Stockport County will face Lancashire rivals Fylde for a place in the FA Trophy final after an emphatic 3-0 replay win at Maidstone United.
The Hatters’ first-ever appearance in the last four was achieved courtesy of a second-half Jake Kirby brace and Jordan Keane’s added-time header, as a County side featuring five changes from the original tie made light of the long trip to their National League hosts.
County and Fylde – a tier above the Hatters in the National League – face a two-legged semi-final on March 16 and 23 with the final at Wembley on May 19.
Kirby, Dan Cowan, Frank Mulhern, Elliot Osborne and returning captain Paul Turnbull were all handed starts – while Lewis Baines, Nyal Bell, Sam Minihan and Darren Stephenson, who had taken to the field at Edgeley Park three days previously, were rested on the bench, and Matty Warburton, whose equaliser had earned the replay, did not travel due to work commitments.
Although proceedings got off to a quiet start on the Gallagher Stadium’s 3G surface, County grew in confidence to launch a series of attacks from around the first half’s mid-point. And within the space of 10 minutes, the hosts owed four debts of gratitude to goalkeeper Chris Lewington.
Lewington first blocked Mulhern’s snap-shot from a tight angle on the right, before turning Scott Duxbury’s effort from the opposite flank on to the crossbar, parrying behind a drive by Adam Thomas, and finally clawing away with one hand an Ash Palmer header from County’s fourth corner of the night.
With his own team offering little more before the break than two shots off target, Lewington again had to be at his best when, after 40 minutes, he stretched to tip Sam Walker’s free-kick from the right around the far post.
Each side made a change immediately ahead of the resumption, as the Hatters brought on Nyal Bell for Mulhern – and Maidstone’s leading scorer Blair Turgott was introduced for the first time since injury had kept him on the sidelines for three months.
Turgott’s arrival appeared briefly to buoy up the Stones, as they earned two corners in quick succession – but their positivity was short-lived, with County taking the lead after 64 minutes.
Bell was the creator – seizing on a loose ball, ahead of Lewington, on the right side of the home area, and then keeping his feet before squaring for Kirby to slot into an empty net.
The hosts’ response to going behind was an attempt that turned out to be their best of the evening, in the form of a well-struck shot by Michael Phillips from 20 yards – but Ben Hinchliffe proved equal to it, as he brilliantly parried the effort beyond the left upright.
Walker, after 73 minutes, almost doubled the Hatters’ advantage in sensational fashion – letting rip with a 35-yard shot that flew past Lewington, only to bounce off the top of the bar and over.
But 10 minutes later, Kirby bagged his and County’s second – and in similar manner to the first, as he found himself perfectly placed to fire in Osborne’s delivery from the right.
Corners were prevalent at each end in the closing stages. Maidstone sent over two that were cleared upfield by Bell and Turnbull, before the Hatters made theirs count with two minutes of added time played.
Walker’s delivery from the right found Keane, who, from an unmarked position by the far post, headed home to round off the evening’s play in the most pleasing way possible – not least with the prospect of a 250-mile-plus homeward journey to face immediately afterwards.