of relief to everyone involved (a nod to Jamie Stott for the lovely, pinpoint cross too). 

On two occasions it had appeared either Chesterfield or Yeovil would be the ones playing West Ham United in the famous Third Round, but Chesterfield’s inability to read the Ts and Cs and a combination of Hinchliffe's reflexes and Yeovil’s penalty taker bickering have meant that it is County who will face off against The Hammers on 11th January. Fond memories of the League Cup win in 1996 will be revived, this was my recollection from my 1996/97 article;

When the final whistle went the fans flooded (pun!) on to the pitch, my vantage point seemed to be a bad choice before the game, but afterwards, it meant that I didn’t need much of an invitation to join my fellow fans in celebration on the EP mud bath. I was over the perimeter fence and trying my best not to end up on my arse; Brett Angell was being mobbed to my left while further up the pitch on the centre spot a man was simply stood there, arms outstretched, with an elated smile on his face. The smell of freshly ploughed, muddy, recently fertilised grass still remains with me to this day, so too does the sheer brightness of the floodlit Edgeley Park pitch from close up.

Back to 2020, while County had been sitting and waiting for their enforced Covid-break to lapse the rest of the footballing world had carried on regardless. In many ways the lack of football in November was worse than lockdown and pre-season, at least back then every other team was in the same boat as County.  The Covid-break also meant that the missed fixtures, plus one or two others, were squeezed in either side of Christmas, a marathon ten-game slog between the beginning of December and the West Ham clash. A mammoth task and one which would have a large bearing on how our season shapes up. Such a fixture schedule is great for the fans, of course, so long as there aren’t too many blood pressure busting games like Yeovil, and we must be thankful for such a versatile and robust squad, as every player will be tested during this period.

Before our game at Bromley, we were treated to a video from County showing the recent refurbishment of EP. Many fans will have been thrilled with the new-look Cheadle End concourse and it certainly is something of a jewel in the crown of EP. Added to that were shots of the refurbished home dressing room and the new Cheadle End cladding; all neat, new pieces in a new-look ground, which, as has been pointed out elsewhere, merely needed the time and money to be brought into the 21st century and this redevelopment is certainly is a compelling argument against starting again with a new, but often cold and dull, stadium - a route many clubs take much to their detriment. 

Developments such as the ones we’re witnessing at EP really emphasise the ambition of Mark Stott and the board and County fans can be rightly proud of the continuing revolution happening at our beloved home.  

Photo: Stockport County

So, Bromley, away, the first of two games in four days in the capital. There was much praise for the professionalism and smooth streaming production brought to us by our hosts, most clubs in our league could learn something from Bromley, including County, and still reasonably priced too. 

Being in tier two, at the time, Bromley were able to welcome fans back to Hayes Lane, although the crowd wasn’t as vociferous as one would expect it was definitely an envious moment as the home fans, stood and watched their team, hailed each tackle, lamented every misplaced pass, bought a pie and a coffee and experienced live football once more. At the time of writing, we still have no idea when we’ll be able to step foot back into EP and jealousy reigns supreme. 

The game, on Bromley’s 4G pitch, started at breakneck speed, with County settling well and taking a rather fortuitous lead as Alex Reid saw a goal line clearance hammered into his stomach before it rocketed into the net. Both Connor Jennings and Reid should have added to our tally to put the game out of reach before half time, but the hosts were on a good run of form, unbeaten in six games, and they pressed and attacked with a real determination. Ben Hinchliffe, Liam Hogan and Jordan Keane all kept the Bromley forwards at bay as they missed more than one sitter in the first half. Bromley forward, Michael Cheek probably won’t be watching the highlights as he missed a virtually open goal from mere inches out. 

The second half saw County be quite content to defend what they had, switching to a back five and defending deep. The problem was that Bromley were then able to take their time and measure their attacks in the face of little pressure from the County midfield. They missed another couple of sitters too, with Cheek, again, the culprit of flashing a free header wide. 

County certainly weren’t at their ruthless best, but they did what good teams do; win ugly. John Rooney sealed a win which didn’t really feel like a 2-0 win, as he slotted home Sam Minihan’s low cross just after the hour.  

Your opinion of the game is probably formed by whether you view the County glass to be half-full or half-empty. On one hand, we conceded too many good chances, set pieces were poor once again, we were quite disjointed in defence and we gave up possession too easily. However, we took our chances and showed immense determination, organisation and guile to grind out a decent away win. Like the Rochdale and Yeovil games, we were content to dig in and fight for the win, even if that meant sacrificing some of the free-flowing movement, finesse and attacking acumen. Not a bad element to have if you have ambitions of promotion, as the course to the Football League certainly isn’t paved with teams who will roll over easily. 

Another trip to the capital came days later and a very similar game to the last, although Barnet were in poor form, showed a stunning lack of discipline culminating in their second half red card and were almost at breaking point, to the extent where we heard their now ex-manager Peter Beadle, mention more than once, that subjective element; luck. There was also his bizarre notion that they were on top for the majority of the game (County could have scored three in the opening half an hour). Barnet weren’t unlucky, they, like Bromley, failed to convert the chances they created. They made a game of it, certainly, but once County started to make the one-man advantage tell it was clear who the winner would be. The red card itself was about as clear a sending off as you’re likely to see with the ‘studs up’ and ‘high tackle’ boxes ticked. 

The Hatters’ defending was a little suspect at times, once again, although again, County were without Jamie Stott and Ash Palmer, and it’s difficult to see a County defence with one or both of them conceding the clear cut chances they did at Barnet. 

Reid and Richie Bennett showed just how they’ve progressed in the short time they have been together, as they combined for both County goals. On both occasions, they showed the skill and anticipation which could make the partnership extremely potent this season. The introduction of Mark Kitching also made a telling difference as he provided that direct, attacking style we have become used to recently. For many, he is already an integral part of the team. 

Two tough away trips, ones of the type we usually struggle to win, were successfully navigated with maximum points. We certainly were not at our best but points are all that count, especially given the psychological hurdle of the games in hand and the stop/start nature of the season. The period of completely gelling as a team will eventually arrive, but it’ll take longer than usual. In the meantime, wins were even more important than ever.

Photo: Stockport County

Sutton United at home should have been set up nicely with both sides making good early-season progress and in good form. The postponement, however, continued the long run of away league games. Staggeringly, County’s next scheduled league game at EP, mainly due to the Covid reshuffle, is Wrexham on the 28th December. 

The Sutton game being called off is obviously the right decision, however, County must be frustrated at the disrupted momentum, not to mention the fixture backlog. At the time of writing, we have yet to rearrange the Sutton and Maidenhead United games, with our next free midweek being early February. 

The backlog situation is certainly out of the ordinary, and we’re not just talking about playing games here, there is travel, training, recovery and squad rotation to consider. I am more confident that this County set up is better equipped than that of more recent seasons, simply because we have the resources to be able to cope. There will be contingency plans in place, the logistics will be carefully planned and training will be tailored to suit our needs. It will be tough to navigate the winter without any more postponements, but County will be well prepared for these challenges. 

Notts County on BT Sport, the kind of mouthwatering promotion clash we’ve been waiting to get our teeth into for a while, a game which had been postponed previously. After the Sutton postponement, it wouldn’t be too outlandish to expect to see a County side full of confidence raring to go. What we got instead was an insipid, pale imitation of the side we had become used to seeing so far this season. Notts certainly were not world-beaters on the night, and with a little more desire and urgency we may well have gained a point. Unfortunately, there were more negatives than positives, in fact only the more ardent ‘half full’ County fans will be able to pull anything positive from that hideous mess. Most irritating was the persistence with the direct ball and the substitution of Kitching (his stunning cameo at Barnet seemingly forgotten). This while Jordan Williams, who had been at fault for the only goal, had a very poor game and played the 90 minutes. 

I have covered the game with the podcast chaps in some detail and if you’ve listened to the Dying on Shithousery HIll episode you will know my feelings on the game. The bottom line is that County let themselves down, we are much better than the 90 minutes served up for national television at Meadow Lane. 

Our season will not be defined by the Notts County defeat, similarly, if we had won it wouldn’t have made us champions. However, these are the games against which our standards are set. At best we simply had an off day and Notts got their tactics right, at worst we were shown up on national television, displayed our limitations and an apparent lack of confidence. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but like the Weymouth game at the end of October, it certainly gives players, staff and fans alike something to think about and highlights the stark reality that promotion from the National League won’t be at all easy. 

On Thursday 17th December, the government announced that Greater Manchester would remain in tier 3 of their national restrictions. With no review until mid-January, the probable post-Christmas lockdown and the reported new variant of Covid-19 it seems unlikely that we will be returning to EP anytime soon. For County and more importantly, the fans, it’s another kick in the teeth. We have waited patiently for nine months while many clubs have welcomed fans back, the County faithful have been left kicking their heels. Simply more than just supporting their team we should also be mindful of the impact of being denied the chance to go to EP is having on the collective mental health of County fans everywhere. Of course, there are much more important events in life than following a football team, but following a football team, with all the joy, misery and everything in between, is supposed to be a pleasant distraction from those pressures of life. One day we’ll be back, trouble is we don’t know when that will be and every subsequent tier review will bring that feeling of being so near, yet so far. 

The 10 league game mark has been passed and many will see this as the point where we can make a decent assessment of where this new County side are, how we have progressed, and what our strengths and weaknesses are. Much like the end of the October review, I said we can be pleased thus far but there is a lot to work on. Arguably, little has changed, and that’s mainly because County haven’t played many league games since then (just three between 31st October and 19th December). The frustrating, asterisk marked, stop/start nature of this season is slowing our progress somewhat. The ultimate aim in the short term is to keep a sustained run of good form going, should we achieve that, we can be sure the team will settle and the creases will be ironed out.  

Join me at the end of the month when I’ll be reviewing the second half of December. In the meantime, enjoy Christmas, stay safe and keep your fingers crossed for a return to EP very soon. 


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