STOCKPORT COUNTY 1 TORQUAY UNITED 0
(by a Special Correspondent)
Torquay United mounted a brave rear-guard action in front of more than 9,000 fans at a raucous Edgeley Park, but Paddy Madden's 24th goal of the season in the 64th minute cracked the Gulls' resistance and sent Stockport United back to the top of the National League.
Gary Johnson's injury-hit side - they finished with ten men after new Player Of The Year Shaun MacDonald and Armani Little both limped off - nearly halted the Hatters' celebrations when they hit the bar in the 89th minute.
That would have been a real 'smash-and-grab' job if it had gone in, for Stockport dominated the match and it was only a manful display by the United defence - both MacDonald and sub Mark Halstead made some outstanding saves - which restricted the hosts to only one goal.
Already without injured trio Dean Moxey, Asa Hall and Tom Lapslie, Johnson brought Chiori Johnson and Joe Felix into midfield, and he also promoted first-year pro midfielder Alex Moyse to the subs' bench for the first time.
County manager Dave Challinor made no secret of his intent - he packed his side with attacking players, recalling Andy Cannon after suspension in midfield and Zaine Francis-Angol, who likes to get forward from full-back, in defence.
County skipper Paddy Madden had an early chance, but his shot on Myles Hippolyte's cross was blocked.
Hippolyte on the left and, especially, Will Collar on the right posed a persistent threat to the Gulls throughout the first half, delivering too many crosses for comfort.
But Shaun MacDonald's handling and decision-making was solid, and Ben Wynter, Joe Lewis and Ali Omar in front of him kept getting in challenges where it counted.
Danny Wright couldn't quite direct a header on target, from Armani Little's cross as Torquay made a decent start, but Stockport had more possession and territory, and United had to work hard to keep them at bay.
MacDonald made an excellent catch from a corner after a Madden pass hit Lewis and dropped to Hippolyte, whose shot was deflected wide.
Stephen Duke-McKenna, who was closely marked, had to receive treatment off the pitch in the 25th minute, but he was OK to continue.
United spent the rest of the first half manning the barricades as Collar, Antoni Sarcevic and Hippolyte all went close to the breakthrough.
But it took a special left-foot save by MacDonald to deny Madden as the half moved into stoppage-time, seconds before Ali Omar cleared off the line from the follow-up and MacDonald just managed to get to the loose ball.
MacDonald was hurt in the incident and, although he carried on for a while, he was clearly in trouble from a knee problem.
Mark Halstead was stripped off and ready to take over, but a near-55 minute first half finally ended with MacDonald still on the pitch.
He did not make it back for the second half though, and Halstead took over at the interval - his first league appearance since September 14 and only his eighth of the season.
Halstead had to play in front of a packed Cheadle End, and it took him a while to settle in.
But when he did, Halstead pulled off two brilliant saves from Collar - one from a header and the other to his right when Collar got on the end of a Sarcevic cross.
It was one-way traffic in the second half and United, forced deeper and deeper, did well to survive - until the 64th minute.
Then, moments after Halstead had denied Collar a second time, Elliot Newby got in behind the left of the Gulls' defence, crossed low and Madden swept the ball home from six yards…1-0 to County.
Keelan O'Connell promptly replaced Felix and, after Madden went close to a second goal, Olaf Koszela went on for Danny Wright, who had cut an isolated and mostly frustrated figure.
For the first time in a long time United started to get hold of the ball, and in the 81st minute they nearly equalised.
O'Connell forced a corner on the left, Little's delivery was on the money and Lewis headed just over.
With five minutes plus stoppage-time to go, Little signalled that he'd picked up an injury and could not carry on.
With all three substitutions already made, United had to finish the game with ten men.
Halstead had distinguished himself already, but he made another top save from Hippolyte as County went for the second goal which would end the contest.
But as long as it stood at 1-0, United still believed they could snatch a point and in the 89th minute only the woodwork stopped them from doing it.
Duke-McKenna dribbled his way past a series of defenders, his shot was deflected onto the bar by Omar before Andy Hinchcliffe tipped the ball over his bar with great relief.
Stockport County (3-4-3): Hinchcliffe; Keane, Palmer, Francis-Angol; Collar, Sarcevic (Jennings 87), Cannon (Crankshaw 79), Croasdale; Newby, Madden, Hippolyte (Hogan 90+5) ; subs not used - Ashby-Hammond, Quigley.
Booked: O'Connell 90.
Torquay United (3-5-2): MacDonald (Halstead 46); Wynter, Lewis, Omar; Duke-McKenna, Little, Felix (O'Connell 67), Johnson, Martin; Wright (Koszela 76) , Lemonheigh-Evans; subs not used - Moyse, Edwards.
Referee: Daniel Middleton (Derbyshire).
Attendance: 9,407 (121 Gulls fans).
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