Stockport County began the new year in precisely the same manner as ending the old – with a single-goal victory that sees the Hatters continue to occupy third place in the National League North.
Matty Warburton’s 27th-minute strike proved the difference at Moss Lane and secured a hat-trick of triumphs during the Christmas and New Year period.
The Hatters took to the field on a mild New Year’s Day showing two changes from the starting line-up at Edgeley Park against Kidderminster three days earlier.
Having missed out at the weekend due to illness, both Jordan Keane and Jake Kirby returned, replacing Elliot Osborne and the injured Sam Walker.
A cagey opening produced relatively little by way of clear-cut chances, with players from each side trying their luck with efforts from around the edges of the areas concerned.
John Johnston’s shot was comfortably gathered by Ben Hinchliffe, before Kirby and Frank Mulhern fired wide and high, respectively.
But County became more assured – and, in fact, would end the contest having made three times as many attempts on goal as the hosts.
With a quarter of an hour played, Ash Palmer’s header from the first corner of the afternoon was parried away by home goalkeeper Tony Thompson – who, three minutes later, had to react quickly in diving to smother a Mulhern snap-shot.
When the Hatters’ goal arrived, it did so in part due to some good fortune – albeit not for Simon Richman, who was bent double in a sensitive place after the ball hit him while the hosts had possession.
Mulhern seized upon it to thread a through-ball to Warburton, and County’s leading scorer drew Thompson out to the right before slotting home for his 13th goal in all competitions.
Warburton and Keane blasted further shots over, and Hinchliffe, five minutes before half-time, gathered by the near post a well-struck delivery from the left by former Hatter Connor Hampson.
Kicking after the break towards an end packed with County followers, who comprised a not-insignificant proportion of Altrincham’s highest home league attendance for nearly 30 years, the Hatters kept much of the opening second-period play in their hosts’ half.
But County’s Number One remained alert whenever required. And the Hatters twice owed a debt of gratitude to Hinchliffe as he bravely dived to smother the ball in a crowded box following Altrincham’s inaugural corner, before subsequently stopping a low drive from Josh Hancock.
County went rather closer 13 minutes from time, courtesy of an excellent strike by Kirby on the left from 12 yards out that Thompson did well to keep out and parry past the near upright.
And at the other end, the back four – augmented for the closing half-hour by Dan Cowan – operated superbly as a defensive unit to nullify the threat in the final third of the league’s second-highest-scoring team, as the Hatters extended their unbeaten run to eight games.