Stockport County: Walking A Tightrope
There comes a point in football at which even the most precipitous falls start to slow and reverse themselves, and there has been no other club in England in recent years that has spiralled in a downward direction as dramatically as Stockport County Football Club. Twleve years ago, the club was playing its football in the Championship, but one financial diasaster after another saw it relegated from the Football League altogether eventually. Stockport’s fall from grace, however, didn’t end there, and at the end of last season the club suffered the further ignominy of relegation from the Conference National, and this season hadn’t seen much of an improvement until recently, with the club going into its Christmas and New Year fixtures dangerously close to the relegation places in that division too.
What a difference the congested holiday period can make, though. On the Saturday before Christmas, Stockport ended a winless run that stretched back to the start of November by beating Oxford City at home, and they followed this up with a win against Bradford Park Avenue on Boxing Day. There followed a brief stutter in the form of a home draw against bottom of the table Workington, but last Saturday the team returned to winning ways with a five-one win at Gainsborough Trinity, and the club now sits in fifteenth place in the Conference North table. These may not necessarily be dizzying heights, but ten points over this fourteen day period has put a safety net – of sorts – of seven points between the club and the dotted line at the bottom of the table. Perhaps, just perhaps, 2014 might yet turn out to be a happier year for the club’s supporters after all.
As Stockport’s slump continued unabated over the last couple of years, chaos reigned behind the scenes at the club. The appointment of Dietmar Hammann as manager in the summer of 2011 came with an investor, a Liverpool-based businesssman called Tony Evans, who immediately set alarm bells ringing when the news became public that an insurance firm that he owned had collapsed earlier that year with debts of £1.2m, but within a few weeks Evans was gone, after incumbent chairman Lord Snape raised concerns relating to a sum of £200,000 which Evans felt existing shareholders should contribute towards the running of the club, as well as over the make-up of the consortium that would take over the running of the club. Within a couple of months, Hammann had gone as well, and Stockport finished that season, its first in the Conference National, in sixteenth place in the table.
If that first Conference season had seemed bad – and, like the supporters of all relegated clubs, one of the few crumbs of consolation for Stockport supporters mourning its loss of Football League status might well have been the hope of winning a few more matches in a lower division – little could have prepared them for the calamitous 2012/13 season. Manager Jim Gannon, who had previously been the manager of the club from 2005 until 2009, had returned to Edgeley Park, but he wasn’t able to steady to the sinking ship and he departed from the club after heavy criticism from Snape. His replacement, however, was a surprise. The Swiss-born Bosnian Darije Kalezic had no experience in English football as a player or a manager – he spent his playing career in Bosnia and the Netherlands – and after just three wins in twelve matches, he also left the club. His replacement, Ian Bogie, couldn’t keep the club in the Conference National. Yet another relegation followed on the last day of last season with a defeat at Kidderminster Harriers.
Surely, supporters may well have thought, this relegation would see the end of more than a decade in purgatory, but for a considerable amount of time even this season it has looked as if that slide might not yet have been fully arrested. Bogie left Edgeley Park after the first five matches of this season yielded just a single point. Since then, however, the club has started to show signs of life again. It has been patchy – it has been without a chairman since Lord Snape resigned his position in November and results have been some way short of perfect – but the club now has a little more stability in manager Alan Lord, and crowds have held up reasonably well in spite of the club being at perhaps the lower ebb in its history. In spite of a dip in recent weeks, the average for the season remains at more than two and a half thousand people per match, a figure which dwarfs that of every other club in their division.
And those very same supporters are now doing their bit to try and make the club a more attractive investment for investors. In was in August that former vice-chairman Spencer Fearn called upon shareholders to write off their loans in order to safeguard the club’s future, and it was reported by the Manchester Evening News that six of those shareholders had agreed to walk away from the club and told senior supporting shareholder Chris Brammall they would donate their equity and write off their loans for a token amount of one pound. It was with this in mind that around five hundred supporters marched prior to the Oxford City match on the twenty-first of December, with the march’s organiser Steve Gibbons saying that, “It provides a real clean County for investors to now go and work inside the club and recover the situation to one of hope for the future rather than the constant feeling of despair suffered by supporters in recent months.”
The club’s position remains precarious as a legacy of its previous mismanagement, but it has been suggested that there are people and consortia who may be interested in buying the club. It is an opinion held by some supporters, however, that the key to the club’s revival is the departure of chief executive Ryan McKnight. McKnight became the youngest person in the country to hold such a position when he took the job at the age of thirty last year, but his time at the club has not been a happy one. He stands accused by supporters of responsibility for the club’s relegation from the Conference National at the end of last season, and for the scaling back of the club’s operations that came when it shifted from being a full-time club to a part-time club at the end of last season. Critics wonder how a part-time football club can justify the expense of a full-time chief executive, but McKnight remains in place for now, although whether he would survive the arrival at the club of a new consortium of owners is another matter altogether.
So it is that the new year begins with Stockport County Football Club hanging in the balance. On the one hand, the club remains perilously close to the dread possibility of relegation to the Northern Premier League (there may be a buffer at this point, but there’s a long way yet to go this season), and some have observed that, whilst there has been upturn in results in recent weeks, this hasn’t necessarily been mirrored with an upturn performance by the team. The club’s financial position hasn’t yet been resolved satisfactorily, and the chief executive remains in place. On the other hand, though, the club’s supporters co-operative is growing, there is interest taking the club over, and the team has finally started winning a few matches. Given the events of the last few years, it is entirely understandable if many of the club’s supporters have a ‘glass half empty’ feeling about the future of their club. There are small signs, however, that a silver lining might yet become visible through the clouds that have sat so stubbornly over Edgeley Park of late.
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