IT’S HARDLY the way Nathan Clarke would have wanted to mark his new Town contract.
The ink was barely dry on the deal which keeps the centre-back at the club until 2012 when his late own goal wiped away hopes of a first away win under the management Lee Clark.
It was desperately unlucky on both men, because Town, having withstood Stockport’s second-half push with Clarke at the heart of the defensive effort, looked in the line for the three-point haul which would have been a huge tonic to their League I play-off ambitions.
But Michael Collins’ 16th-minute goal was rendered that little bit less significant when, in the final minute of normal time, Leon McSweeney whipped in a cross-cum-shot from the right which goalkeeper Alex Smithies parried, but only towards the unfortunate Clarke.
With the 25-year-old unable to get out of the way, the ball struck him full in the face and rebounded into the net, much to the delight of the Stockport fans behind the goal who were stopped in their tracks as they headed towards the Edgeley Park exits.
Home supporters in a 7,739 crowd would say Stockport, who are also chasing the play-offs, deserved reward for their much-improved performance after the interval.
But Town’s 2,093 fans will be convinced they should have been the ones celebrating at the final whistle.
What few would argue with is that had Clark’s side taken more of the multitude of chances they created in the opening 45 minutes, there would have been little chance of a County comeback.
Adapting far more quickly to a surface which appeared to be 80% mud and sand than their hosts, Town had the ball in the net within 60 seconds, only for Lukas Jutkiewicz’s shot from a move started by Clarke’s long throw to be ruled out for offside.
The visitors were unperturbed, and with Anthony Pilkington, Town’s £500,000 January buy from Stockport, looking determined to shine against his former club, it seemed only a matter of time before the opener arrived.
Pilkington, Gary Roberts and Danny Cadamarteri, back after his calf injury, spread panic in the home defence every time the ball came their way, which was pretty often.
Cadamarteri and Pilkington both had shots blocked before a fifth-minute effort by another ex-County man, Jim Goodwin, got through only to be saved by Owain Fon Williams.
Then, in the 12th minute, Clarke’s header after Andy Butler nodded on a Robbie Williams free-kick hit the base of Fon Williams’ right-hand post.
Pilkington had the Stockport defence scrambling with another well-delivered cross in the 15th-minute before he started the move which led to Collins going joint-top of the club scoring chart with Roberts on eight goals.
His measured pass freed Jutkiewicz, who broke down the right and centred to Cadamarteri, whose shot was blocked, only for the ball to ricochet into the path of Collins, who drove home.
The eager Pilkington twice came close with shots while Jutkiewicz tested Fon Williams with an audacious 31st-minute overhead kick as Town tried to build on their lead, Stockport’s only chances falling to Tommy Rowe, who had one shot blocked by Goodwin and another deflected for a corner.
It was a different story in the second half, when home boss Jim Gannon, who last week turned down the chance of taking over at League I rivals Brighton, pushed Matty McNeil, a centre-back in the first half, up front, then introduced Oli Johnson, an astute October signing from Northern Counties East League club Nostell Miners Welfare, as a 54th-minute substitute.
Smithies made three good saves, from on-loan Oldham frontman Chris O’Grady, Johnson and Matty Manwaring, while Rose had another effort blocked by Clarke before McNeil shot wide from a dangerous position.
Town also had their moments, with Cadamarteri’s 52nd-minute shot saved, Goodwin’s 58th-minute drive deflected for a corner and Pilkington’s 62nd-minute shot, after a lovely one-two with Collins, flying across the face of goal.
Roberts was unable to capitalise when put through by Collins after 78 minutes, and after County had levelled, substitute Lionel Ainsworth shot wide with Collins begging for the ball.