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01/02: Reports:

Nationwide Division One, 01/04/02, 3pm
Stockport County
Easy targets
By Matt Rowson

There are easy targets and there are Easy Targets.

And Stockport are an Easy Target. Mathematically relegated before the end of March, a goal difference of minus fifty-seven...this preview really ought to write itself. Except...well, a couple of things really. Firstly, the Hatters may have a mere twenty points but we've not beaten them yet this season, so going in there lording it is just asking for trouble (although we're not the only ones... Bradford City and Manchester "sleeping giant, massive club, here for the City" City have taken a point between them in four encounters).

Secondly...well, picking on an easy target, the same target as everyone else, often misses the point completely. Carlton Palmer himself would know all about that, having been ridiculed during his international career simply for not being sexy enough, irrespective of his definitive here-there-everyeffingwhere effectiveness.

Then there's the manager who selected him for England, whose name escapes me for a moment; whilst his England career was hardly a glittering success, memories of his tenure have become increasingly selective. Tony Daley (whose career was ultimately knackered by injury) and Geoff Thomas (on the back of one bad miss) and failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup (narrowly, behind Holland and a rampant Norway) were all unmitigated disasters, of course. (As for substituting Gary Lineker...well, whatever next? Anarchy? So what if he hadn't touched the ball in two-and-a-half games...). It's easy to forget that at the time Taylor was also castigated for experimenting with a wing-back system against Norway (so outdated, that Taylor) and for bringing in an unrated Teddy Sheringham.

More recently, England's World Cup exit in 1998 was down to one man. Forget the fact that more than twenty others took part in the game, not to mention the officials, management, media...all Beckham's fault. Tsk, that Beckham. What a waste of space, eh ? (Actually, if you'll permit me to stuff the steady logic for a moment, I blame Glenn Hoddle. For everything. Conceited wanker.)

And finally our own calamitous year in the Premiership, when GT refused to be the one to gamble our future on a place in the top flight and we paid the price in terms of points. Easy Targets, but people still missed the point. So it was interesting to note that, whilst Palmer inevitably cops some stick across Stockport's messageboards, the verdict is not nearly as unanimous as you might suppose.

Partly this appears to be down to the fact that Palmer has sacrificed the season in the name of County's future prosperity; something which he, like Taylor at Watford before him, had little to gain from. Unlike Taylor, he didn't have a solid bed of faith to trade off in this respect, so it must have taken guts to conclude that County's hopes of survival were minimal, and the club's interests were best served by wielding a great sodding axe at the squad...even if Palmer's own cred would inevitably take a hit.

So out have gone the majority of the relatively big names...Shefki Kuqi (to Sheffield Wednesday), Jarkko Wiss (Hibs), Richard Sneekes and Jason Van Blerk (both Hull), Mike Flynn (Barnsley), Leo Roget (Reading), Scott Taylor (Blackpool), Glyn Hurst (Chesterfield), Petri Helin (Denzilispor) and Dave Smith, released this week, have all departed since Palmer's arrival. With injuries also taking a heavy toll, County are left with a squad of Palmer's recruited journeymen and an incredible number of teenagers.

Whilst it's difficult to agree with Palmer's bold assertion that the squad is capable of challenging for promotion back from Division Two next term, there are certainly others whose success would please one less. If determination's worth any points, Carlton and County have them in the bag.

In goal for County is likely to be the veteran Andy Dibble. County are his sixteenth club; Luton were his second but that was donkey's years ago so he's probably worked that out of his system. Sam Turner is likely to be backup with regular first choice Lee Jones out for the season with a broken collarbone. Bolton deputy Steve Banks has been on the verge of a move, but Jussi Jaaskelainen's injury may have scotched that one until the summer.

Carlton himself has been steadying the ship at the back, playing with an injury at the weekend on the basis of the lack of experience in the side without him. You can see what he means - the capable Rob Clare, at nineteen, is one of the more experienced members of the side in Palmer's absence. The manager intends to retire from playing at the end of the season. Also in the picture is Dave Challinor, once Tranmere's most famous weapon, although his season has been (further) overshadowed by a challenge on Martin Pringle that broke the striker's leg and prompted the threat of legal action from Charlton.

Barnet's Mark Arber has apparently been the subject of a transfer bid and he could therefore be added to the ranks before Monday, but the versatile Peter Clark is injured.

In wingback or fullback positions, Ali Gibb tends to play on the right and still gets particular stick even in times of general woe. Quick but diminutive teenager Andy Thomas has been playing on the left, although the more experienced Colin Woodthorpe would be an option here.

County's midfield is looking particularly short of both muscle and experience. John Hardiker was signed from Morecambe and looks useful and versatile - he made the vote-winning contribution of scoring the two goals that beat Manchester City at Edgeley Park recently. He has been partnered by two more youngsters, Keith Briggs and Fraser MacLachlan, with Aaron Lescott out for the season with knee ligament damage and Dean Delaney's move from Leicester not looking too hopeful. Two more youngsters, Andy Welsh and Peter Wild, would be further midfield options, whilst Kevin Ellison, formerly at Leicester, could return from injury to play on the right. Of him we have been warned: "he will run and run at your left back, but if your left back so much as dares tackles him, he will lose it. Shaven-headed trouble-maker that he is.". That could be fun.

Up front, with a further injury to Aaron Wilbraham and a five match ban picked up by Irish teenager Jon Daly, much responsibility rests on the shoulders of Luke Beckett, a recent recruit from Chesterfield and already County's leading scorer with four for the season. Beckett's previous move to the Spireites from Chester City was the subject of no small controversy a year or two back.

He was partnered at the weekend by former Blackburn youngster Mark Byrne, signed on a non-contract basis and allegedly playing for 40 travelling expenses in search of a deal. Whilst it's harsh on County and the player himself, not to mention a sorry indictment of the gulf between the haves and havenots, I find it perversely heartening that a player at Division One level is playing for expenses.

Cover is provided by another youngster Chris Williams, seventeen, who became County's third youngest player ever when he came on at the Vic earlier in the season. Alternatively non-league journeyman Niell Hardy is a possibility; at twenty-eight, he made a late start in professional football.

It would be nice to win on Monday; sympathy for Stockport does not stretch to wanting to become only the third side this season to play them twice without chalking a win, or to travelling to Cheshire for no reward.

However one can only hope that this year's April Fools are neither County nor the Hornets but Wolves, whose scrambling down towards West Brom, with a Derby at the Hawthorns still in the offing, looks capable of salvaging the end of an ultimately disappointing season.