BY SEAN MAKIN

Everyone loves an underdog; just 10 miles south of the two Manchester clubs lies Stockport County, a self-confessed ‘friendly club’ that are looking for their own identity to emerge from the shadows of the two giants just up the road.

Formed in 1883, originally as Heaton Norris Rovers before changed their name to Stockport County seven years later, they have played at their ground Edgeley Park since 1902 having been elected to the English Second Division in 1900; they were then re-elected into the Football League in 1905.

The club spent the majority of the 20th century rattling around in the third and fourth tier, giving the odd United or City legend a last pay day on their way down and out of football.

That was until an unknown Uruguayan by the name of Daniel Alberto Bergara de Medina, otherwise known as Danny Bergara, took over as the manager in March 1989. Bergara had been a striker in his playing days, spending his entire career in Spain playing for the likes of Real Mallorca and Sevilla before moving to England in the 1970s when he retired after marrying an English travel guide.

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Speaking little English, Bergara began his coaching career at Luton Town where his methods of working on individual players’ technique was spotted by the Football Association who asked him to work with the England youth teams. He also had a brief spell in charge of Sheffield United and Rochdale before resurfacing at Edgeley Park where he was to change their fortunes around with his coaching methods and his policy of signing young, hungry players instead of being the dumping ground of has-beens from their lofty neighbours.

Arguably, under the little Uruguayan, it was to be the most successful time in Stockport’s history. He began by saving them from going out of the Football League in 1989. He followed that up by guiding them to the play-offs the season after, and then achieving promotion in 1991 as they missed out on the title by a single point; but it got them out of the Fourth Division where they had languished for the previous 21 years to that point.

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From 1992 to 1994, Bergara took County to Wembley on four occasions in the play-offs and Football League Trophy, but unfortunately, Stockport failed to win any of them with his squad of young talented players – Jim Gannon, Andy Preece and Kevin Francis, as well as giving players a platform to bigger and better things such as Alun Armstrong and Brett Angell.

But sadly, near the end of the 1994/95 season, Bergara departed in acrimonious circumstances; the fall out with the board eventually led to a tribunal – which Bergara won – but he would never have the same success after leaving County and died in July 2007 at the age of 65.

His successor Dave Jones led Stockport to promotion to the second tier for the first time in 60 years just two years after taking the job. He also guided them to the semi-final of the League Cup before being poached by Southampton. Gary Megson was given the job and took the club to an 8th place finish – their best ever league placing to date – a season that included a 3-1 win over Manchester City in front of a large crowd at Edgeley Park.

The next couple of years saw stability in the First Division (now the Championship) before the disastrous campaign of the 2001/02 season when Graham Taylor’s favourite player Carlton Palmer, yes that Carlton Palmer, who somehow got 18 England caps – more than Andy Cole and Matt Le Tissier – was in charge of a side that were relegated by March ’02 and finished the season with just 26 points, the quickest post-war relegation (that has since been matched by Blackpool earlier this year).

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Palmer was allowed to stay on until September 2003 after which the club managed to avoid a second successive relegation, but it was during the summer of ’03 that the beginning of the rot that would see Stockport fall through the leagues began. It started when Sale Sharks owner Brian Kennedy bought the club from Brendan Elwood – the man who had a mad idea of merging Stockport with Manchester City to form “Man-Stock County”. Kennedy decided to put the two clubs under the umbrella of ‘Cheshire Sports’ and move the rugby union side into Edgeley Park basically making the football club second-class citizens in their own home.

On the pitch, Stockport suffered another relegation in 2005 and Kennedy decided to sell up in November that year after claiming he was no longer prepared to bankroll the club after investing £4million since taking over. With the club bottom of the fourth tier, he sold up to the supporters trust for £1, but retained Edgeley Park and had the nerve to charge £12,500-a-month for the club to play at their home since 1902.

The only problem with that was the supporters trust were inking their own death warrant by signing the deal with Kennedy as they had very little or no money with which to run the club. What else hurt the club was the agreement that County would share revenue raised with Sale Sharks, which was too small for the club as 30 per cent went to Kennedy, and they had also given up on a £1m-per-year profit from the club’s conference and banqueting facilities in order to repay the debt owed to their former chairman.

What the trust did do was install former defender and fans favourite Jim Gannon as manager and he saved the club from falling out of the Football League and the following season his team set a record by going on a nine game winning streak without conceding a goal. County were looking up the table rather than down and with a young, hungry squad, Gannon achieved promotion back to League One via a play-off final win over Rochdale.

But a loan to the tune of £300,000 taken out by the trust in July 2008 was the last straw and things slowly but surely started to collapse. Matters were made worse just before the start of the 2008/09 season when the club’s training facilities at Manor Farm were badly in need of repair and had to be completed by the end of the year otherwise the landlords, one being former chairman Brendan Elwood, were prepared to evict the club from their training ground.

As the 2008/09 season progressed, there were murmurings that County were in dire straits. Tax bills were being unpaid and players had to be sold in January 2009 in order to stave off administration; but the money raised was not enough. The administrators moved in during April 2009 (charging £395 an hour for their services in finding a new buyer) and redundancies were handed out like Christmas cards, including one to manager Jim Gannon.

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A consortium led by former Manchester City striker Jim Melrose agreed in principle to take over the club and the last thing to do to get the deal over the line was to come to an agreement with Kennedy over the lease on Edgeley Park. In the meantime, they had appointed the late Gary Ablett as manager, but Kennedy wouldn’t budge in negotiations over the ground.

The saga with the Melrose consortium dragged on for 14 months and the club suffered on the pitch as they were relegated back to the fourth tier after a dismal season in which they recorded just five wins. Another consortium calling themselves the ‘2015 Group’, led by supporter David Schofield, moved in and managed to take control of the club in June 2010 with Alwin Thompson appointed chairman while Lord Peter Snape was named as a director.

First thing they did was to sack Ablett before the season began, but the rot had already set in. County went through three managers during the 2010/11 campaign as they lost their Football League status after a stay of 106 years.

An unknown Liverpudlian businessman by the name of Tony Evans wanted to take over the club and promised to invest money, which was welcomed with open arms at Edgeley Park. He was allowed to hire his own manager – former Liverpool midfielder Dietmar Hamman – but the money and Hamman-led revival didn’t materialise; the German won just four times in 19 matches and resigned citing the failed takeover by Evans, while the money promised by the man himself never arrived – his links to convicted fraudster and former Chester City owner Stephen Vaughan never helped his cause.

Gannon returned but one too many fallouts with Lord Snape saw him receive his marching orders with the club struggling at the wrong end of the Vanarama National League (known as the Blue Square Premier then). Stockport had a 30-year-old chief executive by the name of Ryan McKnight, who supposedly had links throughout Europe, and he hired an unknown Swiss-born Bosnian called Darije Kalezic.

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The continental approach lasted all of 55 days after Kalezic lost seven of his first 12 matches in charge with County perilously close to the relegation places. The board went for a safer option in the next appointment in Ian Bogie, who had managed at that level with a five-year stint at Gateshead. But eight points in their remaining seven games wasn’t enough to keep County in the highest tier of non-league football and they dropped into the National League North just two years after losing their Football League status.

And they have been there ever since. Bogie resigned after picking up just one point from their first five matches and Alan Lord took charge until he stepped down to become the club’s director of football before the end of last season.

McKnight resigned in May 2014 and the club revealed they won’t have a CEO on a full-time basis for the near future as they dropped their status to a semi-professional club.

Hopefully things are beginning to look up for Stockport as Neil Young’s side currently sit one place outside the play-off places in the National League North at the time of writing, while off the field the Sale Sharks moved out in 2012 to play in Salford.

Stockport Council have finally helped out the club by buying Edgeley Park from Brian Kennedy and leasing it to the club, hopefully at an affordable price.

YOU CAN FOLLOW SEAN ON TWITTER @Seany1985

 

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