Touching Distance - Reviewing April 2021

Hello and welcome to the penultimate review of the season, well let’s hope it’s the penultimate review, should our season be extended into June next month’s review will be a bumper six-week affair. Lucky you.


Anyway, back to the present (or should that be ‘the past’?!), April started with the news that Richie Bennett had joined Hartlepool United on loan until the end of the season. The statement released by County said that he wanted to play regularly, something he hadn’t been doing a lot since Simon Rusk took over as manager. One wouldn’t begrudge Bennett the opportunity to join a top National League side, but the timing and Hartlepool’s close proximity to County in the league make the move somewhat frustrating. As we subsequently found out in the interview between Jon Keighren and Simon Wilson, Hartlepool were only one of a few clubs who could afford to take a player of Bennett’s stature on loan, hence the reason for his move there, but it’s a risk and one County will certainly be hoping doesn’t come back to haunt them come the end of the season. 


A Good Friday trip to Aldershot was up next, a place we had failed to come away with a win on the 26 previous occasions we’d played there. However, despite the midweek victory over Notts County (dubious penalty and all), Aldershot were there for the taking by a resurgent County side. The credible draw against Hartlepool United and the comfortable victory at home to Eastleigh were solid foundations for taking maximum points over Easter, and with the league table becoming more congested than a vaccination waiting room, every single point mattered more than ever. 

County had some good news team-wise with Liam Hogan and John Rooney returning from injury to take their place in the starting lineup and on the bench respectively. We started brightly, as has become customary, as Jack Stretton began his personal crusade against the Aldershot left back and both Sam Minihan and Harry Cardwell whose odd, innocent-looking looping header hit the bar, both went close. 

County had obviously done their homework and found a great mismatch down the right, which Stretton, who made a case for man of the match, took full advantage of. He arguably should have had a penalty before he got the goal his endeavour deserved with just over five minutes of the first half remaining. A superb through ball from Paddy Madden released Stretton and he fired home with relative ease. On the balance of play, the half time lead was deserved as County cruised through the opening 45 minutes. 

Stretton was involved again after the restart as he continued his spirited display; breaking into the Aldershot box before teeing up Madden for a half chance. It was shame therefore that the Derby loanee was substituted before the hour, in his place came John Rooney, his talent is never in doubt but his introduction seemed to take the sting out of the County attack as the game wore on, not just that Stretton had been substituted, but Rooney seemingly had to fight for space to compete in the attacking midfield area with the deep dropping Madden. 

Before the game swung in the hosts favour County continued their fine run of scoring from set pieces as James Jennings’ delivery was headed home at the back post by Ash Palmer. A quite simple yet devastating set play, and one which County have been more and more dangerous with over the last month. 

2-0 and County continued their comfortable afternoon’s work in the Aldershot sunshine. That was until they made life more difficult for themselves, as an innocuous-looking attack resulted in some pedestrian defending and the deficit was halved. The infuriating trait of allowing teams back into a game at a point where County should be closing the game out seemed to be creeping up on the horizon. Right then the defending wasn’t so assured and the home side attacked with vigour. Aldershot though, despite a thoroughly good attempt, failed to break through the County backline, except for a couple of free kicks. The S E V E N (as the old school videprinter would have told us) minutes of injury time passed without major incident and County, at last, had a win at Aldershot. Now the record stands at one win in 26 (!). More importantly, it was another three points closer to securing a play off spot. 


Photo: Stockport County

The BT Sport cameras were at EP for the next game versus Bromley and as the race for the play offs was hotting up the action at EP was distinctly freezing. True, County made a good start and dominated possession, but the lack of drive and tenacity throughout the game was a troubling sign, as the overall effort seemed to mirror that of a pre-season game. It was a shame Jack Stretton had been recalled by Derby County just hours earlier, his youthful energy enriched the County performance on Good Friday and would almost have certainly livened up proceedings on a dull Easter Monday. 

Rooney was back in the starting line up, indeed he had County’s only two meaningful chances, although it was a stretch to describe them so. Again, his presence seemed to hinder the pace of the side, leaving many to question why he was starting after such a resolute stretch of performances in his absence. The answer is that he is County’s most talented player. He was signed to bring exactly what he does; industry and a keen eye for the special goal or assist. Style over substance at times, it is a difficult situation for Rusk to remedy. When Rooney is on song he is unstoppable, unfortunately, when he isn’t he’s more of a liability.

On the game meandered, to its inevitable conclusion, with Alex Reid on the bench no doubt wondering, as the team’s leading scorer, exactly why he couldn’t get on the pitch in the second half. He wasn’t the only one. So, another chance to keep pace with, and close the gap on, our fellow promotion challengers was squandered and our thoroughly average home form continued. Despite now being seven games unbeaten this one felt more like a step backwards than one forwards. 


On Tuesday 6th April, following the announcement the government would be going ahead with step two of the roadmap out of lockdown, they released an updated guide to how step three will work. Step three, as we know, will see fans return to stadiums from 17th May at the earliest. The guidance confirmed that smaller stadiums will be allowed a 4000 capacity (or 50% of the usual capacity, whichever is lower). Looking ahead, the play off final, should it be played, as rumoured, at Leicester City’s King Power Stadium, will see a capacity of just over 8000 for that game. 

The nerves surrounding whether step three will go ahead are easing (remember, any significant delay to step three happening will see us unable to return to EP until the start of next season at the earliest), the vaccination programme continues to press ahead and at the time of writing over half of the adult population have received their first dose. The number of infections continues to stay at a manageable level and the number of people being hospitalised is still heading in the right direction. The end is in sight for long-suffering football fans up and down the country, the wait is nearly over, one can almost feel the buzz of live football again. 


Back to matters on the pitch and County’s unbeaten run would surely be tested against a Wrexham side who had been very strong at home and have crept into the play off race over the last two months.

 

Alex Reid, fresh from his unused substitute appearance against Bromley, started in an imposing front three as it was clear to see Simon Rusk was certainly setting up for the three points in Wales. The opening 15 minutes definitely belonged to Wrexham as they pressed high and with great intensity, winning the ball back and pinning County into their own half with relative ease. Rusk and the team, to their credit, rode the early storm and simply countered the Wrexham attack by utilising the pace of Reid and the physicality of Harry Cardwell, although it was still somewhat of a surprise to see County take the lead; a long kick by Ben Hinchliffe was inexplicably missed by the entire Wrexham team and Reid easily finished beyond the onrushing Christian Dibble. 

As the minutes ticked by County became more and more confident, that swagger we saw against Eastleigh and Solihull Moors, that slick authority, flowed throughout the team and Wrexham could offer very little in return. One goal became two shortly after, following some aggressive pressing of their own, Madden and Cardwell forced the defence into a couple of hurried passes, Tom Walker crossed, Cardwell flicked on and Reid stabbed in his second. It was that easy. Sandwiched neatly in between Reid’s brace was an attempt by the home defence at playing volleyball, a clear penalty denied, more on that type of decision later. 

The ease with which County strolled through proceedings matched if not bettered the reverse fixture at Edgeley Park shortly after Christmas. It has been rare, but less rare recently, to see County play with such assurance and one could not find fault with any player. Wrexham, tired and beaten from the moment their early-game pressure had subsided, were no doubt worried about their capitulation to three promotion rivals within three games, with their play off aspirations seemingly falling apart; they had a lot of work to do simply to make up ground on the rest.

County saw out the game with a minimum of fuss and Macauley Southam-Hales’ lung-busting counter-attack following a Wrexham corner was rewarded with an obvious penalty following a very weary tackle by a retreating defender. John Rooney was also rewarded for his efforts in the counter-attack as he easily dispatched the penalty. Honourable mention to Paddy Madden, he remained rooted to one goal for County, but his tireless running and intelligent movement worked very well in tandem with the front two. Alex Reid too deserves a mention, it was always a fairly safe bet the phone call from Simon Wilson which he mimed during his goal celebration wasn’t too far away. Often hot and cold, but he is arguably in the right place to progress and succeed at this level. 

3-0 it finished, it was the type of performance which shouldn’t come as a surprise given our wealth of talent, but still makes for a pleasant, more relaxed, Saturday evening. County, now unbeaten in eight games, showing some imperious form just as the fixture list eased a little with two home games.


Photo: The Non-League Paper

The first of two clashes with King’s Lynn Town in the space of three weeks was next on the EP menu. County have a recent history of struggling to break down teams who set out to defend and steal a point, given the visitor’s league position one would reasonably expect that County would have to spend the evening trying to unpick the King’s Lynn defence, but two events occurred to put that theory to bed early in the game. First was Alex Reid’s goal; a great piece of instinct to redirect Paddy Madden’s miscued effort on goal. In fact Madden could have opened the scoring himself after just a minute earlier, but his header was tipped on to the crossbar by the visiting goalkeeper. The second reason was that King’s Lynn, without the threat of real consequence of the result, didn’t let the early County goal hinder their confidence as they attacked with real menace, playing a neat and assured style. In fact, County struggled to keep a foothold in the game after scoring the opener, with the visitors having the better share of possession and not just content to play it around the back they sought to attack time and again. The problem for them was it was just possession, Ben Hinchliffe didn’t have a save to make as the County defensive line held firm once more.  

The second half may well have gone a similar way, but some half time adjustments by Simon Rusk, namely closing the gaps in midfield and on the wings meant King’s Lynn couldn’t play through the lines as they had and as they ran out of ideas County reasserted their dominance. Macauley Southam-Hales, impressive again as right wing back, won a clear penalty but our wait for the decisive second goal would be a little longer as Rooney’s weak penalty was saved. After the cocky nonchalance of the penalty, which can rightly irk some fans, we were then treated to the other side of Rooney’s play. A poor goal kick merely found the chest of Rooney halfway into the King’s Lynn half, he only had one thing on his mind as he took one touch and thundered another goal of the season contender into the top corner of the Cheadle End goal (another one we didn’t see ‘live’). The sheer brilliance, technique and audacity which no other player at the club has is a delight to watch. For all Rooney’s perceived faults, it cannot be argued he is a pure matchwinner. Sometimes the difference between one point and three. 

From that point on County were clear winners, relaxed and confident they saw out the night with minimum fuss. Paddy Madden got a brace which his recent efforts have thoroughly deserved, both headers, the first from a corner and the second from a delightful Tom Walker delivery. Job done and another four goals to add to the ever-increasing goal difference, at that point the joint best in the league. Considering we scored just three goals in February, we had notched up 21 goals in nine games since 9th March. We, once again, saw the more determined and settled side of the team which have been very apparent over the last month. We have seen more than one side playing without the fear of relegation against County recently, but we haven’t let that affect our commitment to getting the three points, in fact, their style of play has probably suited County. 


For the third game running Simon Rusk named an unchanged starting line up as County looked to make it ten games without defeat against Maidenhead United. The draw was the minimum aim of the day, but a win against an indifferent team, but one which had defeated Torquay United 4-0 recently, was the ultimate goal. 

The visitors, however, like King’s Lynn before them, displayed steely confidence, quick counter and strong pressing to disrupt the County momentum and they were arguably the better side in the first half. County went close when Macauley Southam-Hales, reprising his role from Wrexham, could have scored after being released following a quick free kick, but rather frustratingly, County were reduced to the odd foray into the visitor’s penalty area. Maidenhead succeeded where King’s Lynn didn’t though and when they took the lead after half an hour it wasn’t too much of a surprise, the quality of defending left a little to be desired though as the ball-watching County backline allowed Manny Parry to score a controlled half-volley at the Cheadle End. Time to see how serious County’s promotion ambitions were; being pinned back at home and a goal down would seriously test the character. We didn’t have to wait long to find out as easily County’s most impressive move of the game, involving Tom Walker and Alex Reid, was side-footed home by Harry Cardwell. 

County finished the half and started the second, the stronger of the two sides as if they had shaken off the early nerves to get back to somewhere approaching their old selves. They should have been in the lead for the first time in the game as a wonderful turn from John Rooney in midfield opened up the Maidenhead defence and as the three-on-one counter-attack raced towards goal it seemed all Reid had to do was square to either Madden or Southam-Hales, instead, he trod on the ball and the move fizzled out. He then compounded the misery by missing a relatively easy chance from six yards out. His overall ability isn’t in question, but Reid continues to demonstrate in equal measure, both sides of his game; from the sublime at Wrexham to the ridiculous here. 

There was certainly nothing wrong with the determination and vigour in County’s play and they could easily have taken a couple of the half-chances which came their way, the problem is they didn’t and a very uncharacteristic misplaced pass from Sam Minihan gifted Maidenhead their second goal with just over 15 minutes to play. It’s a stretch to say County’s promotion hopes hung by a thread, but a defeat would have been a near disaster and we once again needed to come from behind and find a goal. Just a minute later though Madden smashed home an Ash Palmer knockdown and County fans could breathe easy again. One would think the game might fade out into a sun-drenched draw but Maidenhead could well have won it on a couple of occasions in the last ten minutes as County’s defence, once again, seemed determined to give away all three points. They didn’t and both sides left with one each. Better than nothing and ten games unbeaten, but Torquay’s win on the following Tuesday meant County were seven points behind them with just eight games left. Should promotion not be secured this season the form at EP will definitely be looked upon as a contributing factor; just two defeats, but eight draws tells the story of inconsistency at home this season. 


Elsewhere that day Richie Bennett was scoring a hatrick as his temporary team hammered Wealdstone 7-2. He would end up being recalled in the last week of April, with the victory at Wealdstone being his final game there. 

County fans are right to bemoan the loan move, especially as Bennett would end up scoring five goals for Hartlepool during his three-game spell, but it could also be a blessing for County; form rediscovered and the potential to have a huge say in County’s promotion push. 


Monday 19th April saw County conclude two pieces of business as Chorley loanee, Elliot Newby made his move permanent for an undisclosed fee. His energetic technical style has only been seen in flashes, but he has proven to be well suited to the game at the level above his former team. 

County also announced the signing of Ryan Rydel from Fleetwood Town. He joins former fellow Fleetwood players, Southam-Hales and Madden and will give some flexibility down the left-hand side. 

Finally, on the 22nd, County announced that Alex Reid did indeed get that phone call and signed a two-year extension to stay at EP. Presumably, it was a very easy decision to make by both parties, Reid has settled in tremendously and the contract is well deserved. 


Fortunately, given our indifferent home form, we were away for the next three games, the first of those against Boreham Wood, who are something of a bogey side for County and with the home side being the division’s draw experts a point looked likely. That may well have come to fruition given how Boreham Wood started the game, with an aggressive attack which kept County on the back foot for the opening ten minutes. They didn’t seriously test Ben Hinchliffe, and in truth, aside from one or two moments when they were chasing the game in the second half, they didn’t test him or the County defence all afternoon. 

County settled into the game extremely easily, wing backs, Southam-Hales and James Jennings were a constant nuisance, as were Harry Cardwell and John Rooney. County’s ability to soak up pressure, take the lead and grind down the home side is an impressive trait that has established itself during the latter quarter of the season. It worked again and although the opening goal, another well-executed set piece, converted by Ash Palmer, wasn’t entirely unexpected it was still a pleasant surprise. 

Just 20 minutes later the game was almost over, and again Rooney added another contender for his own personal goal of the season competition. The reason you start someone of his ability, despite his shortcomings, is for that reason; the ability to create something out of nothing on a regular basis.

The second half continued in the same vein and although neither side came particularly close to scoring a goal, County had done the hard work in the first half. Like Wrexham away, just a couple of weeks previous, County strolled through almost an hour of the game in second gear. Alex Reid, contract extension and all, side-footed home the third and County sealed the three points with minimum effort in the afternoon sunshine.

We’re not quite at Aldershot levels with the hex Boreham Wood have over County, but again like Wrexham, it was a huge hurdle to overcome. The ease with which they did shouldn’t be a surprise and the title, which was a pipe dream a few weeks ago, now looked a possibility as Sutton United lost, Torquay United only drew (although they had been losing going into the 98th minute!) and Hartlepool United didn’t play; they have the unenviable position of looking on while their rivals make up their games in hand on them. All that meant County were just five points from the top spot with a visit to King’s Lynn on the horizon.


Photo: The Non-League Paper

Elliot Newby was back in the starting line up for the trip to Norfolk, he and fellow returnee, Sam Minihan, did much of the damage in an electric start to the game. It’s no exaggeration to say County breezed through the first half of the game against very poor opposition. Paddy Madden flicked in a John Rooney corner after just 8 minutes and the rest of the game was fairly comfortable from then on. County’s confidence increased tenfold and they simply brushed aside King’s Lynn in a similar manner to the way they did in the second half at EP just a couple of weeks earlier. 

The hosts, being generous in their defending, scored one for County following another set piece. Having been dreadful for the first half of the season, set pieces are an increasing goal threat for County. Harry Cardwell then bagged a brace before half time; the first a simple header from a Newby cross and the second a tap in following a parry by the King’s Lynn goalkeeper, Theo Richardson. 

All very straightforward, again, and County really have the look of a formidable team at the moment. The confident and self-assured one and two touch football is a delight to watch. As is the way they are able to successfully manage a game from a winning position, we have seen it in each of the last three away games and although it would be nice to chase a few goals to help the goal difference, it is sensible to take the intensity down a gear or two and conserve energy for a busy bank holiday weekend. 

The second half saw just that as County, confident in their ability to restrict the home side, took their foot off the pedal. Although it would have been 5-0 if John Rooney had converted a penalty, the game was over well before he saw his second spot kick of the month saved by Richardson. The Rooney debate will merely be stoked by his latest miss and genuine questions should be raised about whether he continues to be County’s penalty taker, especially with six huge games remaining. 

Elsewhere Sutton eventually beat Barnet and Torquay did what Torquay always do; score in the dying breaths of injury time, to secure a win over Aldershot. So, it was ‘as you were’ at the top with Hartlepool arguably the biggest losers on the night as their rivals all won. There are still half a dozen games remaining for County to write history, it’s not in our hands just yet, but you can bet it will be at some point over the next 32 days.

So, that’s April wrapped up, and what a month as County now stand at 12 games unbeaten, who would have thought that after the defeat at Weymouth back on the 6th March? By the end of next month, we’ll know our fate and there’s the small matter of our very belated homecoming on the 22nd.


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