NORTON manager Scott Dundas is hoping his side have turned the corner after a difficult start to the club's first-ever season in the top flight of the North West Counties League.
Newly-promoted Norton have been beset by injuries and find themselves second bottom of the Premier Division ahead of tomorrow's game at third-from-bottom AFC Liverpool.
But they head to Liverpool with confidence after a battling goalless draw at Colne last week and a 3-2 victory over Stoke City's Academy team in the Staffs Senior Cup on Wednesday.
Norton pulled in a crowd of 204, their biggest of the season, to see them edge out the Stoke youngsters.
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James Alabi gave Stoke the lead, but Dan Brown equalised within two minutes with an audacious lob from the right wing.
Jimmy Gartside and Thomas Fogg put Norton 3-1 up by half time. Stoke had plenty of second-half pressure, but only had Jordan Richardson's 92nd-minute consolation goal to show for it.
Norton boss Dundas said: "It was a pleasing performance because Stoke have some good under-21s players.
"They are big and physical even at that age.
"Stoke's fitness told in the second half when they had lots more possession, but our lads were resolute and worked very hard for each other."
The victory continued a welcome change of fortune for Norton, whose injury crisis is finally easing.
Central defender Richard Smith returned from a back injury to play at Colne while fellow centre-half Fogg was back from suspension to help Norton keep a clean sheet.
Central defender Darren Chadwick returned from a hamstring injury to play in the final 20 minutes against Stoke, but Norton are still without Wayne Brotherton, who has a hamstring injury, and Steve Brunt, who has damaged ankle ligaments.
Norton's other injury problems this season are overshadowed by midfielder Mark Beeston, who fractured his cheekbone after an accidental clash of heads in a 9-3 defeat to Runcorn Town last month.
The bricklayer from Nantwich was recruited from Kidsgrove in the summer, but now faces an uncertain future in the game.
Dundas said: "The most important thing is Mark has had the operation and is recovering well."
The difficult start to the season has been a test for Dundas, who was named Division One manager of the year last season when he guided Norton to promotion to the Premier for the first time in the club's history.
He said: "The main difference at this level is that teams take more of their chances.
"Last season we could be let off the hook a couple of times, but this season we have been punished for our mistakes.
"That has made it especially difficult when we have had to use players out of position in central defence.
"But we have taken it on the chin and learned from the defeats.
"You never want to lose a game, but we have to keep it in perspective as we try to establish ourselves at this level.
"Even though we are next to bottom in this division, it is still the highest the club has ever been."
Norton's success stories this season have included midfielders Jamie Skellern and Niall Green who have impressed after signing from Alsager and Audley respectively.
Dundas is also delighted with keeper Richard Brandon who has moved to the area to study at Staffordshire University.
Dundas said: "He was Cambridge City's reserve keeper, but is in digs on Leek Road and I think we are his nearest club.
"He's done really well and kept two clean sheets in four games.
"The trouble is, he might want to go home for Christmas at the end of term.
"I'll have to cross that bridge when I come to it."