This is it folks, the end was in sight, just six games remained at the beginning of May so sit back with a brew and relive the last month and a bit of the season.
We're diving straight into the action as the month started with a difficult game over the Pennines at The Shay (and doesn’t it seem like ages ago now?!). Will Collar started in place of Elliot Newby in the County starting lineup, although with the club joining the countrywide social media boycott and Halifax's stream being filmed from four miles away it really could have been anyone playing in a County shirt! Other than that change, Simon Rusk, once again trusted the personnel who had put County in a solid position to finish in the semi final play off places.
This game would have seen a big County following making the short journey and given the circumstances, it will no doubt have been a huge disappointment to fans and players alike. The game itself would not only be another huge test of County’s recent hot streak, but also a test of their mental ability to cope under pressure. especially as the hosts had their own play off aspirations, although turning losses into points will be key to exactly where they finish in the league. As expected, the game was a close affair, with neither side able to create any genuine quality chances. Macaulay Southam-Hales was County’s main outlet on the right but a worrying pedestrian pace to our game became apparent in the first half. County, though, were marginally the better side and eventually took the lead a minute before the interval as a Harry Cardwell flick on was helped along by some questionable Halifax defending and Paddy Madden ghosted through the middle of the defence to latch on to the ball and thunder a sweet half-volley into the roof of the net. That made it six goals in 12 games since joining County, and with finishes as good as that one, he is worth every penny. However, as I have said previously, it is not just the decent goalscoring record, it is his work off the ball, the ability to drag the defence out of position, to link the midfield and the attack superbly, and to allow Rooney and company to get forward in his stead. A lot of work goes unnoticed, but only to those judging him purely on goalscoring.
The second half followed much the same pattern although Halifax saw much more of the ball, which was arguably partly down to County sitting deep and allowing them to have the ball in County’s half. The ability to play in such a manner, away from home, comes from having the confidence in the system, management and each other. County were far from perfect against Halifax, tiredness may have been an issue considering the lack of changes to the starting XI, but they did what they do very well when in the lead away from home; they allowed the opposition to dominate possession, but at arm’s length, safe in the knowledge their solid defence would cope. They did and the win, coupled with three wins by County’s other promotion rivals, meant there was no change from a league standings point of view.
County hosted Wealdstone just two days later on Bank Holiday Monday. Given our recent form and Wealdstone’s leaky defence and home win was virtually guaranteed, but games at this stage of the season, whether there is relegation to contend with or not, are never guaranteed and County made hard work of the first half. It could have been much different had Sam Minihan, in for his right wing back colleague, Southam-Hales, not had his goal disallowed for offside after just a few minutes. That chance should be remembered not just for Wealdstone goalkeeper, Jake Askew’s comedy goalkeeping, but for the sublime through ball from John Rooney to Minihan. Wealdstone defended deep, with two strong lines of four and made it difficult for County, especially in that tiresome first half. Patience was the key in the driving rain as County’s attack was reduced to attempts from long range and set pieces.
There was a much needed increase in tempo in the second half, one sensed Wealdstone were tiring and County simply moved up a gear. Finally, after what seemed about two hours and a magnificent double save from Askew, Ryan Croasdale bagged his first goal for County with a neat finish into the bottom corner. Relief, and County’s play mirrored that feeling as a more relaxed and confident side played the final 35 minutes. Just a minute later the game was effectively over as Newby’s cross was scuffed home by Alex Reid via a deflection. They all count. The game may have been over as a contest and the three points were heading County’s way but we certainly didn’t let that stop us adding to the already league-leading goal difference and Askew didn’t cover himself in glory for either of County’s late goals. Alex Reid scored his second as the goalkeeper was beaten at his near post and he should have been better positioned to attempt to keep out Rooney’s injury-time free kick. 4-0 it finished, a different type of game after the games against Boreham Wood and King’s Lynn were sewn up early on, but this County side are immensely confident in their own ability and other than a brief spell in the first half, didn’t panic or try too hard, staying unbeaten for 14 games helps build that self-belief.
There was more good news from elsewhere, as Hartlepool United lost to resurgent Bromley and in the process, County jumped up to third in the league. For the first time in about eight months County weren’t fourth any longer. Torquay United won at Chesterfield and Sutton United lost Tuesday’s game away to Notts County, meaning the title would be heading to Plainmoor if Torquay could win their last four games, one of which was a trip to EP.
The Torquay game was moved to be shown on BT Sport the day after it was originally scheduled and just 24 hours before fans will be allowed back into stadiums. So near, yet so far and the big games, six pointers and the nerves which continue to pass us by make this extended roadmap out of lockdown particularly difficult to take. The atmosphere at Halifax, had we been allowed in, would have been akin to that of a countryside picnic compared to that at EP versus Torquay had the game been moved to Monday.
Next, it was County’s turn to sit back and watch our rivals play, a weird position to be in, like some kind of footballing purgatory. Saturday 8th May saw Hartlepool lose further ground on the chase for the title as they were stunned at home, 4-1 by Maidenhead United, they lay a point behind County having played a game more. Sutton United, as expected, were victorious against Weymouth, 2-0, they now led County by four points, and technically this was their game in hand over us. The main attraction saw Bromley visit Torquay where, given the apparent ease of Torquay’s last couple of fixtures, the visitors arguably had to get some kind of a result to give County and the rest hope of catching them. Bromley showed at EP not long ago that they were very capable of grinding out a result against one of the top sides and they did exactly the same again at a blustery Plainmoor. The dropped points by the hosts meant that County, having chased down Hartlepool, now had Torquay firmly in their sights and six points from the next two games would take us above the Devon side.
On Monday 10th May the government gave the news that we had all been waiting for since March 2020, that we would finally be allowed back into EP from 17th May. The excitement had been building for many weeks, but it was a relief to many to finally hear the confirmation. A special, emotional atmosphere awaits the players when they step out against Woking on the 22nd.
On to the six-pointer against Dagenham and Redbridge, who still had slim hopes of making the play offs courtesy of their own fantastic run of form which stood at six consecutive wins heading into the game. Tom Walker missed out through injury which gave a full debut to new signing Ryan Rydel. County started brightly and as they moved through the gears it appeared a goal was always likely. When it came it followed a lovely build-up between Southam-Hales and Elliot Newby, the low cross found Madden unmarked and he smashed home from 12 yards out. Glorious stuff. That was the high point of the night for County and in particular, Madden, he was on the end of a couple of heavy challenges shortly after and was substituted at half time. For their part, Dagenham didn’t give much indication of what was to follow in the second half, sure they pressed well and looked fairly dangerous going forward, but the way the game had gone it appeared County had too much for them. That was until the game slowly turned in their favour, they were unfortunate not to be given a penalty following a handball by Ash Palmer and worse followed as County poorly defended a routine corner and just like that it was 1-1. Considering just how stout the County defence had become, seven clean sheets in eight games, it was incredibly frustrating to see them switch off at such an important moment.
The second half saw Dagenham grow in confidence and really take the game to County. They were solid in possession, quick on the counter and very aggressive while pressing. In fact, it is difficult to argue against Dagenham being the best side to have visited EP this season, such was their dominance. County, considering the importance of the game, were left to chase shadows and struggled to create any meaningful attacks until a flurry of action in the last 15 minutes, even then though any real goalscoring chances were not forthcoming. Dagenham came the closest to scoring when they hit the crossbar and they arguably should have had another penalty too, however, it stayed 1-1 and County’s slim title chances faded even further into the distance, their case wasn’t helped by Sutton’s defeat of Woking. Given the need for three points as opposed to one it was incredibly disappointing not to see the side of County which is able to grind out a win against good opposition. However, Dagenham were just that and on the night probably deserved more than a point.
The next day County, without any fanfare, announced that fans would be allowed to attend the Woking game on the 22nd. All season ticket holders would be able to attend and 100 tickets were also being made available for non-season ticket holders in the Railway End. So, well below the 4000 EP could hold, but it’s important to note that the government guidelines did state upto 4000 and there are various logistics including entry and exit points, stairwells, bottleneck issues and of course social distancing to consider. The 100 tickets will be distributed via a ballot, the fairest and arguably the easiest way. It’s a shame that there aren’t more tickets available, we must now hope the capacity will be increased in time for next season starting. The fanfare missing from the announcement came a few days later when the club released a stirring video to ‘welcome home’ fans, complete with shots of a vocal Cheadle End the video definitely heightened the excitement of our homecoming.
Saturday was soon upon us and it was another Saturday without a game. Hartlepool overtook County following their win away at Aldershot and Sutton inched closer to the Football League with their win against Maidenhead United. No surprises there I’m afraid, and County’s attention now focused on third place at least following the draw against Dagenham.
The news that Paddy Madden hadn’t recovered from the ankle injury sustained earlier in the week greeted County fans tuning in to the lunchtime kick off against Torquay United. More worryingly, not least because of the likeness of obtaining blood from a stone when trying to garner information about injured players from the club, but the injury would keep him out “for a few weeks”. Collective fingers and toes crossed in the hope he would be ready for the play offs. We were also greeted with a new-look Railway End. The new big screen, probably big enough to be spotted on Google Earth, looked very impressive. Impressive too was the aesthetic touch of COUNTY being displayed on the new seats. After years of neglect, the Railway End finally made the ground feel like a four-sided ground once again.
The result of the game would go a long way to deciding the final places in the top four. A Torquay win would ensure the title went to the wire while giving Hartlepool an advantage in the scrap for third place. A County victory would all but hand the title to Sutton and virtually cement third from themselves. Somewhere in the middle lay the draw, and that suited County more than their visitors.
We were treated to a true battle of promotion rivals, the neutral will have enjoyed it, fans of either side will probably have been glad when the final whistle went! A nerve-shredding afternoon in the spring sunshine where the result could have gone either way. Alex Reid replaced Madden in the starting lineup but he was kept largely quiet by a very well organised Torquay defence, although his early goal-bound effort was magnificently saved by Lucas Covolan. County started well and opened the scoring when Macauley Southam-Hales cut inside onto his unfavoured left foot and curled a delightful shot perfectly into the top corner. Just when John Rooney thought he had first, second and third sewn up in the goal of the season contest. The game settled in the end-to-end style which would become the pattern of the game. Torquay played their part very well, an early hooked shot from Amani Little may have gone over, but it was a warning sign and he may well have been disappointed with his finish. Liam Hogan uncharacteristically allowed himself to be robbed of possession just outside the area and Lemonheigh-Evans’ chip over Ben Hinchliffe hit the far post. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t have to wait too long for that Torquay goal.
County have at times been their own worst enemy in terms of defending and the latest installment came just five minutes after we took the lead. Ryan Croasdale’s challenge was rash and probably unnecessary given his opponent’s position in the area, nevertheless, the penalty was duly dispatched and we were level again. The second helping hand came, arguably against the run of play, early in the second half as the County defence, Southam-Hales in particular, failed to pick up Jake Andrews at the far post and Scott Boden gratefully tapped in his second of the game. If County were to progress through the play offs and win promotion, they needed stop giving teams a way back into the game.
There is, however, a rather pleasing side to County’s game, which surely isn’t a coincidence, as they showed their fighting spirit when behind against a promotion rival. John Roney’s perfect corner was headed home by Ash Palmer, to level the scores again. That spirit and determination has been apparent in the recent games away to Sutton and at home against Hartlepool, where County have gained points from losing positions. The record against our rivals may not have produced a win in six games but we have snatched three very useful points against the three teams around us.
The game was far from over and neither was the tension as the two sides pressed for the winner. Torquay came the closest but no one would have begrudged County the win. Elliot Newby impressed once again, as did Southam-Hales and Liam Hogan. County were now mathematically unable to win the title but were now back in the golden third place position. Despite the opinion of the BT Sport commentators that “a point doesn’t suit either side”, County were probably more satisfied given our new goal of finishing in second or third place. The next game played by Stockport County would, for the first time in nearly 15 months, be played in front of fans at Edgeley Park. The wait was nearly over.
It was a version of supporting County which none of us had ever experienced before; masks, temperature checks and of course, the reduced capacity. Just 2300 were inside EP, but those who were there contributed to making our homecoming extra special, just to stand there and listen to the buzz of a crowd once more, to see the players we’ve only seen on a screen close up and to cheer and berate the referee once again, after so long, will never be forgotten. Thanks to my fellow County fans who made it memorable.
The game, unfortunately, didn’t live up to the occasion. One certainly cannot fault the endeavour and desire which County showed and sometimes, no matter what you do, it seems impossible to get the elusive second goal. However, had we played the entire game like we did in the second half you could argue it would have been a much easier afternoon. County didn’t get going until the latter stages of the first half, one where Woking had the better chances. The visitor’s goal brought about 15 seconds of complete silence as if the crowd wasn’t there, even the County players looked stunned. It was a very surreal moment. We barely had time to process what had happened when everyone’s favourite pantomime villain, Ben Gerring (he who laughed about hospitalising Liam McAlinden last season), turned Alex Reid’s cross/shot into his own net. Marvellous.
The second half, as mentioned, was attack versus defence, or should that be attack versus the referee and the defence. The man in the middle certainly didn’t endear himself to the home faithful by falling for the Woking time-wasting and the mysterious instant self-healing injuries. Six minutes of injury time suggested he had made a mental note of it, but it appeared the visitor’s sole objective was to disrupt, cheat and shithouse their way through the game. All well and good if that is the pinnacle of your ambition, I suppose.
As far as County were concerned, the woodwork should also be added to the defence/referee tag team of County’s enemies. Half time substitute, Richie Bennett, who had livened up the County attack to the extent where they looked like scoring a hatful, hit the bar with a thundering header following a delicious left wing cross. John Rooney’s inswinging corner hit the far post, Tom Walker and Ryan Croasdale had chances, and Alex Reid will probably want to avoid the highlights, having got his feet tangled up when it looked easier to score. All that and there was still time for Reid to turn Rooney’s curling effort onto the bar deep into injury time. Alas, despite rousing second half support from the Cheadle End, we didn’t get the winner we needed. They say crowds make a difference to a team in search of a winning goal, something which has been debated almost every week since the start of the season, it wasn’t the case against Woking, but we did provide a fantastically noisy and rapturous backdrop to the game and no one can deny that County and the game of football itself desperately needed to experience that again.
In terms of the league, County recorded their third straight draw, I won’t harp on about the home form over the course of the season, it’s best to draw a line underneath it now, but as we’re guaranteed a home play off fixture it’s something which will need to be turned around. We now led Hartlepool United by a solitary point but with a far superior goal difference and we all donned our Sutton supporting hats for their game against Hartlepool on Sunday lunchtime. The visitors were in the driving seat for third place but the hosts had the incentive that a win, courtesy of Torquay’s failure to hang on to a lead while County were battering Woking, would hand them the title. They duly did County a favour with a confident 3-0 win and lifted the trophy with a game to spare. Well done and good luck to them in League Two. Would County be joining them? Three wins would see our return to the Football League after a decade away. A win away at Yeovil Town would guarantee third place, no matter the result in the north east as Hartlepool hosted Weymouth.
Still no Paddy Madden for The Hatters, but a rare appearance in the starting XI for Jordan Keane, and he stepped into his familiar defensive midfield role as if he’d never been away. Simon Rusk said he didn’t have an issue with selecting Keane, and it’s easy to see why, as he was one of County’s better players on a day which required guile rather than glory. The game itself, viewed through an extreme close-up, filmed from a bouncy castle, was as tense as we all expected, Yeovil, playing in front of their fans for the first time since the passing of Lee Collins, were most definitely in the mood to give their fans something to celebrate and played their part in a well-contested, if not the most aesthetically pleasing game. John Rooney, who because of the presence of the two holding midfielders, was playing further forward, opened the scoring with a heavily-deflected shot from the edge of the area. They all count and a huge relief for the watching fans as we already knew Hartlepool were well on their way to a win over Weymouth by this time. On a couple of occasions the game threatened to boil over, with bookings for players on both sides, and Charlie Lee, already on a yellow card, can consider himself fortunate to still be on the pitch after clattering Rooney in the second half.
Both sides huffed and puffed and toiled on the bone-dry pitch, with the hosts coming the closest to scoring as Joe Quigley’s header hit the underside of the crossbar just a minute after the restart. County had a couple of half chances but never really looked like adding to their one goal lead and in the end the game petered out with the result in County’s favour. The order of the day was to seal third place and I guarantee every single County fan would have taken a below-par performance and a 1-0 win before the game. Now onto the play offs, it is true we weren’t as free-scoring or clinical as we have been, but the play offs and all that is attached to them should concentrate the player’s minds. We knew we’ll be facing either Hartlepool or Bromley in the semi final and we had two weeks to get Paddy Madden back for the most important game of the season, so far.
Notts County dispatched Chesterfield in the first ‘eliminator’ game. An end-to-end, five-goal thriller was won in the 90th minute by the home side, who continued their fine recent run of form. The next day County fans sat back and watched Hartlepool dominate the first half of their game against Bromley. To be fair Hartlepool did what any good side should do and take advantage of some pretty shambolic defending to put themselves in prime position for a visit to EP a week later. Bromley made a good game of it in the second half, but despite scoring twice, they gave themselves far too much to do after that first half drubbing.
So, Hartlepool would be the visitors to EP and the tension started to build almost as soon as the final whistle went at Victoria Park. Hartlepool players, ‘getting mortal’ notwithstanding, would rightly fancy their chances after a fine display in their eliminator game, but County were on a run of 18 games unbeaten, with the longest home unbeaten run in the division (14 games), plus there would be the small matter of nearly 3000 County fans at EP, complete with shredded nerves and hoarse throats. It would be a close-run game, that much could be guaranteed, that and the many prayers being said across the town for the ankle of one P. Madden.
First though was the starter before the main course as league runners-up Torquay United faced Notts County at Plainmoor, and what a game it was as both sides contested a thoroughly enjoyable and intense encounter. In the end, the hosts became the first finalist as they scored two in extra time to win 4-2.
Onto the big one, and all those prayers for Madden were answered as both he and Will Collar started in the baking heat at EP. The lack of match fitness was arguably a factor in the Irishman missing a relatively easy chance after only a few minutes and as both sides settled into a pattern of just not wanting to lose the atmosphere died away with it. Neither side looked capable of scoring, while remaining steadfastly firm in defence. That will have suited Hartlepool more than County as it quietened the crowd and played into County’s weakness of trying to break defensive teams down. In terms of noteworthy chances it is difficult to find any to write about, although County certainly had the better of the few which were made. After the break Madden missed another chance he would usually have scored, while at the other end Ash Palmer made a heroic block to deny an almost certain goal.
It is disappointing that despite us being merely two wins from the Football League, the players failed to produce a performance befitting a semi final. One can blame the atmosphere but it is down to the players to get the fans off their seats, I can count two occasions when this happened; Madden’s first half miss and Elliot Newby’s near-decapitation late in the second half. Flat atmosphere, diluted by social distancing and the reduced capacity, or not, we do seem to have this type of insipid performance within us, especially at home. In the end, a mistake by Palmer and some hesitant retreating from the rest of the defence allowed Rhys Oates to place an accurate, if not powerful, shot in off the Cheadle End post. There was one last chance though and Richie Bennett should have done better when presented with a relatively easy header just six or seven yards out.
So, that was that, a result and performance which left many feeling neither angry or upset, just disappointed. Disappointed that we never truly looked capable of producing a big, match-winning performance when it really mattered. Another season in non-league beckons, and make no mistake the league will be much more difficult to win next season. It remains to be seen whether EP will be back to a ‘normal’ capacity and whether we’ll be welcome at away games, but the players will always be able to count on our full support, no matter how many fans are unable to get a ticket, they must now take the disappointment, learn from it and produce consistent, quality displays to finally reward us fans with that dream promotion.
There you have it, it’s over. At this point I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who has read my County-related ramblings, your support is much appreciated. It’s almost a year since we kicked off behind closed doors at Carrington against Fleetwood Town. The weirdest season ever is no more, and I think most of us are glad to see the back of it. Pre-season starts in a month and we’ll be back to do it all over again. We must be mad...