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STOCKPORT COUNTY: DOWN BUT NOT OUT

Stockport County are one of Manchester's most prominent clubs, but they have been out of the picture for much of the 21st century. Recent times have, however, provided some optimism and they are looking up after years of trouble.

Alex has been a Stockport County fan for as long as he can remember. In a County-supporting family it was inevitable really, and being born in 1993 he was fortunate enough to live through the most successful period of County’s 136-year history as they were promoted to England’s second-tier; finished above neighbours Manchester City and reached the League Cup semi-final in 1997. 

Unfortunately, before his own supportership had properly begun a gloomy shadow had been cast over the club, one that would loom for years to come.


HOME SWEET HOME

In 2003, a 10-year-old Alex was a mascot for his beloved County, getting the opportunity to step out onto the hallowed turf of Edgeley Park. A fond memory, you would assume:

“The pitch was like a sandpit” he remembers, “literally covered with sand and whole patches without any grass. The advertising hoardings were all for Sale Sharks, and the crowd were chanting “We Want Sale Out!” 

Earlier that year, the club and its ancestral home had been sold to Sale Sharks’ owner, Brian Kennedy. The plan was to combine the two in a new company: ‘Cheshire Sport’; but with County failing to turn a profit, the club was soon handed back to the Supporters’ Trust. 

A step in the right direction, you would think, but from then on County were simply tenants in their own stadium, forced to cough up rent to play on a rapidly deteriorating rugby league pitch with their main source of income strangled. 

Their finances sapped, performances on the pitch suffered and manager Chris Turner was sacked on Boxing Day 2005 with the club nine points adrift of safety at the bottom of the Football League. After dropping down two divisions since its mid-’90s peak, the club turned to a hero from yesteryear for help. 


A FAMILIAR FACE

James Paul ‘Jim’ Gannon played over 500 games for County from 1990-2000, securing two promotions and legendary status in his time at the club. The no-nonsense centre-half was appointed manager in January 2006, tasked with steadying the ship after six managerial changes in a four-year spell had left the club rocking. 

The old ‘break-glass-for-club-legend’ option rarely goes well but for County the upturn was remarkable and the rejuvenated team secured their league status on the final day of the season with a famous draw against champions Carlisle. 

Sam Byrne, Stockport Express’s football reporter, and County fan, remembers the impact that Gannon had right from the off: “after a first half of the season which was just awful, [he brought] some real belief just kept us ticking over until we were safe”. 

Not content with treading water, Gannon then set about sculpting his meagre resources into a workmanlike 4-2-3-1 that relied on a solid defence and hard-working forwards. He guided the team to a respectable top half finish the season after, blooding future Premier League players Wayne Hennessey and Ashley Williams, and recording a Football League record of nine consecutive victories without conceding a single goal. 

Edgeley Park
EDGELEY PARK, STOCKPORT COUNTY’S HOME

Further progress came the season after as they reached the 2007-08 Play-Off Final at Wembley. Top-scorer Liam Dickinson (purchased for just £2,000 from local side Woodley Sports) scored the winning goal as County beat Lancashire rivals Rochdale 3-2 to secure a first win in Gannon’s fifth visit to Wembley with the club. 

Characteristically, he did not let the emotion of the day soften his resolve and continued his personal boycott of Sky Sports interviews owing to an on-going dispute with the broadcaster over a faulty Skybox. Truly a winner’s mentality.


MONEY TALKS

But while the team excelled on the pitch, the club was losing money off it and, after losing Dickinson to Derby County, rumours began to swirl about their future. 

Before his days as County report, Sam Byrne remembers the creeping realisation that all was not well at the club: “The financial issues were bubbling away under the surface for a long while” he says, “people could see them happening, [it] was more of a slow process”. 

For Alex, the off-field uncertainty tempered the optimism of promotion: “we’d just gone up, but it very quickly became apparent that things were going wrong” he remembers, “we had to bring in a load of kids, some not really ready”. 

But Gannon refused to accept the seemingly inevitable and fashioned a team that could hold its own while the club crumbled in the background. As a testing season wore on he was offered the manager’s job at Brighton and Hove Albion, but, with his club teetering on the brink, he refused.

His team seemed close to another miraculous escape when matters were complicated by speculation that the club would be forced to enter administration and face a points deduction. Comfortably mid-table at the time, a considerable penalty could see them plummet into the relegation zone and they went into their last home game of the season against Crewe Alexandra needing a win to mathematically confirm safety. 

“I think it was the best game I’ve ever been to,” says Alex, “we had a load of good games against Crewe around then, they couldn’t defend so there were always big scores”. This was no different. A 4-3 victory securing another year in the third tier and provided some much-needed relief in a troubled season. 

“I remember at the end of the game there was a big pitch invasion, all the fans celebrating that we could take the ten-point penalty that season…” he trails off, pondering the peculiar set of events that saw a point deduction as a cause for celebration. 

The relief was immense, understandably, but Gannon’s hard work and dedication would soon be undone by events out of his control.


THE CRASH

On 30 April 2009, with relegation avoided, Stockport County were placed into administration and the accountants were brought in to help tame the club’s runaway debts. On 6 May 2009, just days after their most recent Houdini act, Jim Gannon and his assistant Peter Ward were made redundant in a desperate effort to slash the wage bill. 

After three seasons, two great escapes and a Wembley triumph, Jim was gone. In retrospect, this was the tipping point, and County would soon topple over the edge.

“Jim Gannon being made redundant was completely out of the blue”, says journalist Byrne, “it was such a tough time overall, but had we kept hold of Jim it would have given the fans the belief that we’d have been okay”. 

To secure the club’s immediate future a cash injection was needed but the administrators struggled to find a suitable candidate. The Melrose Group, headed by former Man City striker Jim Melrose, announced that they had agreed terms in June 2009, but despite the fact that they appointed Gary Ablett as Gannon’s replacement, they never actually took charge of the club. 

Next in the frame was The 2015 Group, a consortium pledging to “rebuild the club from top to bottom”. But with resources no more plentiful the club’s trajectory was that of a cartoon anvil and following Gannon’s removal in 2009, the club employed four different managers as they slumped to back-to-back relegations and into the non-league. 

Jim Gannon
JIM GANNON DID A GOOD JOB WHILE AT COUNTY

The fans had paid dearly for the administrators’ cost-cutting efforts and in just two years Gannon’s achievements were reversed as the club fell victim to the relegation battle that he had fought off in his first season at the helm.

With the club crying out for stability the boardroom merry-go-round swirled on as businessman Tony Evans stepped in, appointing ex-Liverpool midfielder Dietmar Hamann as manager to install a more exciting style. The German’s more technical squad struggled to adapt to the rough and tumble of non-league football and ongoing issues upstairs meant Evans never actually took ownership, leaving the manager, the club, and the fans in limbo. 

“It was bizarre,” Alex recalls, “a businessman came in, brought in Dietmar Hamann and splashed a bit of cash but it seemed a bit fishy. I think Hamann realised that the money was running out and he just left. That was that.” Two months into the season and they were managerless, penniless and left with a cut-and-shut squad of untested unknowns. 

Desperate to halt the slump, the club reinstated Gannon as manager in November, but his hard-working overachievers had been dismantled and the club was left dazed after two seasons as a lower-league punch bag. A hat-trick of relegations was avoided thanks to eight wins in the final 15 games and he began rebuilding the squad with young academy products in these trying circumstances. 

However, not all at the club shared his vision of a carefully considered rebuild and the following season, with County slipping toward the relegation places, the club’s hierarchy panicked and took a sledgehammer to Gannon’s best-laid plans. 

In January 2013, a new chief executive, Ryan McKnight, was brought in. The former fcbusiness magazine editor celebrated his position as English football’s youngest male CEO by immediately sacking Jim Gannon. 

Needing an experienced manager to save County from non-league relegation, McKnight plumped for a Swiss/Bosnia-Herzegovian 43-year-old whose brief managerial career was limited to the Dutch and Belgian leagues, where he was most recently fired from Zulte Waregem. Predictably, Darije Kalezić lasted just two months until, with the club ensnared in the relegation battle, he left by mutual consent.

Former Gateshead manager Ian Bogie was next behind the wheel as the County clown car lurched on, devoid of any considered direction. Bogie struggled to steer them away from danger and they went to Kidderminster Harriers on the final day of the season desperately needing a win with the prospect of relegation to the National League North too much for some fans to handle: 

“I think a lot of the fans really struggled to adapt [to our new status]. We couldn’t afford any decent players so we had to rely on taking players from smaller non-league clubs, and some really struggled with the pressure”. 

The weight and volume of the fans’ expectations would prove too much as County slumped to a 4-0 defeat, relegating them to the sixth tier for the first time in their history. 

“It was bad,” adds Alex, “County fans pitch-invaded a couple of times, attacking our players, attacking their players. It was really, really bad”. The team, the fans, the club; had hit rock bottom.


THE FALL OUT

There can be no excuses made, and no extenuating circumstances that need to be considered for the fans who took to the pitch in anger that day, but the extreme reaction of a minority shows the frustration of the majority. 

In under a decade they had seen a club legend and successful manager dismissed twice; his hard work ripped apart by a procession of substandard managers employed by a string of itinerant owners who soon slinked off to their next venture, further destabilising the club each time. They didn’t own their stadium; the training ground had long since been sold off and there was no further investment on the horizon. The club was broken, shattered by rampant short-termism.

It was at this point, whether by design or necessity, that those in charge at County finally instituted some changes that would help turn the club’s fortunes around. First was the switch to semi-professional status, a reflection of the club’s new status and the need to reduce their outgoings. 

Also on the agenda was reconnecting the club with the local area as they reinstated a scheme from the glory days of the 1990s that saw free tickets and player visits offered to local primary schools. There was a clear desire to go back to basics, building a sustainable club from the bottom up by engaging those who would have County’s best interests at heart.

Alan Lord was appointed manager early the following season, a well-respected member of County’s recent history as Gannon’s assistant, he came with the simple aim of restoring some pride:

“[The fans have] had a bit of a duff turn over the past few years,” said the new boss. “They deserve a lot better. I’m proud to be their manager and hopefully, I can make them proud again.”

CEO Ryan McKnight left in April 2014 while Lord’s rebuild trundled on with finishes of 14th and 11th before he stepped down in the summer of 2015, believing he had taken the club as far as he could. 

He was replaced by former Chester manager, Neil Young, who had recently won the Conference North with a record point total and goal difference. Expectations were high, but after a solid first season in which the team finished ninth, things quickly turned against the Liverpudlian and he was sacked after a spell of one win in 12 which culminated in a 4-0 defeat at Boston United that he described as ‘gutless’ and ‘disgraceful’.

The road back was proving rockier than expected, and as the club appeared to stagnate with a third consecutive season of regional football, the man who had been there for so much of the good times was brought back into the fray. 


RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON

“To be completely honest, I wasn’t that optimistic when we brought him back in for a third time”, Alex admits, slightly sheepishly. “Obviously he’s a legend but some of the fans were wondering why we’re going back to him. But then in fairness, literally every other manager I can remember has been a failure.”

There is a literary principle known as the ‘rule of three’, which suggests that a trio of events is more effective and satisfying for the audience. Certainly, the second of Jim Gannon’s managerial stints at the club fell short and left a hero’s legacy slightly tainted. 

So when he returned to the club in January 2016, this time on a part-time contract, he did so with the stated aim of restoring the club to its rightful place: “my job is mainly about getting the first-team right on the pitch, making progress and looking to push [on] from progress, to play-offs, to promotion”. 

League Cup
COUNTY REACHED THE LEAGUE CUP SEMI-FINAL IN 1997

With Gannon back at the helm, the club recorded a notable upturn that saw them finish just outside the play-off places in his first half-season back at the club. After a summer to build another classically ‘Gannonian’ team they finished the next in fifth, securing a play-off position for the first time since his first spell in charge, 10 years and three relegations earlier. 

This time it was unsuccessful, but it proved to the Edgeley Park faithful that green shoots of recovery were beginning to sprout. Alex was there with his brother for the semi-final defeat against Chorley, and remembers it as a glimpse back to the glory days:

“We lost 1-0, but you couldn’t fault the effort at all… it was our first promotion push in a while and you could feel something was coming back.”

Gannon’s project was showing its worth and it was clear for all to see: “[he made us] hard to beat and well-organised”, says Sam, “getting us moving back in the right direction”. 

County had a fairly slow start to the 2018-19 season, in part due to a strong FA Cup run that saw them knock out League Two side Yeovil Town on their way to the second round. Following their elimination in December they sat in 12th but a 23-match unbeaten run catapulted the team up the table, hot on the heels of early pace-setters Chorley. Their good form saw Stockport edge ahead as the season reached its crescendo, and with only the champions guaranteed promotion the game between the two in April appeared crucial. 

On a baking hot Easter Saturday that marked six years to the day since their relegation from the National League, Stockport travelled to Victory Park knowing that a point would leave them in pole position with just two games of the season remaining. The stakes were high and County started strongly as 1,260 away fans (over a third of the total attendance) watched on nervously. 

They dominated but their hosts remained resolute and punished their visitors’ failure to capitalise with two break-away goals. The 2-0 result did not accurately reflect the game, but it threatened to define Stockport’s season. 

County were faced with a two-point deficit heading into the final two games, but Chorley had a potentially tricky visit to Spennymoor in their penultimate game. While Stockport swatted aside Curzon Ashton, Chorley struggled to break the deadlock and in their eagerness allowed the home side to snatch a 94th-minute winner to restore Stockport at the top with one game remaining.

27 April 2019 is a day that Alex and thousands of other County fans remember well. They faced Nuneaton away, where victory over their already-relegated hosts would see Stockport taste promotion for the first time in over a decade. With Nuneaton a hefty 25 points adrift, it was wisely assumed that few home supporters would be attending and the club opened the majority of their ground for visiting fans. 

“It was a great day,” Alex recalls. “They even set up a fan park outside selling beer. We’d sold over 3,000 tickets and they just wanted to milk us for money,” he added, without a hint of regret. 

With the terraces stuffed with expectant County fans their team raced into a 2-0 first-half lead, effectively settling the game and the season before half time. They maintained their dominance in the second half, adding a third goal as the long-suffering County faithful savoured the anticipation of a long-overdue league title. 

For Alex, that season not only improved the team’s footballing prospects but also helped to change the momentum and atmosphere at the club: “That great run we had brought the fans back on side, by the end, we were outselling the home fans when we travelled away”. 

“It feels like the club’s stable now, it feels a lot safer,” he continues. “The League Two promotion was great but there was definitely some fear, administration was there and it didn’t feel comfortable”. 

It’s hard to say how close the club came to death in those dark years, but the pain has certainly left its scars. Stripped of their identity, losing their talismanic manager, tumbling down the pyramid and enduring six seasons in the National League North; the journey has been exhausting but does have one glaring virtue. 

“I have thought,” says Alex, “that we could probably have got to this point quicker if we’d just gone bust and started again. It would probably have been less painful, doing it that way. But then we wouldn’t still be us”.  


NEW BEGINNINGS

But Stockport County they remain, and after their promotion, I’m at Edgeley Park to see their first game back in the National League. A lunchtime kick-off against Maidenhead represents a first foot on the first rung of the ladder back. 

There is an expectant atmosphere in the Sir Robert Peel pub on Stockport High Street, and, although only just 11am, the room is packed and the queue for refreshment streaks away from the bar past TV screens and fruit machines in a river of blue. 

Plonked on a stool just across from the bar is a group of old boys with an impressively full table of empties for this time in the morning. One wears a royal blue t-shirt with a list of dates running down the back. At first glance it looks like a band’s tour shirt, listing a sell-out stadium show from Toronto to Tokyo. On closer inspection, I see it details the nine-game winning run of Gannon’s first stint in charge, celebrating 2-0 wins at Hereford rather than raucous nights in Buenos Aires. 

Speaking to some of the regulars, there is a ‘cautious optimism’ in their pre-game and pre-season predictions.

“Well it’ll be a shit game, I’ll tell you that”, I am told, “we’re missing a bit of a spark but we’ll battle and mark it hard, I think it’ll probably be nil-nil”. More ‘cautious’ than ‘optimistic’, admittedly, but it’s delivered with a smile and a chuckle that makes it clear that there are no complaints here. This is a fanbase that’s now well-versed in the importance of stability. 

national league north
STOCKPORT’S NATIONAL LEAGUE NORTH SUCCESS IN 2019 WAS THEIR FIRST LEAGUE WIN IN 52 YEARS

As kick-off draws near the pub empties and I am carried along by the sea of blue shirts converging on Edgeley Park, the sight of the vast 5,000-seat Cheadle End defying the fact that this a non-league game, being played between two sets of part-timers. It is, regardless of the fall from grace, difficult to ignore the sheer size of this club. 

The white-flecked blue of the packed stand seems to mirror the wispy clouds in the clear summer sky, and as the teams walked out onto the pitch all seems right in the world. The anticipation builds and the noise crescendos as Jim Gannon emerges to rapturous applause, a quick nod to each side and he settles into the dug-out, poised for the first of the season’s many battles. The ref blows his whistle, the ball is kicked, and County are off. 


POST-MATCH DEBRIEF

The fans filter back to the pub, spirits dampened only slightly by a narrow defeat in the season-opener. A 1-0 reversal, under-cutting even the pessimist’s prediction, is a slightly unfortunate result for a side who toiled and tried but were slightly lacking in the final third. A solid performance but improvement needed, is the general gist of the conversations drifting through the warm August air.

While fans of some clubs may crave more excitement, more ambition, I get the feeling that those are not qualities that County fans demand these days. The game may have been a bit dull, but stability can be sometimes, and given the occasional ups and frequent downs of their recent history it’s no bad thing. This is a club seeking incremental growth, not boom and bust. 

After years of uncertainty, the conversations now focus around securing a new striker, not a new ground; aims for the season revolve around point totals, not bank balances; and I imagine it comes as a relief to be talking about the actual football again. 

As I leave, it’s hard to ignore that the overriding emotion is one of optimism, and it’s easy to see why. Their club, a club on the brink of collapse just a decade ago, is still standing. And reflecting on a day that marked their first step back to where they belong, when the sun shone and crowd was loud, when the beer was cold and the defence was solid; that’s all that matters. This is football, and it’s here to stay.

BY WILL GITTINS