So here we are, 3 league games left of one of our strangest ever seasons and one that seems very long despite only starting in October! I don’t know about you but I was ready to celebrate big time last Saturday. When Benji found himself one on one with the goal at his mercy, 3 points looked nailed on. Whilst the Aldershot winner was a knee slide moment, I may have completed a spontaneous victory lap round the house if that one went in! It was a huge moment, but a very brief moment when the goalkeeper guessed the right way and our last minute heroics were for once denied. The striker was gutted, but chances can always be missed by anyone and as I said before we can’t keep counting on last minute winners, your luck will run out at some point.
You have to grudgingly admire Sutton United this year, they have had a tremendous season and much like us, have kept on digging out big victory after big victory – their strength of character taking them to the brink of promotion. I feared the worst for the Maidenhead V Sutton game, one team desperate for a win and the other languishing in mid table. And so it proved – 3 points for the Us making our game against Stockport County even more MASSIVE than it was before. It’s simply a must win now for the Gulls (you’ll hear must-win at least 100 times before kick off today!), and the pressure is on – but this title race is far from over. We’ll give it our all to prove that I am sure.
Looking back at previous meetings between the two teams takes me to two notable fixtures – notable for very different reasons! First may I transport you back to a cold and wet New Year’s Day 2005 at Plainmoor. I rushed down for the game from Bristol nursing a hangover and hoping the struggling Gulls might start the year with a bang. Just before half time, County’s goalkeeper Neil Cutler went to clear the ball, Kevin Hill nipped in from behind and the rest was history! One of the cheekiest goals we’ll ever score from the United legend. Unfortunately the team returned to being garbage in the 2nd half and some chap called Ricky Lambert bagged two to take the points back up north. Happy New Year.
The second fixture is a happier one. At the end of April 2006 the Gulls were in great escape mode, with Ian Atkins orchestrating a renaissance after the sad but inevitable departure of Leroy Rosenior. The Tuesday night at Plainmoor under the lights proved to be spectacular, with Lee Thorpe scoring a magnificent overhead kick early on to light the touch paper. Thorpe headed in another and then super Jo Kuffour banged in a 3rd to our 1st half delight. In the 2nd half on-loan Danny Holland scored a beautiful lob to make it four against our relegation rivals (highlights are definitely worth revisiting). Lee Thorpe had a mixed time at Plainmoor, but that was his evening. In the end both teams escaped the drop with 52 points apiece.
Last season saw one of the more crazier aggregate scores from two Gulls fixtures, with 5-5 being the end result after two big wins for the away teams. An amazing first half at Edgeley Park in September saw the Gulls 4-0 up by half time – Jamie Reid on fire with two of the goals against a struggling Hatters team. By the end of November our season had derailed badly and we were thrashed 5-1 at Plainmoor. A quite remarkable (and depressing) turnaround in only two months.
When we beat the 2020-21 Hatters back in October it was presumed in many quarters to be some kind of fluky win, with County almost certain to push up to the top of the table asap with the best and most expensively assembled squad in the National League. It was just a matter of time before themselves and Notts County showed the rest who were the bosses of the division, whilst plucky Torquay and Sutton dropped away to play-off spots at best. Well it never panned out like that as we know. Stockport struggled to find any real consistency, until new manager Simon Rusk came in and started to get the best out of what was an underperforming squad. Now they represent a real danger to all the top teams.
Like a number of other sides in the division County enjoy using a 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation, so these tactics are not alien to Gary Johnson and the lads this season (like GJ hasn’t seen everything in the football world a hundred times!). The team on paper has proper firepower, with the likes of Alex Reid, Paddy Madden (an injury doubt after coming off mid-week) and John Rooney making for a dangerous trio. But County’s recent success has been as much about defensive resilience and in Liam Hogan they have one of the most commanding centre backs in the division. Meanwhile Ryan Croasdale is the main man in their midfield and will fight Asa Hall for midfield superiority. The engine room usually holds the key, our skipper won’t back down from that battle.
TT PLAYER PROFILE: Alex Reid
Date of Birth: 6th September 1995 – 25 years-old
Former Clubs: Walsall, Ange IF (Sweden), Solihull Moors, Rushall, Fleetwood, Wrexham, Stevenage, Fylde, Ebbsfleet, Dagenham & Redbridge
National League Stats 20-21: Played 38, Goals 17, Bookings 4
The good news is that County’s home form has been beset by home draws, with the Daggers the latest team to take a point from Edgeley Park in mid-week. Watching the highlights, the Daggers could have marched away with all 3 points and Gary Johnson will have been encouraged by what he’s seen from that game. The model to replicate if we can is Sutton (a). On that evening we simply outworked the Us and pressed them into submission. Something similar would be perfect. There’s no point in holding back anything now, we must go for the jugular and push for those points. With two tight defences it’s hard to see a game with many goals (has Bromley’s Michael Cheek made it out of Sam Sherring’s pocket yet?), but if we can be brave and get men forward at the right times, then there’s no reason we can’t score a decisive goal (or two).
Of course there’s also the chance we’ll draw or lose, such is football. Our title challenge hangs perilously in the balance, but whatever the outcome I believe in this team and what we can achieve by the end of this season. With the cavalry of Kyle Cameron and Ben Whitfield arriving just in time (two of the best players in the NL before injury), the squad gets stronger and with Gary Johnson plotting the course, anything is possible. I do occasionally think back to January/February and points dropped, but every ounce of energy has been poured into this season and with late goals, so many points have been clawed out of unlikely positions, it’s churlish to have regrets. They’ve given everything.
If it’s to be the play-offs then so be it, however in the meantime there’s no reason we can’t triumph on BT this lunchtime. So many times the team have been put under pressure and so many times they have responded with a big performance. One big push is required from Asa and all – be brave lads, attack with all you’ve got and believe in yourselves. Three wins could still be enough (hello Hartlepool!) and we are more than capable of doing just that. Hold onto your hats and have those fingers crossed – one of our biggest ever Conference games awaits. Enjoy the game!