The Hatters, who have won a remarkable ten games in a row, have one more point than Town but Danny Webb’s men do have a game in hand.
We spoke to journalist Sam Byrne, who covers Stockport County for the Manchester Evening News, for the lowdown on the Hatters ahead of the big game...
What are the big changes Dave Challinor has made since being appointed?
He spoke with the press in his first week in charge (before a ball had been kicked under him) and constantly referred to the fitness and energy levels of the group. A lot of the players have since talked about how he runs them into the ground and has them going relentlessly for entire games.
Stockport were too patient, slow and ponderous under Simon Rusk prior to Challinor’s arrival - and while a run of form like this is down to more than just fitness and energy levels, he is obviously a manager who really values that high-tempo, high-intensity football. It seems to really suit the players he has at his disposal too.
Are people surprised by how quickly he has managed to turn it around?
I’d say yes and no. He’s clearly a brilliant manager, and I think it’s fair to say it was common knowledge in National League circles about the quality already in the Stockport squad when he arrived - so in that sense, he’s arguably just achieving what should be achieved with this group. But to make up the difference in points that they have in his three months in charge is genuinely quite staggering.
I’ve thought on more than one occasion that it reminds me of how Chesterfield started absolutely flying once James Rowe came in last season, and how the side under him was unrecognisable (performance-wise) from the side in the early stages of the season.
I know Chesterfield were coming from much lower down the table last season than County were at the time of Challinor’s arrival, but it does have the hallmarks of how Chesterfield rose up the table with no stopping them in the regular league season, having seemingly given most of the division a head start for a few months as Stockport did this time around!
What's the feeling among the fanbase about the title race?
Mostly nerves! Saturday’s late 1-0 win over ten-man Dover Athletic was a bit of a lesson, I think, on the dangers of complacency creeping in. It also reminded us all that there is an awful long way to go and that there’ll be countless unpredictable and surprise results for the remainder. Going back to the point about how quickly Stockport have ascended to the top of the table under Challinor, I think there’s still a bit of surprise amongst the fans that they’re actually in a title race, given how far off the pace the side were when he came in.
I think the nature of the current league standings also adds an element of uncertainty. Fans are enjoying being top of the table but it’s almost a case of reminding yourselves every so often that Chesterfield have got a game in hand, Boreham Wood have a few in hand, and several others too. The National League title race is getting national media attention due to how tight it is, so I’m sure that feeling of tension is shared at all the clubs involved.
Having said all of that, there’s obviously a feeling of really high confidence too. The win over Dover brought about a club record of ten wins in a row, with only two goals conceded in that time. It’s hard for the players not to be bouncing into every game with a spring in their steps, but you know in the National League that you can’t take your eye off the ball for a split second.
What things could stop Stockport winning the league?
Through no fault of Dave Challinor, he’s found himself in a position where he can’t afford to oversee many (if any) defeats for the rest of this season. Because the side were already sitting on five league defeats when he came in in November, and because a title-winning side can really only afford to lose six or seven in a typical season, there’s a feeling of walking a real tightrope results-wise, and that any defeat feels more fatal to their title hopes than it perhaps would do to Chesterfield et al.
Don’t get me wrong, the side have done a remarkable job of almost cancelling out those defeats since Challinor came in, but it probably only takes a couple more defeats over the course of the rest of the season to cost them the title. You could argue that Chesterfield and maybe Boreham Wood could potentially afford a couple more and still win the title. The fact that so many of the title rivals still have to play each other (and other play-off chasers) will naturally have a huge say too.
What style of play can we expect from Stockport and who are the key men?
The identity under Challinor has been high-pressing, high-intensity, high-tempo. As we know, the two sides haven’t played each other as yet this season so it’s hard to fully describe to Chesterfield fans the difference in the side pre and post Challinor’s appointment.
The Bolton Wanderers FA Cup tie which was televised live on BBC in November is a good indicator of exactly how County set up now - they completely blew away a full-strength League One side that night, and the side have since become top goalscorers in the division, now sitting on 53 goals scored in 26 games.
However, to illustrate the point further, 37 of those goals have come in Challinor’s 13 league games in charge. In Simon Rusk’s 12 league games in charge this season, the side scored 11 goals. The style is effectively just relentless football, relentless crosses into the box from wide areas, and looking to utilise Scott Quigley as the target man up top with runners off him.
Central midfielder Will Collar has looked transformed under Challinor, having gone from a seemingly defensive midfielder used sparingly under Rusk to a more attacking midfielder starting every week and chalking up seven goals and six assists in his last ten games. Paddy Madden will always be a goal threat up top, and the electric pace and trickery of wing-back Macauley Southam-Hales on the right is an eye-catcher. Ryan Rydel with 12 assists so far this season on the opposite flank is another looking completely reborn under the current manager.
What are the fans saying going into this game?
Biggest game of the season so far. That’s being echoed around the club too - the home stands are all sold out (I know Chesterfield are bringing a great number too), and Challinor acknowledged how big an occasion it is in his post-match briefing on Saturday.
It’s felt like the two clubs have been on a collision course for some time now, and while it may not be a title decider just yet, it will have huge implications for the rest of the campaign. There’s no getting away from it being a huge night for both sides.
What have you made of Chesterfield from afar?
Notwithstanding obvious recent events, really good. James Rowe clearly knew what he was doing both in recruitment and tactically, and you can’t argue with the results they have been getting this season. Kabongo Tshimanga is the obvious standout - he’s been a thorn in County sides ever since the club’s return to the National League in 2019 with four goals in four appearances against Stockport prior to his move to Chesterfield. But even aside from him, Akwasi Asante is well-known to County fans for his performances in the National League North, he seems to be coming back into great form after a long injury, and there’s a real solidity all over the pitch too.
Jeff King was an astute addition from a promotion rival, and it was interesting to see Jak McCourt back in on Saturday and enjoying a good game by all accounts, after seemingly being set to head out of the club, potentially on loan, prior to the recent managerial upheaval.
However, County have clearly made up serious ground on the Spireites since Challinor’s appointment which is cause for optimism for the Stockport camp, and anyone of a Stockport persuasion will be hoping that the recent exit of Rowe has an impact on Chesterfield for both Tuesday’s game and the rest of the season.
I’m notorious around the Edgeley Park press box for my woeful predictions this season! It’s clearly going to be a tense evening all round, and I think while Chesterfield will turn up looking to win the game, it’s also fair to say a draw definitely suits the visitors more than County, particularly with the game in hand on Stockport. I’ll go a high-tempo, end-to-end 1-1 draw.