Stockport County and the fall from the First Division to non-league football

Stockport County and the fall from the First Division to non-league football

As Stockport County played out a 0-0 draw with Curzon Ashton in their last game of their National League North campaign, Leicester City were on the brink of winning the Premier League. Yet these teams – separated by six tiers of English football – had faced each other at Edgeley Park only just eight years earlier in League One in front of 7,151 fans.

Now a part-time team, the Hatters slid from the First Division to the non-league in just nine years but, in an attempt to return to league football, have since re-assembled the backroom staff who were responsible for their unprecedented success in the late 1990’s.

After facing administration, the team lost their status for the first time in 106 years at the end of the 2010-11 season. The longest surviving club to ever drop out of the Football League, Stockport County had always struggled to achieve sustainability with neighbours Manchester United and Manchester City merely 10 miles down the road. Yet their downfall was hastily accelerated once they lost ownership of their stadium in 2003.

After a long period when the club were unable to generate revenue from ticket sales, Stockport Council stepped in to purchase the ground from Sale Sharks owner Brian Kennedy in 2015. His company Cheshire Sports had long-since handed back ownership of the club to the Supporters Trust back in 2005-06, but retained ownership of the stadium which unsurprisingly had crippled the club financially.

Attendances reached their peak when County reached the First Division in 1997-98 and a sell-out crowd of 11,351 saw an unthinkable 3-1 victory over rivals Manchester City at home. Now the sixth richest club in the world, their near neighbours couldn’t be further away in footballing or financial terms, but Edgeley Park still sees attendances of 3,082 on average, which is higher than six other teams who play in the Football League.

Resolving the stadium issue is a major step forward, but the main challenge now is to keep the club operational. Jon Keighren – who had been involved with the club since the 1990s as the official commentator – was appointed as a director in May 2013 thanks to his background in communication and his passion for the team.

“The biggest challenge we face is the scale of the club versus the scale of where we are,” explained Jon before the game “We have a lot of overheads and a lot of outlay that – without any disrespect to today’s opponents Curzon Ashton –  they probably don’t have.”

In order to remedy this, they are aiming to see the club back in the Football League within five years. “One of the things I introduced quite early on was a public plan,” Jon stated when asked about his new role. “We needed to tell the supporters and the public at large what we were trying to do. Were we just floundering from week to week, just trying to pay the bills with our fingers crossed? It seemed a little bit rudderless at the time.”

This five-year plan echoes that of former chairman Brendan Elwood, who oversaw Stockport County’s most successful ever spell – culminating in the 1996-97 campaign when not only did the team clinch promotion to the First Division with manager Dave Jones, but reached the semi-finals of the League Cup. Beating Premier League holders Blackburn away from home, victories over West Ham and Southampton followed before it was only Middlesbrough who stood in their way of reaching the final.

The wages of one player, Fabrizio Ravanelli, were more than that of the entire Stockport team, but they faced the Italian – who had moved to Teesside from Champions League winners Juventus that summer – without fear and went to the Riverside Stadium on the back of a 2-0 first leg defeat and won 1-0, putting their Premier League opponents under immense pressure before the final whistle.

It was not just on the pitch that the club found success that year, as an initiative to invite every child at a Primary School in Stockport to a game free of charge started to pay dividends when a whole new generation of supporters was born. The man behind this scheme – former commercial manager Steve Bellis – has now returned to the club and resurrected the idea. Alongside the ticket offer, a member of the playing squad makes a visit to each school in an attempt to personalise the experience.

Attracting new young supporters to watch a non-league team play despite two footballing superpowers on the doorstep makes the challenge bigger than ever, but Stockport aim to offer something unique as Jon Keighren explained:

“We lost a generation through the years when we didn’t offer the school talks and free ticket initiative and the incentive to come here was just gone. By taking a player into a school, there is an affinity and a relationship that is already established, and if that child sees him on the field the following weekend and maybe even score a goal – it’s something that you’re never going to get at United or City.

“We are looking to engage with 80,000 students over the next four years, and if we can do that – even if it is a fairly low takeup – that ‘pester power’ might see them return to watch the team. Sometimes it’s not just about the football.”

The next facet of the plan involves success on the field – and in another throwback to better times – Stockport County re-appointed former player and Coach Jim Gannon in January this year. The Irishman was a key part of the central defence during the success of the late 1990s and early 2000s, before returning as a coach in November 2005. Nine points adrift of safety at the bottom of League Two, he orchestrated a miracle escape from relegation to the non-league and went on to major success in the next two seasons.

Although the team missed out on the play-offs by goal difference in the 2006-07 season, they made history by breaking the Football League record for most consecutive games played without conceding a goal. With Wayne Hennessey on loan from Wolverhampton Wanderers between the sticks and current Wales captain Ashley Williams in the heart of defence, Stockport held opponents scoreless for an incredible nine games.

“In training we were always excited by the likes of Tommy Rowe, Stephen Gleeson and Anthony Pilkington, they were the most eye-catching in terms of shots and goals” Gannon reminisced. “Everyone knows the connection with Ashley Williams who grew from just a nervous player to an outstanding athlete with supreme confidence. Wayne Hennessey, John Ruddy and Fraser Forster all made debuts for us at that time, and it has been a great pleasure to enjoy that kind of talent at the club.”

A 3-2 victory over Rochdale in the League Two play-offs in May 2008 was the height of Gannon’s success, but just a year later he lost his job in acrimonious circumstances. A 10-point deduction due to administration meant that Stockport finished 18th with 50 points, and much to the heartbreak of supporters, their boss was fired in order to cut the wage bill. A second spell in charge would follow in 2011 after Dietmar Hamann’s disastrous tenure, but with off-field problems and the club sitting in the relegation zone, Gannon was fired once again.

“Unfortunately the administrators decided to make me redundant the first time, and the second time the club perhaps had high expectations which were probably unfair,” Gannon explained. “But this time round I think the club has found its feet again off the field and it has restructured itself to be competitive at part-time level. I think now everything is in place, the stability is there, the opportunity for success is there and I was delighted to come back.”

After a spell in charge at Northwich Victoria, Gannon feels that he now has the necessary non-league experience to drive the team to promotion with a mix of “coaching skills and the emotional attachment” Next season, automatic promotion is the aim through better coaching and tactical awareness during the pre-season period.

Stockport County face a long, hard battle to return to the Football League, but with their five-year plan and the right personnel in place, this target now seems much more achievable. For the 3,000 fans that still feel the passion for the club – something that drives them return to support the team each week – it’s certainly not just about the football, and the past few years has proven that no matter what level the team play at, their support is unconditional.

By Chloe Beresford. Follow @ChloeJBeresford

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