• Sam Byrne

Preparing for League Two assault - latest on Edgeley Park incomings & outgoings as pre-season nears



On Saturday 30th July 2022, Stockport County will take to the field as a Football League side once again – a mere 4,103 days since their last kick of a ball in the EFL.


And with weeks of promotion parties, open top bus parades and National League trophy tours of the town slowly starting to wind down, focus is swiftly turning towards that much-anticipated return to League Two.


Although players and staff alike are enjoying the last knockings of their briefest of summer holidays, excitement for the new season continues to build further and further with each baseless transfer rumour that surfaces.


But one thing that the peddlers of these rumours have right is that, with The Hatters’ pre-season set to begin on the 2nd July with a trip to old friends Nuneaton Borough, the month of June does indeed promise to be a busy one at Edgeley Park.


It’s a safe bet to assume that announcements of incomings and outgoings alike will really start to take off shortly after the Jubilee Weekend and the National League promotion final between Solihull Moors and Grimsby Town, with the make-up of all five of the top divisions then finalised and clubs and players more aware of their potential destinations.


For Dave Challinor and company, whilst the County boss believes his current group of players can challenge for the League Two play-off positions, the groundwork is already well underway to sculpt a Hatters squad which can push on to compete with the very best of the fourth tier.


Even throughout The Hatters’ intense run-in to secure the National League title, talk was rife around Edgeley Park of the potential for a high turnover of players this summer – and, with five first-team squad members already released at the expiration of their contracts, there is likely to be more shuffling of the pack by Challinor and his recruitment team.


So, what are the current scores on the doors for County, and what’s really needed to help the group kick on yet again?


Goalkeepers


As yet, there are no real indicators on whether heroic stopper Ben Hinchliffe will remain at Edgeley Park, after the club confirmed that a new deal is being discussed. Hinchliffe would be beginning his seventh season with The Hatters if he does opt to remain – but interest in the former Fylde ‘keeper will rightly be high from elsewhere.


Ethan Ross still has two years remaining on his current deal and joined in the National League title celebrations after completing a short loan spell at Aldershot Town to end the campaign. Still at a good age and with plenty of potential, another loan spell away from the club for the coming season may be an option for Ross to continue to progress.


Fulham youngster Luca Ashby-Hammond completed a loan spell at Edgeley Park at the conclusion of the 2021/22 season and is very highly thought of at County. With a move seeming likely for a goalkeeper to challenge Hinchliffe if County’s current number one does opt to extend his stay at the club, Ashby-Hammond himself would be a logical incoming.


The Hatters have also been linked with Liverpool prospect Vit Jaros, who has now completed a loan spell at Notts County and caught the eye with a number of excellent saves at Edgeley Park in a 3-0 defeat for Notts during the run-in. The 20-year-old penned a long-term deal at Anfield back in the summer of 2020 and also spent time on loan at St Patrick’s Athletic, where he won the club’s Player of the Season gong in 2021.

Vit Jaros beaten by Paddy Madden (Image rights to Mike Petch)


All signs do point towards at least one new face between the sticks, with the ideal scenario for Hinchliffe to retain his number one spot for next season amidst strong competition from the sidelines.


Defence


This may be where we see the most new faces. The word for a while has been that as many as three centre-halves could come into the club over the summer.


Like Hinchliffe in goal, iconic defender Ash Palmer is in discussions with the club over new terms – although, again, there’ll be no shortage of interest in a man who has helped take County from the sixth tier back into the Football League, is revered at his current club, has been part of several County sides with stellar defensive records, and has an eye for goal himself.


Ben Barclay finds himself in a similar situation to Ethan Ross. Two years remaining on a deal signed last summer and ended this season out on loan in the National League, with another loan move away a possibility for the 25-year-old.


However, Barclay does have real pedigree having featured regularly for Accrington Stanley in what was the club’s highest ever finish of 11th in League One back in 2020/21, and his start to life with County was undeniably hindered by the baffling utilisation of the former Brighton man as a left-sided centre-half at the start of the campaign.


Ryan Johnson came into the club at the turn of the year and quickly formed a solid understanding with departed skipper Liam Hogan and Ash Palmer in a back three. He will likely be an important part of Challinor’s plans as a real left-sided option.


Ryan Rydel will look to kick on after a stellar seven months under the stewardship of Challinor, with a remarkable number of assists from left wing-back ticked off for the former Fleetwood Town youngster. Mark Kitching, undoubtedly a real bright spark of the side prior to a troublesome back injury, looked to have fallen out of favour as the season drew to a close and could be one who makes way over pre-season.


Left-sided Cheltenham Town defender Will Boyle, confirmed to be leaving the Gloucestershire side, has been linked but looks set to make an eye-catching return to beaten Championship play-off finalists Huddersfield Town.


On the right, the Welsh genius Macauley Southam-Hales will soon recover from an injury which ruled him out of the title run-in and will be a key man throughout County’s return to League Two.

The genius from Wales (Image rights to Mike Petch)


Hugely popular duo Sam Minihan and Jordan Keane are contracted for another season at present, and are both solid options to provide real cover across the back line, whilst youngster Ethan Pye is also under contract at Edgeley Park after a lengthy loan spell at National League North outfit Spennymoor Town and could move on in another loan deal.


Midfield


It’s hard to look past that trio of Will Collar, Ryan Croasdale and Antoni Sarcevic to continue doing what they do best in the Football League.


Croasdale played every single National League game of the season and still looked ready for more, whilst Collar and Sarcevic both provided real boosts upon their respective returns from suspension to end the campaign – with Collar scoring County’s final goal of that eleven-year stint in non-league.

But, in County’s final two games of the season, Challinor also showed that a midfield four was a viable approach, with Hull City loanee Andy Cannon starting in both wins over Torquay United and Halifax alongside the aforementioned trio. Cannon returned to The Tigers at the conclusion of the campaign but appears ready to leave the Championship club – and it’s understood that County have not ruled out a permanent move for the popular central midfielder.


If, however, Cannon does move on elsewhere with plenty of Football League sides casting an eye over the 26-year-old, another midfield option could be Stockport-born Callum Camps, who The Hatters do have an interest in bringing in.


Camps is leaving current club Fleetwood this summer, but Joey Barton’s newly-promoted Bristol Rovers also retain a serious interest. Camps almost joined Rovers in January, but when Fleetwood opted against the deal, The Gas plumped for Newcastle Utd loanee Elliot Anderson.


Prospect Cody Johnson has penned a professional deal at Edgeley Park in a real boost to the club and looks set to gain experience in the upcoming campaign via competitions such as the Papa John’s Trophy. A loan move to further the talented youngster’s development is also an option.


Elliot Newby enjoyed an impressive end to the season as a covering right wing-back, playing a key role in the win at Chesterfield, where Newby won Man of the Match in front of the BT Sport cameras. With competition for places already high and only set to increase with the return of Southam-Hales, former Chorley man Newby may be another who looks for more regular football elsewhere.


Myles Hippolyte proved a complete revelation after joining from National League new boys Scunthorpe United earlier in the year, turning in a number of superb showings and scoring several crucial goals for The Hatters. Hippolyte showed his worth in covering as a very capable left wing-back during Rydel’s absence, and also featured in central midfield as the season came to an end.


The former Brentford prospect has been offered terms to remain at the club alongside Palmer and Hinchliffe and will be another important component of Challinor’s group moving forwards.


Of the more naturally attackers in County’s ranks, Ollie Crankshaw is another with Football League experience and who could really kick on in the season to come. With an impressive return of goals and assists since joining from Bradford City in October, the winger will be pushing for a more regular starting berth should Challinor opt for a change in shape.


Ben Whitfield suffered a stop-start campaign with a number of niggling injures coming before and after a three-month lay-off due to a broken foot. But the playmaker is very highly thought of at Edgeley Park and is another who could be set for a real breakthrough campaign.


Like Crankshaw, Whitfield’s opportunities to start more regularly will hinge largely on the shape that Challinor goes with, but Whitfield has shown more than enough when he has featured for County to know that he’ll be a real threat with full fitness and a run of games under his belt.


Whitfield could yet be joined by a familiar face at Edgeley Park, with out-of-contract Torquay United attacking midfielder Connor Lemonheigh-Evans another real possibility for The Hatters. As with several County targets, there are a wealth of suitors in the talented Lemonheigh-Evans.


Attack (Strikers)


Starting with the no-brainer, Paddy Madden is likely to be the man who captains Stockport County in what will be an emotional first day of the season back in the Football League. What else is there to say on the Irishman’s ability, work-rate, commitment and goalscoring prowess?


The most common rumours so far in this close-season period have been those which link County to ‘target man’ type forwards, after an undeniably tough end to the campaign for Scott Quigley. But rewinding back to November 2021, few in this County side were as unplayable as the big man.


A starring role in County’s memorable 5-3 FA Cup first round win over Bolton Wanderers was broadcast live across the country, where the former Barrow striker bullied a League One defence on his way to a brace throughout 120 minutes of football. After a superb run of form around that time, an enforced absence from the side through illness undoubtedly knocked the 29-year-old off his rhythm.


15 goals for Barrow in their first season back in the Football League last year can also not be disregarded. Whilst The Hatters are definitely after a forward or two, the Shrewsbury-born forward could well still have a role to play. Challinor himself was quick to express his “great belief” in Quigley during a rough patch to end the campaign.


However, it is clear that a striker is high up the list of priorities for The Hatters. There is genuine interest in Notts County striker Kyle Wootton. Wootton is at the end of his current deal with the managerless National League side, and is believed to have been close to a move to Edgeley Park prior to the closure of the National League ‘transfer window’ back in March. Regardless, it's fair to say the interest is one which certainly dates back throughout the 2021/22 campaign.


Fresh reports have emerged linking Morecambe forward Cole Stockton with a move to Edgeley Park, with Stockton fresh from 26 goals in all competitions this season – but that one is less likely as things stand. The 28-year-old was a County target as recently as last year, but other options which the club will see as more viable ones look to be taking precedence.


Connor Jennings returns to the Football League with County after previously helping Tranmere Rovers out of League Two via the play-offs back in 2019. The experienced forward has had the trust of Challinor throughout this season and has been utilised in a number of positions across the forward line following his inspiring comeback from a rare form of cancer. Jennings has a year currently left on his deal at the club.


Alex Reid was linked with a move away from the club during ‘transfer deadline day’ for National League clubs back in March, but nothing materialised - with the former Fylde forward restricted to appearances in the FA Trophy and County’s successful Cheshire Senior Cup campaign this season.


A move to pastures new looks to be the outcome this summer for Reid, who is only a year out from having scored 21 goals in all competitions in his debut season for the club and will certainly attract interest.


With no real certainty on incomings or outgoings as yet, the summer will inevitably be a busy one. Word is that it would not be unrealistic to see incomings in numbers approaching the double figures, whilst Challinor will also have work to do on several of his current players who may yet desire more regular football away from Edgeley Park.


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