Could Stockport County's promotion push be derailed by FA Trophy ambitions?
The last time Stockport County met Manchester City, the Hatters won 2-1 at Edgeley Park thanks to a double from 19-year-old academy product John Hardiker.
Since that last meeting, the clubs have gone in opposite directions. Indeed that season, City were promoted to the Premier League as champions; if they had held on for a draw that night at Edgeley Park they would have finished with 100 points.
County meanwhile finished bottom with 26 points, 22 adrift of second-bottom Barnsley. They conceded 102 goals. The night of Hardiker’s brace was a fleeting moment of joy in a miserable campaign.
In more recent years, City has become amongst the richest clubs in the world, signed some of the best players, acquired the services of the best manager and won three Premier League titles.
This season, having won the Carabao Cup last weekend, they are in the hunt for an unprecedented quadruple.
In 2011 Stockport County, founded in 1883, lost their football league status for the first time but this year they too are fighting for silverware on multiple fronts.
They are unbeaten in their last 19 matches in all competitions. A run stretching back to the 2nd of December when they lost 1-0 to Barnet in the FA Cup.
Their last league fixture was a dramatic 3-2 victory as they edged out Southport at Edgeley Park. The visitors were 2-0 up after half an hour but goals from Jordan Keane, Darren Stephenson and Sam Walker completed the turnaround and demonstrated County’s fighting spirit.
One man who didn’t score in that game was Matty Warburton but his 16 goals in County’s 31 league games have helped bring the Hatters to within three points of table-toppers Chorley with a game in hand.
In third place, a point behind County with a further game in hand, are Spennymoor Town. The Durham club have won their last seven league games conceding just two goals in the process and seem to have hit form at just the right time.
The unbeaten runs of the National League North’s second and third placed sides will be put to the test on Saturday as County and Spennymoor face off at Edgeley Park in what is the biggest game of the season for both sides so far.
After a comfortable win over bottom of the table Nuneaton on Tuesday night, table-toppers Chorley hosts an inconsistent Darlington side this weekend. It is a game they will be expected to win but manager Jamie Vermiglio will have more than half an eye on matters at Edgeley Park where a draw would be the best possible outcome for his team.
Indeed a stalemate is probably the most likely outcome as the league’s two most miserly defences are pitted against one another.
Matty Warburton will know that if County are to win and keep their promotion challenge on course then he will have to breach a backline which hasn’t conceded a goal in five league games.
It is a tough ask but he will take heart in the fact that, in the reverse fixture back in December, he managed to do just that in a 3-1 victory for his side in the North East.
There is no doubt that Warburton’s goals will be vital to his side’s final push for promotion; County have already beaten Chorley and Spennymoor this season and, of the six goals Gannon’s men scored in those two games, Warburton was responsible for four, including a hat-trick against the Magpies at Edgeley Park.
This weekend’s games could turn the title race in favour of one of the three teams vying for the single automatic promotion spot but County have interests elsewhere too.
After an emphatic 3-0 win away at National League Maidstone United on Tuesday night County booked their place in the FA Trophy semi-finals where they will play AFC Fylde over two legs for a place in the final at Wembley.
Whilst Spennymoor and Chorley can allow themselves to focus solely on the league the Hatters’ cup involvement could derail their push for promotion.
With Saturday’s showdown looming, manager Jim Gannon, who will serve the last game of a three-match touchline ban this weekend, is focused on one thing only. Speaking after this week’s cup tie he said:
‘Ten or eleven games to go. I’m sure there will be plenty of twists and turns. It does look like it will come from one of us top three and we all have to play each other yet.
‘Right now my focus isn’t on Wembley, it’s on the cup final that we have on Saturday.’