Stockport manager Dave Challinor slammed his team’s slow start after the League Two leaders were held to a draw at home to in-form Harrogate.
Connor Lemonheigh-Evans’ goal on the half-hour mark cancelled out Dean Cornelius’ 17th-minute opener for the visitors, but County were unable to find the winner against a side now unbeaten in five matches.
A draw for the Hatters sees their lead at the top of the table reduced to four points and Challinor felt his side’s failure to get out of the blocks early proved pivotal in the final outcome.
“Ultimately, our start to the game cost us the game,” he said.
“You can argue that we got back into it with an hour still to go, but we didn’t do enough to then win the game.
“Our first 15 minutes were terrible. I said to the players, as much as we have to take the pats on the back when we start really well, then expect to get the wrath when we don’t start the game well.
“In the first 15 minutes we were absolutely miles off it. The back four was too deep. There was no intensity about the midfield. We looked leggy as anything and we had no threat.
“It culminated in us conceding a goal, putting us onto the back foot.
“From 20 to 25 minutes on, the game looked like how I imagined the game would look, so us with plenty of the ball. But even then in moments, I knew technically we’d need to be good because if you give simple passes away, they’re compact but have threats on the counter-attack.
“We didn’t do enough in the final third in the last hour of the game to go from a losing position to a winning position.”
Harrogate went ahead when Matty Daly turned brilliantly on a pass played into him before crossing to Cornelius for a tap-in.
The Hatters drew level, though, with Lemonheigh-Evans finishing from close range from Macauley Southam-Hales’ pull-back for his second goal in as many games.
Substitute Ibou Touray’s glancing header from Odin Bailey’s delivery forced an impressive save out of visiting goalkeeper James Belshaw just after the restart.
Lemonheigh-Evans came agonisingly close to putting County in front in the 71st minute, with his shot deflecting narrowly wide.
The home side continued to push for the winner, with Akil Wright’s effort in the dying moments deflecting just wide, but Harrogate held on to secure a valuable point.
Town boss Simon Weaver was full of praise for his side, who are now just separated from the play-off places by goal difference.
“I’m really pleased with the performance,” he said.
“I thought from start to finish we were fully committed – committed to the way we were trying to play, but also in our box we had to defend for some spells as well, which you’d expect at the league leaders.
“I think they’re a terrific team with a really good squad, and they can freshen it up as well with the subs they bring on.
“You know you’re going to be under siege at some points but I do feel proud of the overall performance.
“It wasn’t just backs to the wall. We showed that we’re very competent with a good style of play.”
Harrogate are also now unbeaten in five matches on the road.
“We just say to the lads it’s another good away performance, and with each good performance it gives you an extra bit of confidence moving forwards,” Weaver added.
“We know when you come here, the crowd give their team great backing and you have to handle that noise. So we thought the best way to handle it is to continue in the same vein we’ve been playing recently and try and be as calm.”