Supporting Stockport County has always required something of a thick skin. But for Stockport folk who resist the temptation to support either of the nearby Manchester clubs, the last few years have been especially difficult.
Stockport’s 106-year stay in the Football League has ended, and the club will start next season in the Blue Square Premier League, with the local derbies now against the likes of Wrexham and Fleetwood. A new manager in Ray Mathias will attempt to get the club back into the League, but with a 50 per cent cut in the wage bill required, and only one automatic promotion place, he certainly faces a difficult task.
Recent times have been a far cry from the ecstasy of the 1996/97 season, when Stockport defeated four Premiership sides in reaching the semi-finals of the League Cup, and gained promotion to the second tier.
For too long Stockport County had been a football joke, regularly scrapping at the bottom of what was the Fourth Division, and not infrequently having to apply for re-election. The arrival of the Uruguyan Danny Bergara in 1989 transformed the club’s fortunes, leading to promotion in 1990/91 and the club’s first appearances at Wembley. Bergara’s name is still chanted with reverence by the fans today.
The upward momentum continued under Dave Jones. Jones brought an attractive passing game to Stockport the like of which had seldom been seen in the lower divisions, and which resulted in the heavenly highs of 1996/97. Jones deservedly departed the club for a managerial career at higher levels, but 1997/98, under the stewardship of Gary Megson, saw the club achieve a superb eighth place.
As County fans plan their routes to Wrexham and Fleetwood, it is worth remembering that in these heady days, the local derbies were against the likes of Manchester City and Bolton Wanderers. Against City, Stockport have won three of the six recent meetings, and only lost one; and their record against Bolton in the four recent meetings is won three, drawn one!
A common factor throughout these successful times was the chairman Brendan Elwood. But after 10 years of success, Elwood seemed to lose his Midas touch when it came to appointing managers. Results took a turn for the worse under the inexperienced Andy Kilner, who was sacked in October 2001 with County rock-bottom of the then First Division. Another first-time manager in England international Carlton Palmer followed, but he could not prevent relegation in May 2002, the end of a five-year stay in the second tier. Kilner and Palmer were just too inexperienced and too tactically unaware, and it was disappointing that the club appeared to have started appointing managers just because they were cheap.
A pivotal event in the club’s history occurred in the 2003 close season when Elwood sold Stockport County to multi-millionaire home improvements magnate Brian Kennedy, the owner of Sale Sharks Rugby Union Club. Under the arrangement, Sale moved in at Edgeley Park, and the two sides continue to share the ground to this day.
Kennedy swiftly sacked Palmer and replaced him with a heavyweight figure in Northern Ireland boss Sammy McIlroy. But from there, things only got worse. McIlroy made a number of apparently impressive new signings, but the team slumped to bottom of the third tier, and in November 2004 McIlroy was replaced by Chris Turner. McIlroy’s much heralded new signings had simply failed to reach expectations, and a number of fans’ favourites had been sold to accommodate his new players, always a high-risk strategy.
Relegation in 2004/05 saw widespread protests against Kennedy and his board, and Kennedy responded by transferring ownership of the club to the Stockport County Supporters Trust, but with Sale Sharks becoming sole owners of Edgeley Park. Kennedy cites the £4m he contributed to Stockport County over two years as evidence of his commitment, but for many fans the separation of the ownership of their spiritual home from the club was too much to bear.
The turn of the year in the 2005/06 season found Stockport rock-bottom of the entire Football League. A 6-0 Boxing Day defeat to neighbours Macclesfield Town was a very painful experience for most supporters. The club responded to the latest setback by appointing Jim Gannon, with over 600 appearances for Stockport, as the new manager, and Gannon duly led the club to safety in the remainder of the season.
After six years of decline, things really began to look up. Gannon’s spiky character may have resulted in difficulties with certain players and directors, and his personality has not done him any favours in his managerial career after leaving County. But fans’ darling Gannon has an extraordinary ability to identify players, which is a godsend for clubs on limited resources, and several players arrived at Edgeley Park from clubs well down the football pyramid who went on to be key players in our first team.
Despite setting a new Football League record of nine consecutive wins without conceding a goal, County missed out on the play-offs in 2006/07, but the following year they finished fourth and then went on to record their first ever win at Wembley in the play-off final at Rochdale. A superb day for all County fans, but subsequent events have suggested that even at this stage, the club was living a lie, and behind the façade of celebrating promotion to League One, trouble was brewing.
The renaissance continued for at least the first half of the 2008/09 season, but shortly after the turn of the year, rumours began to spread that the club was in serious financial difficulty. As results dipped, the club hierarchy came clean at a fans Forum, and confessed that the club owed around £500,000 to HM Revenue & Customs, with other debt including a sum of around £300,000 owed to David Farms Ltd. Shortly before the end of the season, David Farms demanded repayment of their loan, and with the club in no position to do so, they were forced into administration.
The Supporters Trust clearly comprises people who are big supporters of our football club. But I feel confident when I say that they lacked the necessary experience to run a business of the size of a league football club. Reduced to tenant status at Edgeley Park, we found ourselves unable to use the conference facilities to generate vital revenue. Income from transfer profits is often the lifeblood of lower division clubs, but here we were further constrained by having to pay 30 per cent of our transfer profits to Kennedy so that he could repay a long-standing loan to former owner Elwood. Against these obstacles, it is surprising that the club felt able to spend £225,000 on the purchase of midfielder Carl Baker, or that the club believed it would be able to service the David Farms loan.
Administrators Leonard Curtis arrived to take control at Edgeley Park with no previous experience of football club administration. Although they were forced to make Gannon an early casualty of their re-organisation of the club’s staff, they breezed in giving every indication that the club would exit administration very swiftly.
The months that followed saw a ‘wall of silence’ from the administrators as the fans were left wondering just what was going on with their beloved football club. Finally in January 2010, the administrators revealed that a consortium led by Jim Melrose was in pole position to buy Stockport County.
The following months saw Melrose’s applications repeatedly refused by the Football League, and with the administrators insisting he was the only credible bidder, there were real fears for the club’s survival. Against this gloomy backdrop, it is perhaps not surprising that the team were relegated by a large margin in May 2010. Finally, a second consortium emerged, and this consortium, with husband and wife duo Tony and Mary Gibbons as prominent figures, were unveiled as the new owners in June 2010, after 14 months in administration, with Leonard Curtis having described the club as being ‘weeks from closure’.
After a long administration, it seems that the hangover from administration will be even longer. The 2010/11 season was always going to be difficult, but it was made all the more difficult by the fact that Leonard Curtis had given new contracts to the entire playing squad prior to the season. Any supporter would have known that some players needed to be released following their abject efforts in 2009/10, but Leonard Curtis, who should have been there to administer the club financially, had decided to make what was an entirely football-related decision.
7th May 2011 saw Stockport exit the League with a 1-1 draw at home to Cheltenham Town, with disgruntled fans holding up the game to stage a sit-down protest against both Mary Gibbons, who has now left the club, and Kennedy. Like the Supporters Trust before them, Mary and Tony Gibbons probably did not have the necessary experience to run the club, but it must be considered that the couple were only running Stockport County as no-one else wanted to. They really did save our club from extinction and the level of abuse they have suffered is surely unfair.
As I have illustrated, many people share the blame for Stockport County’s plight, from players to managers, owners and administrators. Nine managers in 11 years is never a recipe for success either. The future looks very uncertain, but our supporters continue to draw praise for their unstinting loyalty. To be at Edgeley Park and hear the Cheadle End in full voice belting out ‘The Scarf My Father Wore’ is a spine-tingling experience.
COUNTY TILL I DIE!
We are everything in football, That people say is sad and wrong, But when we go to Edgeley Park, We will sing our County songs, We’ll raise our voice in chorus, As we did in times before, And at Edgeley Park our greatest pride, Is the scarf my father wore.
It’s forever being beautiful, And the colours white and blue, I wore it proudly ’round my neck, At Chesterfield & Crewe, My father was a County fan, Like my grandfather before, And at Edgeley Park I love to wear, The scarf my father wore.
We will always follow County, To all games far and near, And at Edgeley Park we’ll sing those songs, That my father loved to hear, We will raise our pints in memory, Of the games he loved to see, And at Edgeley Park, I’ll wear the scarf, That my father left to me.
It’s passed down the generations, of my family, Oh my grandad gave it to my dad, And my dad gave it to me. And when my time is over, And life’s long race is run, I’ll take the scarf from ’round my neck, And I’ll pass it to my son!!!