Saturday afternoon’s match against Cambridge United could be classified as a missed opportunity for Blue Square Premier club Stockport County. A crowd of 5,957 turned out at Edgeley Park to see the team beaten by a single goal, with the crowd swollen well above its usual levels by a reduced ticket price offer of just five pounds for adults and one pound for children. The result left County in sixteenth place in the league table, five points above the relegation places with eight matches to play but, while the likelihood of a second successive relegation for the club remains slight, there some cause for the club’s supporters to be wondering whether all the next few weeks will be amongst the most important in the club’s history.
Relegation from the Football League can be a significant culture shock for a club to have to absorb, particularly when we consider that the playing standard at the top level of the non-league game can be considerably higher than many anticipate it will be. Stockport aren’t the only former Football League club struggling in the division this season. Indeed, if anything, the club relegated alongside them last season, Lincoln City, are having an even traumatic time of things this time around. But while Lincoln were financially stabilised – at least in the short term – by a cash injection of half a million pounds into the club earlier this season, Stockport County were filing heavy losses with Companies House for the 2010/11 season.
The abbreviated accounts published by the club don’t offer a great real of good news for those who go looking for it. They confirm a trading loss of £865,000 over the period of the year to the end of June 2011 – the twelve months immediately after the club exited adminstration - set against a total share capital of just £250,000, with the clubs auditors qualifying their report by stating that, “…these conditions indicate the existence of a material uncertainty which may cast significant doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.” It should concern all supporters that this is a club which only exited administration in 2010 after more than a year with its future hanging in the balance and is already starting to incur heavy financial losses again. Lessons from the club’s previous difficulties, it could be argued, were not being learnt during the club’s first post-administration season.
The protracted tale of how County came to end up in the mess in which they found themselves in 2009 is one that we have covered on this site before. The club’s final season in the Football League, however, saw the club lose two managers – Paul Simpson and Ray Mathias, although Mathias’ sacking in favour of Dietmar Hamann, which came just six weeks after he was given the job on a full-time basis in the first place, came at the start of July last year, which may have missed the end of June deadline for this set of accounts. Hamann’s appointment at the club coincided with the arrival at the club of the Liverpool based Tony Evans. Evans had – briefly – big plans for the club which included considering moving to a new ground. Within three months, however, he had left the club after falling into disagreement with claub chairman Lord Snape over a sum of £200,000 which Evans felt existing shareholders should contribute towards the running costs of the club and the make-up of the consortium itself.
He resigned his position in the middle of September, with the club having made several new signings to rebuild its squad following relegation from League Two. With Evans having left the club, Hamann’s position was always going to be in question, and it was very little surprise when he departed the club in November, to be replaced by the club’s popular former manager Jim Gannon. Gannon’s time in charge of the club hasn’t been particularly successful by any stretch of the imagination – his third match in charge of the club again ended in a 7-0 loss at the hands of Grimsby Town, which led to Gannon commenting that, “I am limited in what I can do in terms of changing personnel”, a statement which hinted at the financial constraints under which he is having to work at present. Still, at least the return of Gannon to Stockport might bring a little stability to a club which had five managers in the two and a half years between his departure and return.
With the arrival at the club of Spencer Fearn, it seems possible that the club’s commercial operations may also now take an upturn. Fearn was a former director at East Stirlingshire in Scotland and was subsequently involved in a failed attempt to take over Sheffield Wednesday while the club was in serious difficulty in 2010. Fearn’s biggest inititative is a massive reduction in the cost of season ticket prices at the club. The cost of an adult season ticket has been reduced to £120.00 from the start of next season, but this will only apply if the club sells 5,500 of them by the middle of May, at which point it will have made the amount of money from season ticket sales that it made before the start of this season. If the club is unable to, the price will revert back to normal prices, although supporters will not be compelled to buy at the higher price.
Of course, there are risks attendant with such a policy. Kettering Town have found this season that offering reduced season ticket prices to supporters can have a significant effect on cash-flow into the clubduring the season, and the club will have to be watchful of the way in which it spends any money that comes into the club. The flip-side to this, however, is that bigger crowds at Edgeley Park would also bring benefits of their own and would give the club a lump sum of cash which could be used on reducing its liabilities elsewhere and on investing in the playing squad. It certainly seems like a more prudent way of managing the club’s finances than the hints at what might have been expected under Tony Evans.
The reality of Stockport County’s position is difficult, but not insurmountable. If losses have been cut back to something approaching a sustainable level and the club can go into the summer looking forward to regular crowds in excess of 6,000, then the possibility of challenging for promotion next season doesn’t seem like a wholly unrealistic one. What is critical, however, is that the five points between the club and the Blue Square Premier relegation places doesn’t shrink any further. Few things would be more likely to have a direct hit on the continued viability of a club like Stockport County than a third successive relegation into the Blue Square North. This dread scenario, however, would surely be the same whether the club was seeking to entice huge crowds to the club for the start of next season. When almost 6,000 people turned out for their loss-leading match last Saturday, the local populace confirmed that the interest in their local club is still there. It’s now down to the team to prove that it merits that extra support.
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