Trudging off the Meadow Lane pitch, Stockport County had just suffered their fourth league defeat of the season, leaving Simon Rusk’s side 12 points adrift of leaders Grimsby Town. Despondency in the away end, desperation in the dugout.
By Amos Murphy
Where has it gone wrong for optimistic County side
Aspirations were high for the Hatters at the start of the season, with Mark Stott’s investment bringing about a renewed optimism to a County side starved of joy over the past decade. Amongst the favourites for promotion, they’re currently slumped in 10th after 11 games. Nothing short of underwhelming.
So, what’s been the issue for Stockport so far? For starters, an opening day defeat to Dagenham & Redbridge immediately set the Hatters on the back-foot, whilst one win from their first five matches put the promotion hopefuls under pressure straight away.
In isolation County’s results appear mixed to say the least, with statement victories over the likes of recently-relegated Southend United stellar achievements, whilst shipping three without return against Halifax Town and Yeovil Town considerable low-points.
Inconsistency is never the best trait to boast when looking to build a title challenge and Stockport have so far more often than not failed to convince in a lacklustre campaign.
Rusk struggling to find balance for County’s gems
There is no debating the quality in the County squad. The Cheshire based club are home to a number of talents capable of plying their trade in divisions above the fifth-tier.
Paddy Madden has topped scored for Stockport this season, whilst recent-arrivals Oliver Crankshaw, Tom Walker and Zeki Fryers have all enjoyed sizeable experience in the Football League. Add into the mix the latest signing of Bolton Wanderers captain Antoni Sarcevic and it seems County hold the cards to form a formidable outfit.
Pressure creates diamonds, yet Simon Rusk has struggled to carve out the gems within his County squad.
The former Brighton & Hove Albion U23 manager has undoubtedly failed to strike the right balance within the star-studded side, with his favoured 3-4-2-1 system unable to bring about the rewards needed to compete at the top of the table.
Alongside an inability to click going forward, defensive frailties have cost County far too often this season, with Rusk’s men the only side in the top-half to post a negative goal difference after 10 matches.
Problems at the back could be to blame for leaky Hatters
Conceding three goals on a trio of occasions, shaky performances at the back had led to Ethan Ross being brought in to replace fans’ favourite, Ben Hinchcliffe.
Experiencing an immediate bounce after Ross’ introduction, the former-Arsenal youth player was part of a County side that enjoyed their longest winning streak of the season, triumphing in consecutive games against Wrexham, Weymouth and Aldershot Town.
Yet even the shot-stopping talents of the 24-year-old goalkeeper weren’t able to deny a clinical Notts County attack in the Hatters’ latest 2-1 National League defeat.
Two second-half goals from Kyle Wooton and Frank Vincent gave the once-Football League stalwarts a deserved lead over Stockport, before Ben Whitfield converted a penalty in added time to sneak a consolation for Rusk’s side.
How do County recover?
With more than three-quarters of the campaign left to play, it’s impossible to rule County out of a title charge just yet. But, with the gap between themselves and the league leaders extending week on week, a change in fortunes is needed if Stockport are to achieve their goal of a Football League return.
A potentially season-defining few weeks await County, with matchups against struggling Barnet and Dover Athletic to come, before a blockbuster clash against Bolton in the First Round of the FA Cup.
Being the man to succeed Jim Gannon was always going to prove a thankless task, yet Rusk has made strides to improve the County style of play since being drafted in earlier this year.
It’s fair to say Rusk has demonstrated the credentials needed to lead the Hatters going forward, but given the quality inside the Stockport ranks, it's also not unreasonable to suggest the 39-year-old should be fairing better.
Ironing out the inconsistent creases from their stuttering start will be crucial for the young boss if he is to continue as County manager, yet anything other than a sharp increase in fortunes for Rusk will likely see his tenure ended before it’s really even begun.