The End of the Line, part one: Reviewing January 2021
Welcome to TSBW January review and what a month it has been. County kicked off the year at home to Altrincham, looking to finish off what they started against them in the reverse fixture on Boxing Day. After the Wrexham victory and in particular the manner of victory, a similar performance; one of consistency and tenacity, would be very sweet indeed.
We barely had time to settle down on the sofa before a dominant County surged forward and Alex Reid fired in from close range following some fine work by Macauley Southam-Hales down the right. Almost a carbon copy of Richie Bennett’s goal against Wrexham it set the tone for a jubilant first half, one which mirrored that of the Wrexham game. Surely this was the moment we had been waiting for? The moment when all the “when will the team gel?” hand wringing finally came to an end.
Well, the second half gave a little indication that we still had to wait sometime yet. The half time substitutions of first half heroes, Reid and Southam-Hales instantly robbed County of their drive and energy down the right and it was a sullen County side who plodded through the half. Altrincham, without a sniff of Ben Hinchliffe’s goal in the first half, came to life and settled more quickly than the hosts, however, it was a moment of genius which settled the County nerves and seemed to seal another three points, as John Rooney, quickly amounting goal of the season contenders with frightening regularity, curled an absolute stunner into the top corner at the Cheadle End. Such natural talent, vision, skill and sheer audaciousness has been a rare thing at EP over the years, but freshly rested by virtue of his suspension, he repaid the debt to his colleagues and manager with this exquisite goal.
Unfortunately, though, one of the most frustrating aspects of County’s play this season was very evident again, that of the inability to kill off teams, the failure of simple game management and the conceding of messy goals. The second goal in particular, took an age to go in, through a crowd of bodies past a hapless Hinchliffe. The shock and then anger took a few seconds to sink in. Altrincham took full advantage of the second half lapse and in the end, they deserved a point from the game.
There were a few positives to be taken though, injury permitting we have a quality right sided attacking wing back in Southam-Hales, who has spent a frustrating few months at EP, but has taken his chances in the last two games with great ferocity and anyone who can keep a player like Sam Minihan out of the side must surely be playing well. Once again Reid, who has been hot and cold so far, displayed the desire and ability to keep opposing custodians busy for the rest of the season. Liam Hogan too gave another captain’s performance at the heart of the defence.
There was, however, some talk of another player/manager debate during half time, fortunately, this one came straight from the manager’s mouth and not from puerile internet trolls. The incident concerned Richie Bennett who was about to be substituted by Gannon at the interval. That plan was iced due to Reid’s injury, but the ensuing debate led Gannon to say he was ‘disappointed’ with Bennett and he mentioned the ‘resistance’ word again. This could merely have been a one-off incident, one which no doubt happens all the time between committed professionals, but given the recent difficult discussions about this very topic, one hopes the return of Nyal Bell from loan at FC Halifax Town was merely a coincidence.
And didn’t it take ages to come around?! Our first FA Cup third round game for 14 years and the visit of West Ham United brought the BT Sport cameras to EP once again. Not to mention a mass of other media coverage with Sam Minihan, Hogan and Gannon amongst others conducting interviews ahead of the game. The build up had been scarred by the national lockdown announcement and the general lethargic mood surrounding Covid and its effect on the nation. Obviously, the ground would be empty of paying fans, but once the build-up started properly over the weekend before the Monday night encounter it really started to feel like a big game occasion; one that we are all dying to replicate many times over the next decade.
The fourth and fifth round draws had preceded the game, the new LED advertising boards were in place, so was BT Sports’ studio in the corner of the Pop Side. The only problem was the weather, even if the teams were further apart than they were in 1996 the weather had a very familiar feel about it.
Richie Bennett dropped to the bench as County went for the pace and athleticism of Alex Reid up front while West Ham manager, David Moyes showed a huge amount of respect to County and the competition by naming, either in the starting eleven or as a substitute, nine of the starting line up from their New Year’s Day game away to Everton. We could be forgiven for thinking the worst as the visitors started brightly and nullified County’s usual keen and aggressive start and although neither side had a real goalscoring chance in the first half West Ham were the better side. County, though, played their part and displayed some resolute and organised play to frustrate the visitors.
This was the pattern in the second half, but with the weather worsening and the pitch holding large amounts of water, the game became more open. This definitely suited County as we grew in confidence and the final 30 minutes saw County’s best spell of pressure. However, the final ball, set piece or a West Ham foot always seemed to be lacking, poor or just in the way. The game was there to be won and on reflection, it can be argued we missed an opportunity to win the game, certainly West Ham, despite the superior ability of their squad, were matched on the night by County and with a little more guile in the final third we could be talking about a very different result. In the end, a momentary lapse of concentration from a short corner was all it took for the visitors to seal their place in the fourth round.
County, from the players up to the chairman, can be very proud of the whole third round experience. From extremely engaging and professional interviews to the rain-sodden performance on the night. Every single person should take some credit for helping to showcase County in their best light. With an eye on the future and what could be by May, the playing staff must now use the experience as a catalyst for the rest of the season, putting aside the doubts, inconsistency and rumours and producing the kind of performances akin to the proud and dedicated display against a team four divisions above us.
|Photo: The Telegraph|
The week of bad weather, torrential rain and heavy frost included, finally repented late in the week and Notts County at home would be a good test of our ability to not only bounce back from defeat but our ability to again stand toe to toe with better sides in our division. Plus, there is the small matter of, almost a month to the day, since the limp and sluggish defeat away to Notts in front of the BT Sport cameras. It was merely the FA Trophy, but it mattered not, at the very least a confident and cohesive performance was the minimum required and tasked with that was a much-changed County line-up, apart from James Jennings and Josh Barnes, the line-up was about as strong as one could have hoped for, the bench too, with Liam Hogan, John Rooney and Alex Reid, gave County fans room for hope ahead of the game.
The game itself meandered towards the half hour without much to shout about, both sides content to ease themselves into the game, and County were devoid of that fast-paced start we have been accustomed to, the only bright spark was some fantastic work between Adam Thomas and Southam-Hales on the right wing which almost fashioned a half-chance. The game then sprung into life within five minutes; some hesitant and disorganised County defending allowed the visitors to take the lead and moments later County equalised via Ash Palmer, reprising the goal he scored against Yeovil Town in the FA Cup; prodding home on the goal line after Thomas flicked on the corner.
So, one apiece at the break, but it was County who started the second half much more brightly, in fact for large spells after the interval Notts couldn’t get out of their own half, such was County’s dominance and urgency. They were not merely pressuring the Notts defence though, chances came, and unfortunately, went as Thomas and Richie Bennett were both guilty of failing to wrap up the game well before the visitors stole the victory with a very fortuitous goal with just a minute remaining.
It was a shame to lose after such a commanding second half, one which we haven’t seen often enough this season, it can be argued we looked better against Notts than in some of the other games we’ve won this season, but we should also not overlook the fact we should’ve won handsomely, there are rightly some questions being asked of County’s inconsistency in front of goal. However, the chances are being created, and that hasn’t always been the case this season, plus players such as Ryan Croasdale, Jordan Williams and Southam-Hales are beginning to look very capable in this new County side and have settled a lot over recent weeks. It must also be remembered that our best player, Rooney, didn’t even make it off the bench and Reid was only a late substitute. A defeat, yes, but one in the FA Trophy and more importantly, a defeat we can take a lot of positives from. Again, the minimum required from a midweek clash away to Dagenham and Redbridge is consistency and that same desire shown in games since the New Year, coupled with a better standard of finishing.
Prior to the Dagenham game the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), announced that the Winter Survival Package, designed to help clubs cover the costs of playing behind closed doors, would be in the form of a loan, not a grant. This raised obvious concerns surrounding the ability of most clubs to be able to finish the season as they would be against the idea of taking a loan. Quite rightly, clubs would probably be unwilling to jepordise their future for a loan to help them get through a season which might not even finish.
Further discussions were held at League level on Wednesday 20th January and three options were proposed to clubs; 1. Subject to criteria, clubs can take out a low-interest loan, 2. The National League would take over the loan from the DCMS and then provide grants to clubs from the fund. This, however, could affect future payments received from the League, 3. Suspend the season, with no guarantees given in regards to a re-start date.
Initial reports suggested the second and third options are most popular and formal choices are being gathered by the league over the coming days. There is an opinion that, like the saga over how to end last season, those near the relegation places will vote to suspend the season and the more well off clubs will vote to carry on. With so many questions needing to be answered, the debate over mandatory testing and what contingencies are in place should the government step in and suspend the season, it's no surprise to see many clubs hedging their bets. Whatever the opinions of clubs, fans will be hoping the third option doesn’t come to fruition.
The problem was that we didn’t really trouble the host’s defence, but a second half of poise, guile and that missing lethal touch were enough to give County the three points. Richie Bennett, much-maligned after his miss against Notts County, put in a brilliant centre forward’s performance as he rifled in the rebound from Rooney’s long-range effort, before showing his more skilful side as he beautifully set up Reid’s stunning goal with a turn and through ball from out on the right wing. Bennett isn’t an out and out goalscorer, that much is true, but his nine assists thus far really underline his importance to this County side. The more short-sighted County fans would do well to recognise this before venting on social media.
The overall performance was akin to the one against Notts County, we looked like a team who play with vigour and unity, we look threatening going forward and strong in defence, the midfield too, which was comprised of Croasdale, Maynard and Rooney against Dagenham, played extremely well with the industry of the former two giving the latter the chance to influence the game further forward.
Collectively, we have seen a marked improvement in team ethic and consistency over the last month, as if the Hartlepool nightmare was something of a nadir, and the top of the table is getting closer. More than anyone, the players and staff who have worked so hard this season must be hoping it doesn’t end prematurely again.
A quick peek behind the curtain for you all, this is how I finished it the night before the announcement. I was all ready to post this on the morning of the Boreham Wood game, but now I've had to add another part. A part which I never wanted to write, so here goes.
Jim Gannon isn't immortal, we knew he would leave County one day, we hoped it would be a glorious bow out after helping to re-build the club into an established, well-respected Championship team. We're nowhere near that yet, in fact we're still not halfway through the first full season of the 'Next Chapter' (my, how sour that corporate buzzword sounds now). Among the rumours and the half-truths, the club has cited a reason of 'culture' for Gannon's dismissal. We know he had issues with certain players around getting his football ideas across, these came to a head after the defeat at Hartlepool United and only a couple of weeks ago he had a dispute with Richie Bennett (mentioned above, but went under the radar somewhat), so it's probably safe to say those issues haven't completely been resolved. It's plain to see both sides have different ideas of how County should be run, but the model in which County has been run by Jim Gannon over the past five years - that of respected, grounded individuals, where a good footballing mindset surrounding grace, fair play and desire are the hallmarks of his side - is the very essence of Stockport County. We're not a flashy, overnight hobby club, plucked from a Sunday league division and rogered through the leagues with the crass and undignified air of a Blackpool stag do. We are much better than that, we are a club with which Jim Gannon had a huge affinity, he was able to instil his ideas and he made the club a much more likeable and professional outfit than we had seen since the days of the Championship 20 years ago. The board, by citing 'culture' have merely shown themselves to be classless and have utterly missed the point. They have massively underestimated how much Jim Gannon and his football philosophy mean to the club, not just the fans, but how much the club means as part of the community. They have displayed that their 'culture' is based upon in 'infrastructure' and material objects than a genuine love of what exactly makes this club tick. Gannon's football morals go deeper than matchday, they embody what makes being a County fan so unique. Absolutely nobody is bigger than Stockport County Football Club, but in one decision the board have obliterated those fine qualities in favour of ego, greed and machoism. Those traits have been displayed by a number of players over recent months and a reasonable argument can be made for 'player power' being involved in the decision. Barr four or five players, we have absolutely no connection to the procession of lower league mercenaries which were ushered in during the summer. They to me are not what County are about, they don't represent me, you or any other County fan. They merely wear the shirt and trouser a wage every week. We don't owe them anything, we have no emotional connection to them. Jim Gannon, as a manager and a person, was selfless, passionate, knowledgable and determined. We owe him an enormous debt of thanks, without him we would probably be out of business, or at best plodding around the middle of the sixth tier, with no hope on the horizon. He leaves County in an unbelievably better state than how he found us five years ago and a small percentage of any future success will always belong to Jim Gannon. The board, with their hollow promises and forced sincerity, can never take that away from us or him.
So tonight as the clock ticks towards one o'clock on Friday morning, I feel a little better knowing that no matter what division we're in, no matter who we've signed or what the bespoke red and white chequered shirt looks like (after today you wouldn't put it past them!), there will always be a little part of Jim Gannon about us.