Promotion to the Football League lies in the hands of Stockport County, after a revival under new boss Dave Challinor has seen the Hatters emerge as favourites for the National League title.

By Amos Murphy

Stockport County dagenham

Credit: Stockport County Football Club / Mike Petch

Rusk side shadow of Challinor outfit

Stood alone on the touchline, shoulders shrugged and arms suspended by nothing other than his trouser pockets, the final moments of Simon Rusk’s reign as Stockport County manager ended with a chorus of boos echoing around Edgeley Park, whilst a toxic feeling hung in the night sky.

Slumping to a 2-1 defeat in his last County game in charge, Rusk left the Hatters sitting 12th in the National League table, having failed in his task to take the club back to the Football League. Just under three months on from that Barnet loss, few sides look more capable of lifting the National League title than a rejuvenated Stockport.

Almost faultless since Dave Challinor swapped League Two Hartlepool United for Stockport, the Chester-born boss has transformed County’s fortunes, dragging them from mid-table mediocrity, up into the automatic promotion conversation.

Stats back up Challinor revival

In 10 league games under Challinor, Stockport have lost just one, whilst the Hatters have an FA Trophy last-16 tie at home to Step 3 Cheshunt to look forward to.

What’s more, County have drastically improved their goals output, netting 28 goals in that period, compared to their previous total of 11 in 12 with Rusk at the helm.

At the opposite end, Challinor has overseen somewhat of a defensive revolution in the Stockport side, as the Hatters have conceded an average of 0.7 goals per game under the former-Hartlepool man, a decrease from 1.25 under ex-boss Rusk.

No secret formula for experienced head Challinor

So, what secret formula has Challinor been able to conjure up, that Rusk wasn’t? Quite frankly, there isn’t one, as the resources currently at the Stockport managers’ disposal, are almost identical to those that were available for his predecessor.

Only Ryan Johnson has arrived at Edgeley Park since Rusk’s departure, with Challinor able to utilise many of the existing talents within the County squad. Demonstrating an ability to get the most out of a star-studded squad, it is no surprise the Stockport faithful have taken little time to fall in love with their new manager.

Stockport vs Altrincham

Credit: Mike Petch

One man thriving under the new regime is Will Collar, who alongside forming part of an irresistible midfield trio with Ryan Croasdale and Antoni Sarcevic, has found an eye for goal of late. Netting four times in his last six league outings, Collar represents everything great about Challinor’s County side.

Averaging 2.8 points per game since Challinor dropped down a division to join County, Stockport’s rise up the table has been met with an increase in expectation, with the Hatters now the bookies favourite to win the National League outright.

Big tests lie ahead for in-form County

Unquestionably the division’s in-form side, things are looking positive for Stockport, but with plenty of fixtures still to play, Challinor will be aware of how quickly the tide can turn in a competitive National League title race.

At various points this season, both Grimsby and Chesterfield have looked like dead certs to finish top, before a poor run of form has seen their advantages slashed. Currently level on points with the Spireites at the summit of the league, FC Halifax Town also remain in the mix, but are yet to display the ruthlessness to suggest they’d be able to maintain a title challenge.

Whilst it may seem premature to tip Stockport for the title, given they are yet to even lead the division once this season, the balance Challinor has been able to bring to the Hatters’ squad suggests they are rightly lauded as champions in waiting.

Big tests await County in the coming weeks, with the Hatters set for back-to-back games versus fellow challengers Chesterfield and Bromley, before eventually finishing up with a run against Chesterfield once again, Wrexham and then a final day showdown at home to Halifax.

But, should they continue with the same energy and dynamism that has seen Stockport drag themselves back into the promotion picture, there is little to suggest the Hatters’ 12-year hiatus from the Football League won't be coming to an end sooner rather than later.

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