On the brink of promotion, Stockport County must find form, or risk throwing away EFL promotion dream.
By Amos Murphy
Shaky Stockport lacking bottle at crucial time in title race
It was meant to be the day. A relentlessly vocal contingent of Stockport County supporters made the pilgrimage to North Wales with dreams of a Football League return. What followed was nothing short of a nightmare.
Brushed aside by a 14-minute Wrexham flurry, that saw the hosts net three times either side of half-time, Stockport’s chance to seal the National League title faded away into the Welsh afternoon.
Today’s attendance is an incredible 10,118!
Your support is just remarkable. Diolch! #WxmAFC pic.twitter.com/IDa7nmyzO5
— Wrexham AFC (@Wrexham_AFC) May 8, 2022
Stockport's nine lives - Non League Weekly Podcast
Of course, the Hatters’ chances of securing promotion back to the Football League still remain in their hands, but such a psychological battering away to their closest rivals, could prove to be a sticky moment in Dave Challinor’s title quest.
Brought in to replace the much-maligned Simon Rusk, Challinor had injected renewed optimism into County’s title challenge, with Stockport rocketing up the league table.
In a seemingly unassailable position not too long ago, it was looking like a matter of when not if for Stockport, yet now, having slipped behind chasers Wrexham in the table, the title race will be taken to the final day.
Four defeats in the last six league matches is an unwanted record at any time, let alone during a title race, but Stockport’s form is even more remarkable when you consider Challinor had only lost one of his first 23 league games in charge.
Crumbling at just the wrong time, it’s impossible to say what might’ve happened with the title race had Wrexham’s early-season wobbles been rectified sooner, but with just two matches of the campaign remaining, Stockport have certainly left themselves with it all to do.
Dave Challinor's first 23 league games in charge of Stockport County: 1 defeat
Dave Challinor's last 6 league games in charge of Stockport County: 4 defeats
Shaky. 😬 pic.twitter.com/0NIbX7Zmmm
— NonLeagueDaily — By Betting.co.uk (@NonLeagueNews) May 10, 2022
Requiring four points from their final pair of games, the odds remain firmly in the Hatters’ favour, but on current form, what’s to say title-hopefuls Stockport don’t fall into a full-blown crisis?
Starting with the visit of last season’s playoff runners-up, Torquay United, a tricky test awaits Challinor’s side on Wednesday evening, as they look to banish the demons of the Racecourse Ground.
Should they negotiate that challenge safely, the small matter of FC Halifax Town awaits Stockport at Edgeley Park on the final day of the season, with the Yorkshire-based outfit still in the hunt for a top-three finish and subsequent qualification for the playoff semi-finals.
Unquestionably tough fixtures and ones that Stockport wouldn’t have hand picked for this situation, the risk of a difficult run-in had always overshadowed the Hatters’ potential route to the National League title.
If the National League had two automatic spots, both Stockport County and Wrexham would've already secured promotion to League Two. ⏫ pic.twitter.com/AwvpGlfWfY
— NonLeagueDaily — By Betting.co.uk (@NonLeagueNews) May 9, 2022
Of their final nine games of the season, only 13th-placed Yeovil Town sat outside the top half, with tough fixtures against various playoff-chasing opponents.
Granted, there is an argument to suggest both of these teams should've already secured promotion, as would’ve already been the case in each of the three divisions above them.
A bottleneck at the top of the National League, caused by the format that only sees one side promoted automatically from the fifth tier, means there is still every chance one of Wrexham or Stockport misses out on promotion.
The chances are it will still be Wrexham whose season ends without automatic promotion to the Football League, meaning Phil Parkinson’s side will be condemned to the minefield of the playoffs, starting with a semi-final at the Racecourse.
If Stockport are to crawl across the line, come the start of next season when they line up as an EFL side for the first time in 11 years, the manner in which they secured promotion will be nothing more than a footnote in an otherwise pulsating journey.
Call it a blip, a collapse or even a capitulation, the truth is Stockport have been the best team in the National League this season and will be worthy recipients of the title, as long as they can show enough bottle to see out the final two games.