BY DAVE LONG
May 1997: I’d not long turned 18 and was present at a rain-soaked Saltergate, home of Chesterfield, to see my team – Stockport County – win promotion to the second tier for the first time in nearly 60 years. Ultimately, County had to settle for second place, but it had been earned at the end of a long season which lasted nearly 70 games. County’s breathtaking season saw them knock out Premier League sides, Blackburn Rovers, West Ham United and Southampton, as well as Sheffield United who were in the league above, on the way to the League Cup semi-final. In fact, County only lost by the odd goal to star-studded Middlesbrough with both legs screened on national television. That season had been the culmination of nearly a decade of toil in the lower reaches of the Football League. Subsequently, County would punch above their weight in the second tier for five seasons after their promotion.
To say all of this was a pipedream when I went to my first County game back in August 1989 would be an understatement. Back then, the club were in the embryonic stages of the revolution brought about by chairman Brendan Elwood and newly appointed manager, Danny Bergara. After finishing no higher than 11th in the fourth tier in the previous 18 years, County achieved top 10 finishes – including four top four places – in eight of the next nine seasons. From 1989 until Bergara’s sacking in 1995, Stockport became a well-respected lower league club, gaining promotion from the fourth tier in 1991 after 21 years rooted in the bottom half of the Football League, making the play-offs three times and playing at Wembley four times. The fact they lost all of those games is neither here nor there, the fact was they had made those finals.
Dave Jones, Bergara’s assistant, took over in 1995 and after a settling in period he guided County on their marathon 1996/97 season. The side he created over the course of his two seasons in charge was more well-rounded than that of Bergara; one well equipped to deal with life in a higher division. Jones moulded a lower league side of immense technical ability and one which is still vividly remembered to this day. Of Jones’s promotion winning side, Paul Jones and Lee Todd followed him to Southampton when he left County in the summer of 1997; Chris Marsden played in the Premier League for Southampton too, via a stint at Birmingham City, and captained the Saints during their FA Cup final loss to Arsenal in 2003. The £1.6million received by County from Middlesbrough for Alun Armstrong in 1998 is a record to this day; Armstrong went on to score for Ipswich Town against Internazionale in the 2002 UEFA Cup. Kevin Cooper also played in the Premier League, for Wimbledon in 2001/02.
Gary Megson took over at Edgeley Park following Jones’s departure to the south coast and he guided County to their highest ever league place in 1998 – 8th in the second tier. That season was not only memorable for County’s final position but also for a 3-1 win over neighbours, Manchester City. The victory would spark a memorable run of victories over their geographical rivals culminating in a 2-1 victory at Edgeley Park in 2002. Playing City in the league would’ve been unthinkable just 10 years earlier and the 2002 game neatly encapsulated the fortunes of the respective clubs; County had just been relegated – this was in March, the quickest post-war relegation. City on the other hand were a week away from promotion back to the Premier League and they haven’t looked back since.
For Stockport County the rot had already set in, it wasn’t obvious at this time and the descent into regional football was still a ludicrous notion for fans. However, in the 15 years to 2013 following that 8th place finish, County were relegated six times, promoted once, spent a year in administration, lost their home and went through 14 managers. From the bright lights of Wembley and being on the fringe of the Premier League to the brink of annihilation; County are now very slowly turning the corner, but it’s been a very rocky journey to say the least.
County eventually ‘achieved’ their record breaking relegation in 2002 after amassing a meagre 26 points and conceding 102 goals. Andy Kilner had been sacked in the autumn of 2001 and former England midfielder Carlton Palmer took charge. Palmer is an easy target and the dramatic downturn in County’s fortunes seemed to mirror the general perception of him, but in the end he did his best with what he had. With relegation an almost certainty as early as November, he rid the club of some players who were high earners but gave little in return and set about bringing in County’s youth team players. As expected they struggled but at least they showed some fight and exuberance that season, peaking with that victory over City.
In 2003 Brendan Elwood – after years of success with County – sold his stake in the club to Cheshire businessman and Sale Sharks rugby club owner, Brian Kennedy. He brought his rugby club with him and ran both clubs under the umbrella of ‘Cheshire Sports’. Against the backdrop of expected animosity from sections of the County faithful, Sale shared Edgeley Park from the 2003/04 season onwards. The 2005/06 season saw County’s second relegation in four years, and as a result they dropped back in to the bottom tier of English football after an eight-year hiatus. The previous season, their last in the third tier to date, saw them match the 2001/02 points total and equal their own quickest relegation record.
Needless to say, things were not going to get any better soon and after just two years in charge at County, Kennedy sold the club to the Supporters’ Trust for just £1 in July 2005. He had reportedly lost £4m in his time as Stockport County owner and to make his money back Cheshire Sports kept ownership of Edgeley Park and Sale continued to play there. Kennedy also took 30% of the profits made from player sales and literally left County’s new owners the cash they made on turnstiles, which when you take away the cost of policing and so on isn’t going to amount to much. This deal sowed the seeds for County’s ultimate downfall but in the short term the Trust were hamstrung and the situation on the pitch reached crisis point on Boxing Day 2005. County were cut adrift at the bottom of the league by five points after a humiliating 6-0 defeat away to local rivals, Macclesfield Town. Manager Chris Turner was shown the exit and County legend Jim Gannon stepped in to try and save the club. Gannon was a veteran of over 400 games in ten years, he had been through every one of County’s high points in the 1990s and he was welcomed back with open arms by the fans. His side performed miracles on the pitch and County stayed in the division on the last day of the season, losing only six games after the Macclesfield debacle.Embed from Getty Images
The Trust seemed to be working for County and Gannon steered the club to 8thin the division the following season, although they heartbreakingly missed out on the play-offs on the last day of the season despite hammering Darlington, 5-0, away. Nestled in this memorable season was a nine-game winning stretch where County didn’t concede a goal; one of the more pleasant Football League records County hold.
Gannon continued the resurgence and finished fourth in the 2007/08 season and set club records for eight consecutive away wins and for goals scored in 30 successive games. The play-offs loomed once more; cold sweat nightmares of being the only team to have two players sent off in a game at Wembley and conceding last-minute winners are what the play-offs meant to County prior to 2008. But that was finally laid to rest after a thrilling 3-2 win over Rochdale at Wembley. The bad old days of relegations and selling the ground to a rugby fan were behind them as the Trust and management worked in glorious tandem. Surely nothing could go wrong? But just ten years on from that cold and blustery day at Wembley, the club is a shell of its former self.
Things had started brightly for County in 2008/09, back in the third tier they climbed to an impressive fifth place prior to the Boxing Day visit of Leeds United. The game was lost, no real surprise, but almost immediately after the game rumours of County’s financial crisis began to leak out; stories of struggling to pay a £250,000 bill to HM Revenue and Customs were rife and club captain Ashley Williams was sold to Swansea City for £400,000 during the January transfer window just to attempt to address the crisis.
Gannon resisted the temptation to jump ship to Brighton and Hove Albion and turned down their offer in April 2009, but just weeks later County’s creditors asked for their money back. The unthinkable happened – County were placed into administration and deducted 10 points. The back-breaking straw was a loan for £300,000 which was taken out without the Trust’s knowledge during the months after the lopsided deal struck by former owner, Brian Kennedy. The Trust, who seemingly had everything under control, were now vilified by large sections of County fans, but in truth everyone seemed to be blaming anyone and everyone as their world caved in. The administrators, Leonard Curtis, moved to cut the wage bill almost immediately, this included Gannon and his staff. Having driven County to their best league finishes in a decade, not to mention keeping them in the Football League little more than three years earlier, Gannon was now unemployed. To make matters worse the administrators were charging County nearly £400 per hour for the privilege of tearing the club apart.
In June 2009 Leonard Curtis accepted a proposal to take over the club from a consortium led by former Manchester City player, Jim Melrose. So sure of the deal being done, the consortium was allowed to appoint Gary Ablett as first team manager. In December, the administrators forced the sale of County’s training complex; they have yet to replace it. Angered and alienated, with no news on the Melrose consortium bid, the County fans marched from Stockport to Leonard Curtis’ office in the centre of Manchester; the aim was to get answers to their burning questions around the takeover. Reports suggest several bids by the Melrose consortium were presented to the Football League, but none were accepted, and the deal died, and County remained in administration for the whole of the season. Predictably the off the field issues led to a huge downturn on the pitch and County managed just five wins during 2009/10 and were relegated again. The ‘nine in a row’ record seemed a lifetime ago and was supplanted by two other club records; 12 straight defeats and a record home defeat, 6-0 against Huddersfield Town. Needless to say, Ablett was sacked.
Judgement day loomed in the summer of 2010. The Football League couldn’t allow County to start a second season in administration and rumours circulated of various cut off dates, when County would finally be liquidated. Officially it was the end of June, when the new season’s fixtures were announced, but the Football League would want a replacement before then, surely? No one really knew, and the lack of communication was indicative of the uncertainty of the time. Back in the fourth tier for the 2010/11 season County were saved just weeks before the new season started when a group of local businessmen named the 2015 Group took control of the club. The fans were just glad to be out of administration and although it was a long way back, they finally had a reason to be looking up once more. The good mood didn’t last long and the club, celebrating their 100th and last season in the Football League, were relegated into the Conference with a pathetic 25 points to show for their efforts, fans angrily protested on the pitch as relegation was confirmed in a season which also saw them record successive 5-0 defeats.
Another season, another cause for optimism, and by this stage County were desperate for anything. This time it came in the shape of Liverpool businessman, Tony Evans. He pledged to take over the club with a £1m investment. He went as far as appointing former Liverpool and Germany player Dietmar Hamann as the new first team manager. However, the 2015 Group and Evans couldn’t reach a deal and Evans withdrew in September 2011. Hamann followed soon after with County languishing in the lower reaches of the Conference. It may well have been a blessing in disguise as it was reported Evans had links to Stephen Vaughan, a convicted criminal who ran Chester City into the ground in 2009 and was the first person to fail the FA’s Fit and Proper Person Test in 2010. The 2015 Group wouldn’t budge, and accusations of dishonour were made by both sides. On the pitch County finished 16th. Worse was to come, but not before some good news.
While gearing up for their second season outside the Football League, County were enthused by the news that Sale Sharks had agreed to move to a new stadium in Salford and moved out of Edgeley Park during the summer of 2012. Finally, County had control of the ground and vitally, the match day revenue streams were theirs too. One caveat was Cheshire Sports and by extension, Brian Kennedy, still owned the ground but he agreed a 65% rent reduction, which considering County posted an £800,000 loss for the 2011/12 season was very welcome. While on the pitch their fortunes never recovered from a poor start and Gannon was sacked in January 2013.
Off the pitch, new CEO, Ryan McKnight, was appointed, and at just 30 years of age he was by far the youngest to take up the position. He started off, as most executives do, with a ‘mission statement’ and dropping trendy buzzwords into interviews. The problem with McKnight was just this, he seemed to be a cross between David Brent and Mike Bassett. Fans are always weary of board members, but when they – as McKnight did – use phrases like “implemented fundamentals” and “360-degree people”, you can see why most County fans despaired when he spoke and merely wanted action, not words. McKnight wanted to impose a continental-style brand at County by attracting technically minded players and staff. He appointed Swiss-born Bosnian, Darije Kalezic, who had an impressive spell in Holland with De Graafschap, as he took them into the Eredivisie in 2010 and kept them up the following season. McKnight’s European connections also helped to sign a number of technical players as he fought to keep County up. A positive unbeaten start to his County career saw Kalezic’s new side win two and drawing one, however when the defeats started to mount, the new-style continental football at Edgeley Park was dumped in favour of a panicky route one; more in keeping with their Conference surroundings. Predictably, Kalezic’s brief reign came to an end after just 55 days with County one place above the Conference relegation zone. Although certainly ambitious, maybe using County as a guinea pig for a new brand of tiki-taka wasn’t the greatest idea McKnight ever had, certainly not when County had less time than most clubs to turn their fortunes around. The nadir came in April 2013; County were relegated at Kidderminster Harriers; a toxic atmosphere among a minority of County fans had forced McKnight and the board to stay away and as County slipped into regional football, one of their fans, surrounded by a group of similarly pea-brained morons, entered the pitch and punched a Harriers player. An embarrassing and repugnant end to County’s life in the Conference.
The National League North would be County’s new home for the foreseeable future, and again the fans protested in December 2013, this time against McKnight and the board; downsizing the club’s staff and failure to attract more income into the club were among their well-founded gripes. McKnight resigned in April 2014, his departure had been coming but, despite relegation, he had left County in a marginally better state than he found them when he arrived 15 months earlier. On the pitch County survived comfortably and finished in lower mid-table – not great, but it was a start. The following season, 2015/16, saw more of the same. Stability was the key for County and despite being in the top half in February they slipped away in to mid-table come the seasons’ end.
As is the way of 21st century Stockport County, just when things were looking promising, worrying reports surfaced in the summer of 2015. A bid had been received by Brian Kennedy from developers looking to buy Edgeley Park, one can only assume their intentions weren’t to redevelop the ground, but to demolish it and build a soulless retail park or expensive housing. The repercussions for County being homeless were about as bad as the year in administration; imagine the bleak, insipid trek to Macclesfield or Rochdale every other week for ‘home’ games? However, Stockport Council came to the rescue, purchased Edgeley Park for around £2million and agreed to rent it back to County at an affordable rate. Finally, after 12 years County had rid themselves of Kennedy.
2015 also saw the release by the board of the Moving Forward document which outlined a series of ambitious aims, in a nutshell they were;
To return to the Football League by 2020
Generate £1.5million in commercial revenue by 2020
Engage with 80,000 school and college students by 2020 through the club’s leadership and healthy initiatives.
The document also pointed out;
Edgeley Park is a protected asset and cannot and will not be used to leverage debt against the club.
The ten-page document was viewed as a literal statement of intent and provided clarity on the short, medium and long term goals of the club. Three years on it is clear the first aim may not be met as soon as 2020, but one can still hope.
Jim Gannon returned for his third spell in charge in January 2016 and guided County to ninth and eighth place finishes over the next two seasons; baby steps, but steps forward nonetheless. Last season rumours of another ground share with Sale Sharks were very quickly quashed by County. It’s hoped they learned the lessons of seasons past and the firm statement of intent about Edgeley Park set out in the Moving Forward document shows just how streetwise and focused County have become.
County made the National League North play-offs in 2018 after collecting 36 points over the second half of the season. They were defeated by Chorley and are a part time team competing with several full time promotion hopefuls. But County will be back and ready for action in a few weeks with a quiet confidence among the squad. Who knows, maybe being back in the Football League by 2020 isn’t too ambitious after all? If anyone deserves some good luck, then Stockport County should surely be near the top of the list?
County’s story is echoed by many clubs, but some never make it back from the brink. In some ways County have been very lucky just to still be here. Football League clubs entered into administration 52 times between 1992 and 2010, so don’t think it couldn’t happen to your club. I certainly didn’t think it would turn out like this as I stood shivering and drenched on that terrace in Chesterfield 21 years ago, dreaming of life in the second tier and beyond.
FOLLOW DAVE ON TWITTER @DaveLong79