Stockport County marked their return to National League North action for the first time in three weeks by edging out near-neighbours FC United of Manchester at Broadhurst Park.
Matty Warburton’s 17th goal of the season – and his fifth in three of County’s four matches against the ‘Red Rebels’ this term – proved enough to earn a victory that moves the Hatters to five points away from the play-off places with a game in hand over the two clubs immediately above.
County took to the field showing two changes from the starting line-up for the FA Trophy replay against Maidenhead 11 days earlier.
Jamie Stott, who had been ineligible for that tie, returned, together with Gary Stopforth, as part of a 3-4-1-2 formation, to replace Scott Duxbury and Harry Winter.
Stephen O’Halloran assumed captaining duties in the absence of Winter, who missed an opportunity to appear against his former club courtesy of a one-match suspension.
Scoring chances were to be at a premium for both sides throughout the afternoon – although the hosts created one within the first two minutes, when Ben Hinchliffe was forced to dive and tip past the left upright Danny Racchi’s low shot from outside County’s box.
Five minutes later, an excellent move involving Darren Stephenson, Jason Oswell and Warburton saw the latter fire the ball into the Red Rebels’ net – but a flag was already raised for offside.
The Hatters settled into their attacking stride, and, with 13 minutes on the clock, Stephenson embarked on a fine run down the right flank – riding a high challenge by Matty Hughes, before cutting in and unleashing an angled drive that was blocked by home goalkeeper Lloyd Allinson.
Within another three minutes, Stephenson raided the right again – but, on this occasion, crossed rather than shot, and Warburton was on hand instantly to convert from close range and give the Hatters their first-ever lead at Broadhurst Park.
FC United responded well to going behind, and proceeded to dominate in possession for much of the remainder of the first half – albeit without creating many clear-cut opportunities.
But County did have the legs of Hinchliffe to thank, as they kept out Kieran Glynn’s shot following FC’s third corner of the day – before the Hatters’ number one used his hands to deny Steve Irwin.
The Hatters looked to exploit the relatively few openings they had to double the lead upon the resumption – but Warburton blasted well over from the edge of FC’s area, and Stephenson’s pitch-long foray down the left was brought to an end by a well-timed tackle in the box.
With just under a quarter of an hour left, County’s best chance of all fell to substitute Rhys Turner, making his first appearance after suffering an ankle injury at Southport four weeks previously. Stott charged the ball down to Turner, who raced through on goal – with Stott, admirably, in close contact alongside – but the final shot was ultimately blocked by Allinson.
Another substitute, Duxbury, went close with seven minutes left – staying on his feet after a challenge, but firing over from 10 yards after cutting in from the left.
The hosts, who had last suffered a home defeat during the first week of September, reapplied pressure in the closing stages. But a low drive from Glynn was drilled narrowly wide of the right post.
And, into added time, Hinchliffe began the game as he had started it, with a fine diving save – on this occasion parrying Irwin’s shot from the right.
FULL-TIME: FC United 0, County 1 (Warburton, 16)
County: Hinchliffe, Cowan, O’Halloran (Capt.), Ball, Smalley, Stott, Thomas, Stopforth, Oswell (Dixon, 55), Warburton (Turner, 71), Stephenson (Duxbury, 81).
Unused Subs: Clarke, Ormson.
Attendance: 3,084 (750 away fans).