The Good, The Bad and The Outstanding - Reviewing March 2021

Welcome back, folks. March started with an away game at Weymouth, with County looking to build upon a much-needed victory over Chesterfield in our last game of February (for the full round-up of the last few weeks of February click here).

Elliot Newby started for County on the south coast in the place of John Rooney who was injured. Still injured too were Mark Kitching and Macauley Southam-Hales, their creativity and attacking acumen would be sorely missed once again.
The home side managed to do what very few others have done recently, actually score a goal against County, after some poor defensive work on the right-hand side. County, though, had 88 minutes to find an equaliser, and arguably more than enough time to grab the three points. 
The problem, once again, was that County's attack was disjointed and lifeless and although Newby and Tom Walker breached the home defence on more than one occasion, a combination of stout defending and poor finishing contributed to a very frustrating first half. One low on quality and without much promise of an end to the current run of drab displays. One of the consistencies of Simon Rusk's start to life as County manager has been encouraging and sometimes decisive build-up play only to see the attack come to nothing. Sam Dalby in particular didn't do his County career any favours with a particularly anonymous display. He indeed was substituted at half time as Harry Cardwell came on and turned in another decent performance. In fact, he and Newby, both loanees from Chorley, were two of the few positives to be taken from the game. 
County were certainly determined enough to level the scores and their second half efforts can not be doubted. Liam Hogan, Ryan Croasdale, Sam Minihan and James Jennings too can be pleased with their shift. There has been plenty made of using the word luck, whether it be making your own luck, bad luck or that luck is purely an arbitrary term, but it can't be debated that County were unfortunate not to score as they had three efforts cleared off the line and hit the post, all in the second half. However, it was the often pedestrian nature of proceedings, with little else to speak about in terms of chances, which are really magnified when results aren't going well and it is these bare statistics that fans will focus on. Whether rightly or wrongly. The pressure is on Rusk and McGhee to deliver and soon, as the chance of promotion, although still well within our reach, seemed to be further away after another 90 minutes without a win, or a goal.

County attempted to address the issue by signing two players on loan; Jack Stretton from Derby County and Nathan Shaw from Blackpool. One can see that they're here to add depth in key positions. Shaw will provide some answer on the left-hand side with Kitching injured and Jordan Williams out of the picture after his indifferent form. Stretton will no doubt replace Dalby as back up to Reid and Richie Bennett. However, are two young players from Championship/League One reserve sides what we need to solve the ongoing problems 2021 County face? 

Photo: Stockport County

A trip to Solihull Moors, a side County traditionally struggle against, probably wasn't an ideal fixture given our indifferences. Lois Maynard made a surprise return to the side, as did Cardwell, Jordan Keane, and the mercurial Rooney. Given everything that has happened over the past month; the rescinded red cards, the dodgy penalties given against us, goals disallowed for offside, the general lethargy and inability to score, the outcome of the game against Solihull had definitely been coming. For the first time in a while, County took advantage of the chances that came their way in a stunning, and rather surreal, opening half an hour. Rooney tucked home a penalty after Moors defender, Tyrone Williams brought down Cardwell, Williams was also shown a red card as no attempt to play the ball had been made. Rooney then did what he does best, capitalising on some slack defending to curl a beauty into the bottom corner from the edge of the area. A few minutes later and the game was all over as Cardwell's fierce drive beat the Solihull goalkeeper for pace despite his best efforts. The fourth came via Tom Walker, as he again took advantage of some generous defending to head home at the back post, unmarked.
The second half was, as expected, a much more sedate affair, with the home side looking to keep the score down and County content to expend as little energy as possible. Rooney almost replicated his goal from his own half at Rochdale with a chip from a similar distance which only just cleared the crossbar and Jack Stretton marked his County debut with a fifth of the game late in the second half, latching on to a through ball to coolly prod home.  
The first half was on par with Woking in Rusk's first game and a living breathing lesson, schooled by Rooney, in what we're capable of if we take our chances. As has been mentioned here before, County are a very talented side, actually getting them to play to their capabilities has been the difficult part for Rusk so far. He, more than anyone, I feel, will have breathed a sigh of relief as the goals rained in. 
Six points from two home games against Dagenham and Redbridge and lowly Barnet, were a must to maintain the promotion push and to further rejuvenate Rusk's men.  

On Monday 15th March County announced the signing of Paddy Madden from Fleetwood Town, a proven Football League goalscorer, he certainly ticks the boxes of goalscoring striker and the type of big signings we need to accomplish our short term aim of promotion. If he clicks with his new teammates we could well be set for a successful end to the season. The figures rumoured to have been paid are extremely high for non-league level, but you certainly cannot doubt the level of ambition and desire to claim promotion at the earliest opportunity - the doubts about whether this season has been written off behind the scenes have been well and truly buried with the signing of Madden.

County achieved half the aforementioned six-point target with a win over Barnet, the reason why they didn't win the full set of points wasn't their fault; a ball wasn't kicked against Dagenham due to a Covid issue within the visiting team. 
John Rooney was the only new absentee from the line up against Barnet, the troublesome hamstring once again forced him to miss out. Elliot Newby, impressive against Weymouth, deputised again. Long term injury cases; Mark Kitching and Macauley Southam-Hales were still out.  
Barnet had only managed one league win since October but had arrived at EP with a renewed sense of confidence following the re-appointment of Paul Fairclough as manager and an encouraging draw at Bromley. County, looking to make it three wins out of the last four games, started well and Liam Hogan bundled in the opener after just 10 minutes to give rise to thoughts of just how many we could score. Well, in the first half Barnet gave a few indications of just how being close to the bottom of the league but without the fear of being relegated can help a team collectively relax, as their spritely attack gave County a few nervous moments at times. We should have been further ahead before half time though as Harry Cardwell's header hit the post. He was injured shortly afterwards, a premature debut was given to Madden and a slight air of excitement was shared by the watching hordes. 
The second half should have been a mere formality and how it played out depends, once again, on how full or otherwise you view the glass. County had chances, Madden, in particular, will want back the open goal he missed and Sam Minihan had a stinging effort cleared off the line. As we have found out recently, chances don't always equal goals and the more they were spurned the more nervous we became, with those old habits of carelessly losing possession and defending too deep, dying hard. The result of a mostly disjointed second half was Barnet's equaliser; Jordan Keane's uncharacteristic mistake allowed Alexander McQueen to turn and finish with ease. Barnet were never in much danger of leaving EP with three points, but they did cause some panic in the County defence and pinned us back for large periods of the second half. 
Loan signing, Jack Stretton was the saviour though (via some help from the Barnet defence) as his effort just about crept in with just over five minutes remaining. Relief all around. As we have also found out recently, winning at all costs isn't always that easy and this kind of win has eluded us more often than not since Simon Rusk took over. An important three points were secured, not just important in the race for promotion, but also to prove County have the desire and character to overcome average performances and spirited opponents to eventually win. Feast or famine had been the hallmark of Rusk's County but wins like the one against Barnet prove County are up for the fight. 

Photo: Stockport County

A trip to the league leaders would certainly test that willingness to compete with a physical side. County were once again without Rooney and Kitching, but Southam-Hales made a welcome return to the bench. Paddy Madden and Jack Stretton made their first starts for the club. 
Sutton were their usual well-organised self and they turned in a first half performance similar to that which gave them the win at EP; they were quick to press, strong in the challenge, worked the channels to good effect and were direct in the attack. County though, weren't overawed by the test, they too were confident and played their part in an end to end first 45 minutes. Both sides had chances, the home side were guilty of not taking advantage on more than one occasion and Madden hit the crossbar for County. Elliot Newby, once again, superbly deputised for Rooney in that attacking midfield role, and although County didn't create much in the way of chances (much of this should be credited to the way Sutton organised themselves and closed down the County threat from out wide) the gap of ten league points between the sides looked a lot closer.
The second half played out in much the same way, although County can consider themselves unfortunate not to have had at least one penalty and without being too biased, probably three. Stretton was fouled and a handball from the resulting corner were the more blatant ones. Both sides were evenly matched, but the home side took the lead after a swift counter, cross and glancing header from Harry Beautyman.
Like a lot of games this season, County attacked with energy and purpose but failed to create much to test the home custodian and with County's front three of Reid, Madden and Stretton struggling against Sutton's imposing backline it needed a change of personnel to try and swing the game in our favour; enter Southam-Hales and Tom Walker. Southam-Hales' cavalier, direct running caused a lot of problems for the tiring Sutton defence. His introduction injected some life into the County attack and Jennings, Bennett and Madden all had half-chances late on. With the game ticking towards the conclusion County were still not out of it by any means and a couple of late corners caused some panic for the hosts. Then, after 95 minutes of cheering on each attack and willing the ball to go in, we got our reward. James Jennings ghosted in at the far post to nod home the sweetest of equalisers (for what it's worth, there was absolute mayhem in our living room when that went in!).
Sutton had run out of steam in the end, their intense, physical style demands a lot of mind and body and County finished the stronger of the two sides. The destination of the league title may not matter too much to County now with the huge gap to make up, but Sutton, although very effective in the style of play, were nowhere near as assured as they were during the victory at EP and credit must be given to the game played by a more settled and resilient County side than the one they faced in February. 
County deserved their point, like the Barnet game they demonstrated the tenacity and character to grind out points against difficult opponents. That resolve will be much needed with two home games against our promotion rivals. We may not be pleasing to the eye at times, but no one can deny there is a hint that the team is starting to hit its stride under Rusk, and with some notable players still to come back from injury.       

Our penultimate game of the month game at home to Eastleigh, a side pushing for the play offs and one who benefitted from a rather inept referring display just last month. The injuries still linger; this week Liam Hogan was added to the list of players absent, but it gave Ash Palmer the chance to reprise his role as County captain at centre half, while Will Collar came in for Lois Maynard who was on international duty with St. Kitts and Nevis. 
As has become customary, County started brightly with a confident air about their play, in truth, Eastleigh hardly touched the ball for the first half an hour and it came as little surprise that Harry Cardwell, once again impressive on the night, stroked in the opening goal following a tremendous turn and run from Collar. Following a string of fine performances, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Cardwell, and his Chorley teammate, Elliot Newby, in the County blue next season. They have both been fine additions to the squad at a time when they were needed most. 
Time and again County came forward, buoyed by the recent undefeated spell of form, with attacks coming from all sides and in truth we were unfortunate not to be further ahead come the break. Paddy Madden came close to opening his account as he flashed a header just wide. He came to EP with not only an impressive goal scoring record but an impressive disciplinary record too; his booking in the first half for a heavy challenge close to the corner flag was concerning, at this point we can put it down to overenthusiasm, but it's something to be wary of. 
Eastleigh made more of a game of it in the second half and County were in danger of falling into the habit of struggling to find a killer instinct. The visitors weren't the better side by any stretch of the imagination, but they, like Barnet, caused some problems for County; once or twice they carved open the County backline with relative ease from the wings and Tom Walker was inches away from giving away a penalty. However, even without Hogan the defence was never under serious prolonged pressure except for one or two hairy moments. 
County needed the second goal to relax things a little and it came courtesy of a thundering drive from Will Collar; out of the blue following a challenge on Madden well outside the area, it was a magnificent way to get your first goal for the club, and, alas, another goal which a raucous Cheadle End failed to see live.
The game was virtually sealed for County, although Eastleigh certainly played their part and there were chances for both sides to add to the scoreline. The night was capped off with a fine header by Alex Reid from a corner and the win marked that sweet spot between 'feast and famine'. It was a very satisfying performance from start to finish and forgetting the goal fests at Woking and Solihull for a moment, it was arguably the best all-round performance of Simon Rusk's County career. County remained marooned in fourth place, but the need to keep chipping away and picking up points (at that stage 10 points from 12) will be firmly imprinted on the minds of the players. All just in time for another six-pointer, against Hartlepool United at EP.

Just two days after the very pleasing display against Eastleigh, County relayed the news that Connor Jennings had been diagnosed with cancer. The low-grade chondroid sarcoma which Jennings has is rare but the surgery required has a good success rate. Needless to say, the sport of football comes a very poor second to one's health, particularly when it involves something as serious as cancer, it also goes without saying that we all wish Connor the speediest of full recoveries.

The next day, Friday 26th March, the National League announced Dover Athletic's record for this season had been expunged. They will start 2021/22 on minus 12 points and have recieved a £40,000 fine. The fallout means County lose three points, as do Torquay United and Wrexham. Notts County are probably the biggest beneficaries; they're now just a point behind County with two games in hand. Although we had expected this outcome for a while, the remaining games just got that little bit more important. 

Photo: Stockport County

The game aginst Hartlepool, unbeaten in ten games, saw Harry Cardwell benched. A serious man of the match contender against Eastleigh he was, according to Rusk, carrying an injury. The lack of a physical presence up front certainly showed as fellow strikers, Reid and Madden, struggled against the visitors stout defence, in fact they had kept six clean sheets in the last ten games. It's also worth noting the opposing goalkeepers had the most second-most clean sheets in the division, so a goal fest was never likely. However, it was the visitors who were the better side for the majority of the game, their high pressing game and confident attacking style saw County, minus captain Hogan again, play on the back foot without creating much on the rare occasions they broke forward. It felt like two steps back after the one forward the Tuesday previous. We struggled to maintain possession and played straight into the visitor's hands by lumping it long when out of options or being pressed high. 
The second half saw Hartlepool's dominance pay off as they scored the easiest of goals following a swift move through County's lines, one which failed to produce a challenge on the runner from defence or on the cross which Gavan Holohan headed home. They didnt settle for one goal either and if Andy Liddle, given the freedom of the penalty area, had headed in at the far post, the game could well have been over after an hour. As it happened the arrival of Cardwell as a substitute changed the course of the game as he gave County another attacking outlet and caused the Hartlepool defence some problems as County sensed an equaliser. Macauley Southam-Hales probably should have equalised with a backpost header and Elliot Newby forced a great save from visiting goalkeeper, Killip. They were the main chances, which doesn't sound like much, but the overall tempo and desire, plus actually looking like we might score, increased somewhat when County had Cardwell on the pitch. As was mentioned above, it would be very prudent for the County heirachy to enquire about Cardwell and Newby in the summer, they have settled in seemlessly into a professional side in the division above. 
The equaliser, from a Cardwell flick on, was smashed home on the volley by Paddy Madden. A fantastic goal and no doubt the first of many. Madden isn't the fox in the box type of striker we thought he might be used as, or at least he isn't at the moment. His ability to pick the ball up in deep areas can make him difficult to track, or at the very least he will pull the defenders out of position and make it easier for his team mates to expose the defence. It will be interesting to see how he settles now he has broken his County duck. 
The late flurry of possession from County didn't materialise, and so County came through unscathed from a proper test of their ability to match the best in the league. They just about passed and it's worth noting they have gained points from losing positions against the top two teams in the division just seven days apart. Add that to the battling performance against Barnet and the comfortable show against Eastleigh and you have a pretty good idea of the make up of Rusk's County side. April will be huge with Easter and a visit to Wrexham on the horizon. This time next month we will be just weeks away from a return to EP (fingers crossed), the end of the season and the play offs. This is where the rollercoaster goes a little bit faster. Hold on tight.  



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