KIDDERMINSTER’S ground holds a good few painful memories for County supporters and players alike – first and foremost, of course, as the venue where defeat to its landlord Harriers almost three years ago condemned the Hatters to relegation from the Conference Premier.
And, no doubt, Charlie Russell, while turning out on loan for Northwich Victoria, still winces whenever he recalls that back suplex executed upon him by Shabir Khan towards the end of last season’s fixture against Aggborough’s tenants from Worcester – when, infamously, Vanarama football met WWE!
County had also neither won there – nor, when facing Worcester, found the back of the net. And, with the nomadic ‘Blues’ about to change their ground-share arrangements with a view to playing at Bromsgrove next term, the Hatters only had one more chance to break both ducks together.
No easy task, given that the trip was being made on the back of three straight defeats without troubling the scorers. But, remarkably, County conjured up some ‘sauce-ery’ to overcome a Worcester side that took the lead twice and win, by the odd goal in five, a contest which would be remembered for the entertainment value of its football – rather than any other form of contact sport.
County’s starting line-up, adorned in pink to help offset the clouded grey of an overcast West Midlands afternoon, featured three changes from that which had taken to the field at Edgeley Park against Lowestoft a week previously.
Dean Henderson and Richard Brodie had both recovered from the illness that ruled them out of the Lowestoft defeat – and both were now recalled, together with Chris Smalley, who was absent, due to a calf injury, from all three matches in the losing sequence. Ian Ormson, George West and the injured Obi Anoruo were the players to stand down – with Ormson being included among the substitutes.
The hosts’ bench, meanwhile, featured a former Hatter in their captain, Danny Jackman, who had plied his trade at EP while County travelled through the League One parallel universe between 2003 and 2005.
With only four minutes of the game starting, events took an unfortunate turn for the Hatters when veteran striker, Lee Hughes, charged down a harmless-looking back-pass by Paul Connolly. Henderson took one touch too many, with the result that his clearance rebounded off Worcester’s leading scorer – already boasting a good record of early goals for former clubs against County – and looped into the net.
Bad almost became a great deal worse just two minutes later, as Daniel Nti appeared to be upended in the County box by Brandon Wilson. Thankfully for the Hatters, however, play was waved on without hesitation by referee Simon Barrow.
The rare award of a contested drop-ball just outside Worcester’s area led to County’s first chance, after Brodie was first to the bounce and found John Marsden to his right – but the latter’s follow-up shot was blasted over.
An end-to-end battle was now in progress and Sam Minihan caused County hearts to flutter, when his cross from the right curled in flight to soar narrowly wide of the far post.
But the Hatters had settled down following their somewhat calamitous start – and, with 18 minutes played, they were back on level terms. Danny Morton started an attacking move deep in his own half, before running on to play a further part near Worcester’s right byline and delivering a cross that was deflected by Wayne Thomas towards Kay Odejayi.
The big striker made no mistake in heading home for his fifth league goal of the campaign – and for County’s first in almost five hours.
Attack after attack followed on the part of both sides – belying any notion that the match offered little at stake for either team. Hughes fired high and wide from distance. Marsden went rather closer with a shorter-range effort that just cleared the bar. And, either side of those attempts, Brodie and Shaun Donnellan saw shots tipped over by, respectively, Nathan Vaughan and Henderson.
Donnellan and Hughes then combined to more deadly effect, as the former found the latter with a long ball from within the Worcester half. Cutting in from the left, Hughes made no mistake with a thunderbolt of a shot that flew into the County net’s far top corner.
As the break approached, there was still time for each side to go close again, as, first, Sean O’Hanlon headed a corner against the woodwork, and, subsequently, Hughes missed out on sealing a first-half hat-trick – heading narrowly wide of the far post, following Minihan’s cross from the right.
HALF-TIME: Worcester 2 (Hughes, 4 and 39), County 1 (Odejayi, 18).
Jim Gannon made a change to County’s 4-4-2 ‘diamond’ line-up upon the resumption – introducing Sam Grimshaw for Brodie to create a 4-1-4-1 formation. And this appeared to make an immediate difference for the better, as the Hatters began to dominate in possession.
By far the greater share of scoring opportunities were beginning to come County’s way, too. Odejayi connected with Connolly’s cross from the right – heading wide of the near post. Another Connolly delivery found Grimshaw, whose shot was sliced to provide stand-in captain, Vaughan, with a comfortable save – before Vaughan was made to work harder by Marsden, whose low drive from inside the box could only be parried behind. The resulting corner saw Marsden head a Gareth Roberts delivery from the left just beyond the far upright.
Worcester finally managed to get behind County’s defence when Hughes broke clear – and looked for all the world as if he would put the match out of reach. But, with Hughes having got the better of Henderson twice earlier, the Hatters’ on-loan keeper bravely stood firm to block.
Back came County, as Odejayi flicked on an O’Hanlon header to Vaughan, before swapping head for feet and sending a half-volley over from the edge of the box. And Vaughan saved again from Marsden, as time ticked by and it seemed that, for all their second-half pressure, the Hatters would be travelling home without reward.
They also once more had cause to be thankful to Henderson, following another Worcester break – on this occasion by substitute, Jordan Murphy, cutting in from the left – that led to an excellent point-blank save.
In the event, Henderson’s stop would prove critical to what followed over the game’s final nine minutes. And Jamie Menagh – by now on as County’s second substitute – had a not-insignificant part to play in proceedings, too.
Menagh’s corner from the left helped get the Hatters back on level terms for a second time in the afternoon, when his delivery was flicked around the six-yard box, without hitting the ground, between O’Hanlon, Odejayi and Marsden – before Smalley, capping an impressive return with his first County goal, finished the mid-air fun by left-footing (or, possibly, shinning) a volley home.
And the pleasure of securing a point turned to sheer delight at winning all three when, with two minutes of normal time remaining, Menagh threaded the ball through to Marsden, who calmly ran on to slot past Vaughan with his left foot from 15 yards – bringing the former Colwyn Bay striker level with Odejayi and Jake Kirby as County’s leading league scorer, with three matches left to play.
Those fixtures will now be played in the certain mathematical knowledge (following Boston’s victory over a Bradford Park Avenue side that, from the outset, featured striker Liam Dickinson in goal!) that the play-offs are beyond the reach of the Hatters this year. But how sweet was the feeling to leave Aggborough with spirits, for once, uplifted!
With that particular demon conquered, and Kidderminster looking likely to drop down and join the National League North next term, we may get to enjoy it again…
FULL-TIME: Worcester City 2 (Hughes, 4 and 39), Stockport County 3 (Odejayi, 18; Smalley, 81; Marsden, 88).
Worcester City: Vaughan (c), Minihan, Weir (Webb 90′), Gudger, Thomas, S Donnellan, Nti, Burton, Perry (Murphy 49′), Gater, Hughes.
Stockport County: Henderson, Connolly, Roberts, Ellison (Menagh 70′), O’Hanlon (c), Smalley, Morton (Poscha 90′), Wilson, Brodie (Grimshaw 46′), Marsden, Odejayi.
Booked: Brodie, Henderson.
Referee: Simon Barrow (Staffordshire)
By Gareth Evans at Aggborough