“It’s fair to say that the start to the season has been underwhelming” - FC Halifax Town v Stockport County: Opposition Focus
We spoke to Sam Byrne from the Manchester Evening News for the lowdown on FC Halifax Town’s opponents on Saturday.
How have Stockport started the season?
It’s fair to say that the start to the season has been underwhelming. An impressive Dagenham side got all three points at Edgeley Park on the opening day, and while that was swiftly followed up by a 0-1 win at Southend, from there, back to back goalless draws were then followed by a brutal 0-3 home defeat to Yeovil last Saturday.
That defeat really brought County’s early-season deficiencies to the fore and saw an unhappy reaction from the supporters on the day, but with the pressure on, the side then took a step back in the right direction with a comfortable 0-2 win at Maidenhead on Tuesday night.
It’s two wins, two draws and two defeats so definitely a ‘mixed bag’ in terms of the start to the season - but given the expectation on the side to be challenging at the very top, it’s still a start that would be classed as below where Simon Rusk and his players would want it to be.
In what shape do they come into Saturday’s game in terms of mood and morale?
As above, the morale after the Yeovil game last weekend was really low all-round. But going to Maidenhead and getting three points (albeit a win which should have been, and was, fairly routine) has just given the players, the manager and the fans a lift going into this game.
I think County fans would always travel in good numbers to somewhere like Halifax, but it’s definitely fair to say that the excitement for a really good away day had been tempered somewhat after Yeovil.
But Tuesday night was seen as a bit of a platform for the side to build on and kick on from now, and that anticipation for the Halifax game will now start to creep back in as the week goes on.
Who will be your dangermen on Saturday and why?
John Rooney has the be the obvious one. Back-to-back National League Player of the Season for the last two years, twenty goals in each of those seasons and off to a flyer with three goals so far this time around.
Paddy Madden has yet to get off the mark this season, but he scored a cracker at Halifax last season and came close to opening his account with an effort off the post on Tuesday night. He’ll be desperate to get back in the goals.
Macauley Southam-Hales also merits a mention - a rapid and tricky right wing-back, always lively, always a threat and probably the fastest Stockport player I can ever remember seeing. There have been certain games where he’s been kept relatively quiet this season though - especially at Edgeley Park - which leads nicely into the next question!
What’s Stockport’s style of play, what can Halifax expect to come up against?
It’s very much a Jekyll and Hyde show for County when it comes to home form vs away form. The side are currently on an away record which must be up there amongst the best in the clubs history. Eleven unbeaten, nine wins, two draws, just two goals conceded and eight clean sheets in a row. That includes the battling 0-1 win at Halifax last season during lockdown.
At Edgeley Park, however, it’s just two wins in our last eleven, and no wins in the last seven (including the Hartlepool play-off semi-final).
Simon Rusk has, to his credit, found a way of getting The Hatters set up superbly away from home - even the harshest critic couldn’t deny that. It’s at home where his side are really struggling to find their identity and style of playing. So far, the shape and style of play which has produced such impressive away form is being implemented at Edgeley Park, but that just isn’t clicking in the same manner. The patient, possession-based build-up style of play that County employ away from home just doesn’t have that same effect in front of an expectant (and rightly so) home crowd, and an away side who are happy to let County have the ball for the most part.
So, at the moment, there’s definitely a bit of an ongoing challenge for Rusk to really identify what County are about as a side at Edgeley Park. But, away from home, they’re looking as solid as I can remember a County side being for a long while.
Who have your summer signings been and which ones could make the biggest impact?
Scott Quigley would have been right up there. Leading marksman for Barrow over the last two seasons and signed over the summer for a fee believed to be around £100k - the only transfer fee that County paid over the summer.
Unfortunately, he picked up a hamstring injury in pre-season before a brief return at Southend was ended in ten minutes thanks to a recurrence of that same injury.
Ben Barclay, centre-half, rejected a new deal at Accrington in the summer - where he played the majority of games as they finished 11th in League One - to make the move to Stockport, and he’s just going through that settling in phase.
Ben Whitfield is the one for me who could really shine. Signed from beaten play-off finalists Torquay in the summer, he’s a really pacy, direct winger who - as yet - hasn’t really had that license to roam and get at opposition defenders as much as he would have liked. But you just watch him play and get the feeling that he’ll get the side up the pitch and make things happen this season.
What are the expectations for the team this season?
Despite the slow start, a title challenge is still firmly expected of The Hatters. They fell slightly short in a difficult season last time, with the lockdown obviously playing a part (as it did for all clubs), but also with the change of manager midway through the campaign. But despite that, an eighteen game unbeaten run to end the season saw County finish third only to miss out in the play-off semi-final.
Fans, players, owners and management alike will all be expecting that County go one (or even two!) better this time, in an increasingly tough division.
Ash Palmer, the talismanic centre-back, served a one-match ban on Tuesday evening following his dismissal against Yeovil last Saturday, so he’ll be available which will be a boost for County.
Injury-wise, Rusk has currently got Jordan Keane, Sam Minihan, Scott Quigley and recent addition Kenan Dünnwald sidelined. Keane and Minihan have risen with the side from the National League North and would certainly be in and around the squad, whilst Quigley would be leading the line by now, providing that real presence up top.
Dünnwald signed on a one-month loan from Scunthorpe prior to the Yeovil defeat, but picked up a knock late on which saw him ruled out of the trip to Maidenhead. He looks a bit of a battering ram if nothing else, which is something County are definitely in need of in the absence of Quigley, to allow the likes of Madden and Alex Reid to flourish and get amongst the goals.
Likely line-up and formation?
The line-up is probably more tricky than the formation, which is likely to remain as that ‘back three with wing-backs’ shape. Rusk made three changes to the side which lost convincingly to Yeovil for the Maidenhead game, but with the suspension of Palmer now over, his availability means Rusk will have five centre-halves to choose from.
Equally, midfielder Will Collar returned to the side on Tuesday and put in an impressive showing on the night, so he’ll be in contention alongside Aston Villa loaned Arjan Raikhy, who’s on a season-long loan at Edgeley Park and impressed in his first few outings before falling ill prior to the Yeovil game.
Captain Liam Hogan will likely continue at the heart of defence alongside two other central defenders in a back three - but as above, those other two could really be any of Palmer, Zeki Fryers, Ben Barclay or Man Utd loanee Will Fish.
Macauley Southam-Hales and potentially Mark Kitching - who returned to the side on Tuesday night after a lengthy lay-off dating back to last season through a back injury - will be in line to start as those wing-backs in a system that Rusk has favoured since early in his reign, with John Rooney looking to play off a front two.
Dependent on Dünnwald’s fitness, either he or Alex Reid will partner Paddy Madden - who, as I say, will be itching to get his season up and running.
Follow all the action from Saturday’s game on our live blog on the Courier website where there will also be an on-the-whistle match report and post-match reaction from Town boss Pete Wild.