Stockport County got 2018 off to the best of starts with an impressive victory at Alfreton’s Impact Arena that also saw them record a first ‘double’ of the campaign.
The Hatters had two defenders to thank for their goals as Chris Smalley’s pair of strikes early in each half, combined with a Scott Duxbury corner that was punched in by home goalkeeper Chris Elliott, saw off the Derbyshire side, who were reduced to 10 men just after the half-hour mark when Craig Westcarr was sent off.
Kicking off in the winter sunshine, the Hatters only had to wait six minutes before earning their first corner.
And moments later they were ahead, as Alfreton failed to clear Thomas’ delivery from the left. In the home-area melee, Darren Stephenson fed the ball back out to Thomas, whose cross was met by Smalley with a scissor-volley that flew past Elliott to give County the lead.
A quarter of an hour passed before the Reds created an attacking chance of note – and when they did, Ben Hinchliffe was equal to Frank Mulhern’s shot as he dived to catch the effort in mid-air.
With 33 minutes played, Westcarr prodded an effort shy of the same upright. Claiming a corner, he vented his fury on the linesman, who had awarded a goal kick, and the striker was dismissed for abusive language.
The hosts were now up against it. But, ahead of the break, further County chances amounted to little more than a Jason Oswell header that Elliott caught with ease, and a skewed shot by Jimmy Ball wide of the left post.
Within minutes of the re-start, and at almost precisely the same stage of proceedings as that which had seen his fateful Boxing Day challenge on Mantack, Cieron Keane conceded a free kick on the right after fouling Oswell.
Thomas delivered it – and Smalley converted it to double his and County’s tallies, by stabbing the ball home after Elliott had saved an initial header.
But with just over a quarter of an hour left on the clock, the Hatters made the game safe.
After earning their first corner since the interval, Duxbury’s trademark in-swinging delivery from the right proved too much of a handful for Elliott, who put it over the line.
For all County’s continued dominance, there was to be a consolation goal for Alfreton during added time, after Dan Cowan was judged to have fouled substitute Brendon Daniels in the box.
Daniels dusted himself down to send the resulting penalty past Hinchliffe.
FULL-TIME: Alfreton 1 (Daniels (pen), 90 + 2), County 3 (Smalley, 7 and 50; Elliott (og), 74)
Team: Hinchliffe, Cowan, Duxbury, Ball, Smalley (Clarke, 58), O’Halloran (Capt.), Thomas (McKenna, 78), Stopforth (Winter, 40), Oswell, Warburton, Stephenson.
Unused subs: Ormson, Dixon.
Booked: Stopforth, Ball.
Attendance: 949 (469 away fans).