Fleetwood Town 2 Stockport County 1
HOW things change in football.
Ten years ago this week, Stockport County hosted Norwich City in the Football League Championship, running out 2-1 winners.
Fleetwood, meanwhile, were in the midst of a turbulent campaign in the North West Counties League, nine rungs below County on the football ladder.
Step forward a decade, and County were 15 places below Fleetwood as they made their first trip to Highbury, anxious to avenge September’s 4-2 defeat at Edgeley Park.
Hatters fans, filled with renewed optimism following the appointment of club legend Jim Gannon as director of football, flocked to Fleetwood in their droves.
More than 1,000 made the journey, creating a lively atmosphere for the live TV cameras, as a crowd exceeding 3,000 packed the ground. And the party behind the goal, complete with balloons and fireworks, was almost sent into overdrive in the opening minutes, as County laid siege to the Fleetwood goal.
Michael Paton carved out the first chance after four minutes, robbing Nathan Pond to set up Antonio German, whose shot was blocked.
Paton was involved again minutes later, his neat build-up with Tom Elliot lacking a quality finish.
Stockport were most certainly fired up for the encounter, keen to deny Fleetwood space and looking to exploit their pace down the flanks.
But Town too have speed in abundance, and man of the moment Jamie Vardy was soon in the thick of the action.
On the quarter-hour mark, Alan Goodall’s long ball found Andy Mangan, who picked out Vardy. The striker tangled with Blackpool loan-keeper Mark Halstead, and somehow came away with the ball, only to see his strike cleared off the line.
Town’s quality was beginning to show, but Stockport were still posing a danger on the break.
Keeper Scott Davies had to be alert to deny German after a swift counter-attack, and the Town No.1 was again called into action to deal with Sean McConville’s free-kick, following a foul by Steve McNulty.
At the other end, Sean Clancy was denied by the woodwork, and Vardy squandered a fantastic opportunity when he latched on to Jamie McGuire’s superb ball, but chose to pass to Andy Mangan rather than taking a shot himself.
Just before the break, Vardy did have the ball in the net, but his effort was ruled out for offside, despite appearing to come off a Stockport man.
After a goalless first half, Stockport clearly fancied their chances and started the second half brightly, Tom Elliot linking up with Euan Holden to break into the Fleetwood box, only to see the ball eventually bundled clear.
Fleetwood were forced into a reshuffle at the back when McNulty, who had been struggling with an ankle injury since the opening minutes, made way for Shaun Beeley, returning from midweek international duty with England C in Gibraltar.
But the home side were soon ahead, with a thunderbolt out of the blue.
In the 52nd minute, Stockport’s defence backed off Mangan, inviting the Town man to take a shot. The striker’s effort turned out to be a 25-yard rocket, which left Halstead rooted to the spot.
Fleetwood were in front, but the lead was only to last six minutes.
Clumsy defending handed Stockport a corner. As the ball was swung into the box by McConville, McGuire was judged to have pushed Stockport skipper Daniel O’Donnell.
McGuire was booked and Stockport awarded a penalty, blasted into the top right corner by McConville.
Town were not rattled by the equaliser, and launched an assault on the visitors’ goal as latest signing Ryan Crowther, recruited from Hyde United on the eve of the match, came on.
Their efforts were rewarded in the 66th minute. Andy Mangan picked out Vardy’s run, who lobbed the ball over Halstead to restore Fleetwood’s advantage, and take his tally to 13 for the season.
It meant both Town’s goal heroes from the previous weekend’s FA Cup win over Wycombe were on target again... and they could have had more.
Following a lovely turn in the box, Mangan could only direct his shot at the keeper.
Then Vardy linked up well with substitute Gareth Seddon, and played a sublime backheel into the box, only to see the ball hooked clear by Jon Routledge.
With the clock ticking down, Seddon danced past three Stockport players into the box, though the fourth defender proved too much and the winger’s run was cut short before he could get a shot away.
With four minutes of injury-time announced, Stockport stepped up a gear, finding new urgency.
German beat Glenn Wilson to fire in a cross, which was headed behind by McGuire.
The first corner was deflected behind, adding to the pressure on Town,
This was lifted when Danny Rowe blasted Stockport’s final chance over the crossbar from 20 yards.
Despite another convincing win, Town’s fifth in succession in the league, they still trail leaders Wrexham on goal difference, though the top two have opened up a five-point gap on the chasers.
Fleetwood: Davies, McNulty (Beeley 49), Goodall, Wilson, Pond, Clancy (Crowther 62), Milligan, Till (Seddon 82), McGuire, Mangan, Vardy; not used: St Louis-Hamilton, Vieira.
Stockport: Halstead, Lynch, Holden, O’Donnell, Bounab, Routledge, McConville, Sheridan (Rowe 60), German, Elliott, Paton; not used: Ormson, 08 Nolan, McCann, Chadwick.
Ref: W Barrett;
Att: Att: 3,021