Football: Promotion rivals add to spiteful saga

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The Independent Online
Stockport County. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Stoke City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

AINTREE was not the only venue where the stewards were forced to try to restore calm amid chaos, though at Edgeley Park the problem was a phoney finish rather than a false start.

Hostilities between Stockport and Stoke, not so much an undercurrent as a torrent throughout a bitter Second Division promotion battle, did not cease at the final whistle. Members of both teams later exchanged angry words by the players' entrance, following an incident in which a female spectator spat in the face of Mark Stein, the Stoke striker, as he talked to a journalist.

A burly steward in an orange bib ushered away the woman who, it transpired, was the girlfriend of the Stockport defender Jim Gannon. The same stalwart then averted a potential fracas that might have had serious repercussions for both clubs by restraining a home player who appeared intent on developing the dispute.

It was the second time in a month that a match between the sides had produced a nasty sting in the tail. After their meeting at the Victoria Ground, Stein allegedly struck Gannon, who has since brought a civil action which comes before Stoke-on- Trent magistrates on 22 April.

The mutual antipathy owes something to the sides having met six times in a year, as well as to playing style. While Stoke can be robust and direct, they are nowhere near as one- dimensional as Stockport, who combine a crude long-ball game with aggression bordering on intimidation.

They will point to the four cautions Stoke incurred, against their two, and plead media misrepresentation. This discrepancy merely highlighted the referee's lack of control, manifested in his readiness to flourish the yellow card for dissent while failing to spot some vicious challenges.

Stoke's goal, stabbed in by Dave Regis, was replete with irony, the move being cleverly instigated by Stein and aided by a Gannon error. Stockport's pressure eventually paid off: after a baffling decision to award a free-kick Peter Ward drove in the equaliser. A point apiece suited the visitors better.

With Stoke practically certain to go up - though scarcely soft-pedalling - the real scrap is for the other automatic promotion spot. Stockport, currently third, visit Bolton, who lie fifth, tomorrow. Like the other candidates, Port Vale and West Brom, Bolton eschew cynicism, and would not be out of place alongside Nottingham Forest in the First Division.

Meanwhile, Stockport must await the consequences, if any, of Saturday's post-match altercation. The PA announcer had warned of life bans being imposed for 'anti-social behaviour', and their response to the violation of Stein will show whether or not this was mere rhetoric. The example from the pitch suggests that no one should hold their breath.

Goals: Regis (40) 0-1; Ward (70) 1-1.

Stockport County: Kite; Connolly, P R Williams, Frain (James, 68), Miller, Flynn, Gannon, Ward, Francis, Beaumont, Duffield (P A Williams, 68).

Stoke City: Fox; Butler, Sandford, Cranson, Overson, Gleghorn, Foley, Kevan, Stein, Regis, Beeston. Subs not used: Russell, Shaw.

Referee: T Fitzharris (Bolton).