Report by John Edwards. Photo by Jonathan Moore.
There are times when you have to doff your cap and admit the opposition were too good, and it was just such an occasion against Vanarama National League champions Stockport County at The J.Davidson Stadium on Saturday.
Our rivals from down the road had the look of a side who quite like the sobriquet champions and wouldn’t mind keeping it beyond next season by finishing top of League Two come next May.
You wouldn’t put it past them on the evidence of a pre-season friendly that suggests they are in good shape for their long-awaited return to the EFL against Pete Wild’s Barrow next Saturday.
They were on the front foot from the first whistle, with that familiar combination of quick movement and passing and harrying the opposition when they didn’t have possession, and it was a measure of Alty’s resilience that they didn’t add to the two early goals from Paddy Madden and Fraser Horsfall.
Indeed, Alty fans - who numbered almost exactly half of a remarkable pre-season attendance of 2,119 - were rightly up in arms about the validity of County’s 12th minute opener.
One of the referee’s many shortcomings on the day was somehow failing to see or at least failing to act on a series of aerial challenges by County defenders that entailed tearing the shirt of their opponent’s back.
Either way, it was inexcusable for an official placed in charge of such a fixture, and it was particularly galling for Alty when one such oversight led to the visitors taking the lead.
When the ball was played forward, a goalline clearance by Elliot Osborne looked to have saved the day until, in the scramble that followed, the referee’s whistle sounded and he pointed towards the spot.
For a second or two, the decision was unclear - even to the players, let alone spectators - until it dawned on a disbelieving Alty side that a penalty had been given, presumably for the ball brushing an arm from point-blank range as the Robins eventually cleared their lines.
When the protests died down, Paddy Madden stepped forward to despatch the kick low to his left, though Matt Gould could count himself unfortunate not to keep it out after going full length and getting the fingertips of an outstretched right hand to it.
Little had been seen of Alty as an attacking force, though they did fashion an opportunity in the 20th minute with some good approach play down the right that involved Toby Mullarkey and Aidy Roxburgh and ended with Chris Conn-Clarke cutting the ball back from the bye-line for Jordan Hulme to steer a back-heel flick wide of the far post.
Two minutes later, Alty found themselves further behind with a set-piece goal that will have frustrated and perhaps even infuriated Phil Parkinson and Neil Sorvel, as Horsfall was allowed to rise highest at the far post to nod a corner in off the upright. All too easy, one would imagine, for the Alty management team’s liking.
There were signs of Alty clawing their way back into it as the half progressed, with Ryan Colclough beginning to work some space for himself and trying his luck from distance without quite finding his range.
The second half followed a similar pattern of County having the lion’s share of possession and Alty having to work hard to keep them at bay, but there were moments of encouragement for the Robins, who, it should be remembered, are not as advanced in their preparations for the new campaign, given the National League starts a week later.
Roxburgh grew in stature as the game wore on, while half-time substitute Ollie Byrne capped an assured performance with an exceptional reflex save in the 52nd minute, reacting brilliantly to keep out a close-range header from Kyle Wootton after more good work down the right by the outstanding Macauley Southam-Hales.
Osborne was industrious, doing his best to wrest some of the initiative from the visitors, but the pick of the bunch, from an Alty perspective, had to be Josh Lundstram.
Josh took the eye in an initial loan spell at Alty a couple of years ago, and it’s clear he has lost none of his edge as an all-round midfielder who can excel in all areas of the pitch.
One or two timely interventions deep in Alty territory underlined his defensive worth, but he showed he is far more than just an anchor man with some clever turns to get away from a marker and pinpoint distribution.
All in all, a tough, challenging afternoon for Alty but one which, given the calibre of the opposition, may well stand them in good stead as they put the finishing touches to their build-up to the new season away to Stoke City under-23s behind closed doors on Tuesday and at home to a Manchester United Xl next Saturday afternoon.