Stockport County suffered their heaviest National League North defeat in almost two years by second-placed Harrogate Town on Wetherby Road’s 3G surface.
Thanks to Chris Smalley’s first-half strike, which saw the returning central defender continue to keep his nose in front as County’s leading league goal-scorer since the turn of the year, the Hatters avoided a repetition of their fate on Easter Monday 2016, when Fylde scored four without reply at Edgeley Park.
County took to the field showing three changes from the starting line-up at Southport three days previously.
Ian Ormson, who had played between the sticks in three January knockout-ties, was preferred to Ben Hinchliffe, while Smalley and and Gary Stopforth replaced, respectively, Michael Clarke and the injured Rhys Turner within a 4-2-3-1 formation.
After a blistering start by Harrogate, which saw the Hatters barely emerge from their own half in the opening stages, County began to settle into the game.
And after 10 minutes, Jamie Stott – having picked up Harry Winter’s quickly-taken free-kick – stung the hands of home goalkeeper James Belshaw with a thunderbolt of a shot from 30 yards out.
Ten minutes later, Ormson did well to parry past the left upright a shot by Dom Knowles from the edge of the box.
But within another three, Harrogate went ahead when the diminutive Jack Emmett took advantage of indecision just inside the County half, and advanced towards goal before skimming a low 30-yard shot past Ormson and in off the post into the bottom-left corner.
Harrogate looked to build on the goal by exerting further pressure with home captain Simon Ainge seeing a shot tipped past the left upright by Ormson, and Knowles sending a low, side-footed effort narrowly wide of the opposite upright.
But 10 minutes ahead of the break, County got back on level terms, after Harrogate failed to clear an Adam Thomas corner from the left, and Stott, just inside the area, flicked on to Smalley, who drilled home from just inside the area for his third goal of 2018.
The joy, alas, was short-lived, when, after 39 minutes, George Thomson connected with a County clearance to unleash a stunning volley from the edge of the box that put the hosts back in front.
Leading scorer Jason Oswell was replaced by Scott Duxbury upon the resumption, as Jimmy Ball was moved into attack.
And the tactic came close to paying off – as, in the five minutes that were to follow, Ball saw one dinked shot blocked by Belshaw, and a second evade the ‘keeper – only to float agonisingly shy of the right post.
But a continued bright start to the second half by County was brought to an abrupt end just ahead of the hour, when Emmett’s through-ball found Knowles, whose curling shot into the top-left corner gave Harrogate a two-goal advantage.
Ball’s strike-partner Darren Stephenson outpaced Terry Kennedy before firing just over.
But the home defender promptly went up the other end to make a more telling contribution after 67 minutes, heading in, from beyond the far post, a corner delivered on the right to make it four.
The Hatters went in search of what would have, in truth, been little more than a second consolation goal – but shots by Stephenson and Duxbury, as well as an added-time free-kick from Ball, were fired off target and high into the night sky.
FULL-TIME: Harrogate 4 (Emmett, 24; Thomson, 39; Knowles, 59; Kennedy, 67), County 1 (Smalley, 35)
County: Ormson, Cowan, O’Halloran (McKenna, 61), Ball, Smalley, Stott, Thomas, Winter (Capt.), Oswell (Duxbury, 46), Stopforth (Dixon, 75), Stephenson.
Unused subs: Warburton, Hinchliffe.