• Sam Byrne

"It can be a nervy place to play football" - Edgeley Park crowd can be key to Hatters title charge

Image credit - Mike Petch

Three more points, three more goals, three more goalscorers.

County hit the top of the National League table on Tuesday evening with a hard-working 3-0 win over a spirited Maidenhead Utd side – and the celebratory scenes at full-time had all the hallmarks of another classic Edgeley Park night under the lights.

Midfielder Ryan Croasdale spoke with the press after the game with the usual questions forthcoming about his superb strike to double County’s lead, the side’s current form, and the feeling of being at the summit of the fifth division to end the evening.

But the former Fylde man also touched on the support of the over five thousand County fans in attendance on Tuesday evening – another quite staggering, yet unsurprising turnout.

“I couldn’t believe the noise when the first goal went in,” said Croasdale.

“It was unbelievable, I’ve never really heard anything like it in football.”

Antoni Sarcevic’s well-timed header which crawled into the bottom corner of the Cheadle End goal certainly sparked big celebrations – an explosion of noise and relief after a poor first half by The Hatters.

From there, both Croasdale and manager Dave Challinor agreed in their post-match summaries that the Edgeley Park crowd stayed with the side for the remainder, as Croasdale himself and substitute John Rooney capped the win late on.

But it was Challinor’s carefully-chosen words which proved most telling on the night.

After hailing a “superb crowd on a freezing cold night”, the former Hartlepool Utd boss paused before considering how best to present a challenge to his side’s supporters to ‘stay with the side’ for the full ninety.

“We’re going to have some games here during the rest of the season that are high tension,” said Challinor.

“I’ve been here as an opposition manager, and what you want to do as the opposition manager is make it a nervous place for the home side. What we have to do as a home team is make sure it isn’t that nervous place.”

“To be fair, the fans stayed with us in the second half, but those moments in the first half are when we really need them. They’re the times I’ve spoken about – for example, we will concede the first goal here at some point. When we do, that’s when we need the backing in times of adversity.”

Since his arrival in early November, Challinor has been big on the effect of a vocal home crowd and a vocal backing of this County side. One of his first press briefings centred a lot around how Challinor feels he can “harness” support and have his players utilise it to get over the line in games where the performance perhaps isn’t as slick as The Hatters would like.

The former County captain drew comparisons between Edgeley Park and the home ground of his former side Hartlepool Utd – and also clearly referenced the success he’s found at EP as an opposition manager down the years.

A lot has been made of Challinor’s demands of his own players – he runs them into the ground, he demands high-intensity action, and doesn’t like to settle for anything less than the best. Whilst that is all true, County fans may now just be finding that the Hatters boss actually wants the exact same of his side’s supporters.

Challinor spoke in a fans forum on the first night of his arrival to the club of “the power of everyone pulling in the right direction” and harnessing that power into results on the pitch.

Make no mistake, this isn’t a manager struggling for results and so resorting to clichés around the fans ‘getting behind the lads’ - but a manager who can already sense the danger of a nervy, jittery Edgeley Park when the likes of Chesterfield, Notts County and Boreham Wood come to town.

County are absolutely flying, but it’s no coincidence that – immediately after going top of the table – Challinor wants more, both on and off the pitch.

While outlining his expectations of the home crowd, Challinor also reminded his players that it will be their performances which play a big part in the noise and atmosphere in the four stands surrounding them.

Ultimately, you get the strong sense that Challinor wants both his players and his side’s supporters to each be spurring the other onto new heights for the rest of a potentially historic campaign.

Good, positive football will get the fans bouncing. Equally, that real vociferous support when the chips are down, and County need some inspiration, will drive the players. Iron sharpens iron, and Challinor is clearly keenly aware of what the club can achieve with all pulling in one direction.

“We have to keep the fans in the game. You don’t keep fans in the game by messing about with the ball at the back and not playing forwards.”

“That’s down to us. It was the same at my previous club – it can be a difficult place to play football as a home side when you’re not at it. When you’ve been not successful as a club over quite an extended period of time, it can become quite a glass half-empty kind of place to play football.”

“We have to get beyond that and realise that the fans who turn up can make it a difficult place for the opposition and create an intimidating atmosphere. That’s what we’ll need.”

Effectively, whilst presented in a subtle, typically charming manner, the challenge to County fans is clear. We can’t expect to turn up, sit on our hands and simply watch a side stroll to a National League title win. We’re all rightly proud of the levels of support that County fans show – both numerically and vocally. Especially given the torrid times that have been endured for quite some time.

But, in Challinor’s eyes, if superb backing and crackling Edgeley Park atmospheres can be matched by a real desire from the terraces to lift the side up in moments of adversity, then there really could be no stopping the Stockport County juggernaut.

Given Challinor’s success – even as recently as last season – by drawing on that exact same sort of support, it’s hard to argue with the man in charge.