It was a close run thing, but at least by the end of last night’s fixtures Stockport County remained a Blue Square Bet Premier club, for the time being, at least. County have slipped into the relegation places in the fifth division in recent weeks, and for a short period of time yesterday evening it seemed as if the club was about to be relegated for the second time in three years. The team sitting one place above them in the table, Tamworth, were leading at already relegated Ebbsfleet United while County were a goal behind away to Gateshead. In the space of a few short minutes however, a defibrillator was applied to their disastrous season. With ten minutes left to play, Ebbsfleet levelled the score against Tamworth, and then, in stoppage time at the end of the match at Hartlepool United’s Victoria Park, Adnan Cirak scored to salvage County a point and keep the faintest glimmer of hope alive for the away side.
The continuing decline of Stockport County, however, may only have been put on hold for a few days. On Sunday afternoon – because the Blue Square Bet Premier has indeed shifted its final matches to Saturday tea-time – Stockport will travel Aggborough to play a Kidderminster Harriers team that is still chasing the league title and will be desperate for that win it needs to have any chance whatsoever of pipping Mansfield Town at the top of the table. Should Stockport somehow manage this, though, they will still be dependent on the generosity of others to ensure their survival. Four clubs can still, mathematically speaking, drop on the last day of the season – Lincoln City, Gateshead or Tamworth could all tumble through the trapdoor on Sunday – but if Stockport do not win at Kidderminster, all other results will be irrelevant, and even if they do a point for each of the others would still mean relegation to the Blue Square Bet North for Stockport County.
It may seem like light years ago now already, but the club’s one hundred and six year stay in the Football League only ended two years ago. This, however, could hardly be classed as the start of its troubles. It is not much more than a decade ago that Stockport County were members of the Football League Championship, but since then their slide has seemed just about unstoppable, with the loss of ownership of both its Edgeley Park ground in 2002 and its training ground being a loss of two of its key assets along the way. The club had been sold by former chairman Brendan Elwood to the benefactor of the Sale Sharks rugby club, Brian Kennedy, in 2003, but when Kennedy sold the club on to its Supporters Trust two years later for the nominal sum of £1, he kept ownership of the ground itself in return for taking on responsibility for the club’s debts of £4.5m. The Trust agreed a 10-year option to regain ownership of the ground by repaying the debt taken on by Kennedy, but its period of ownership of the club saw it fail to get to grips with spiraling debts, whilst a contract with Brian Kennedy to remain at Edgeley Park left the club with very little in terms of income. A ruinous loan taken out in 2008 turned out to be the beginning of the end of the Trust’s ownership of the club, and in April 2009 the club entered into administration with debts of £7.8 million.
At least at that time, however, Stockport County were in League One. Two years later, following two consecutive bottom of the table finishes, they were relegated from the Football League altogether. By this time the club was owned by the 2015 Group, which had Alwin Thompson appointed as the club’s chairman and a former Labour MP, Lord Peter Snape, as one of its directors. At the start of the club’s first season in the Blue Square Bet Premier, Liverpool businessman Tony Evans – who earlier that year had seen an insurance firm that he owned collapse with debts of £1.2m, a warning alarm if ever there was one – was unveiled as the club’s new chairman-in-waiting and he installed the former Liverpool midfielder Dietmar Hamann as its new manager. It looked, briefly as if the club was going to try and spend its way back into the Football League, but by the middle of September 2011 Lord Snape was raising concerns relating to a sum of £200,000 which Evans felt existing shareholders should contribute, as well as over the make-up of the consortium, and the Evans deal was dead. With Stockport flat-lining in the league again, Hamann left the club two months later.
The club finished its first season in the Blue Square Bet Premier in sixteenth place in the table, but this season has seen the club’s downward spiral continue on the pitch, even though there have been times when it has seemed as if there might be light at the end of the tunnel away from it. In November of last year, the club finally reached agreement with Brian Kennedy’s company, Cheshire Sport, to run Edgeley Park on a day-to-day basis. With Sale Sharks having left the ground at the start of the season to play elsewhere, Cheshire Sport remained the owner of the ground but this at agreement did at least reduce the club’s rent by almost two-thirds and handed it full control of the running of the stadium for the first time in almost a decade.
This being Stockport County, however, the good news couldn’t last for too long. Manager – although he was described by the club as “Director of Football” – Jim Gannon was in his second spell in charge of the club – having previously been there from 2005 until 2009 – but vice-chairman Spencer Fearn, who has been a director of the club since the start of 2012, appointed Ryan McKnight as the club’s CEO in January of this year, and within a few days of this appointment Gannon had left the club for a second time. Perhaps, to a point, Gannon had been living on borrowed time in the trigger-happy world of modern football management. After losing to Woking in the middle of December, Lord Snape, who was by then the chairman of the club, had some choice barbs aimed in the manager’s direction:
I’m getting pretty fed up of watching part-time teams beat Stockport County. Changes are going to be made unless things improve. Jim Gannon’s pretty good at telling me how this club should be run. Well I’m going to tell him that I’m not impressed by the way the team is being run. If we lose a couple of our next games, we’re in a relegation battle with a much bigger budget than most of the teams down there with us, which quite frankly is not good enough.
Supporters were angered by this decision, but Gannon’s departure from the club wasn’t a complete surprise. The club’s choice of replacement for him certainly was, though. 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 Fearn described the appointment as a “reflection of the future direction of the club.” This was not a statement that the benefit of hindsight has been kind to. Kalezic won two of his first three matches in charge of the team, but a run of just one win in his next nine matches in charge of the club led to his departure following a defeat at Luton Town last month. Fearn was a little less bullish in his public statement this time around, saying that, “Despite Darije having excellent calibre and being a top quality coach, the move, for a number of reasons, just hasn’t worked out how either party had envisaged.” His replacement, Ian Bogie, had been interviewed for the vacant position two months earlier, but he has fared little better so far, with two wins from his six matches in charge of the club so far. Meanwhile, Lord Snape has infuriated supporters further by claiming in the press that “death threats” have been made against some of the club’s directors.
Yet somehow or other the fans have kept on turning up. Stockport County’s average attendance this season has been 3,780 people – the second highest in the division, after Luton Town. Perhaps falling from the Football League from the Blue Square Premier wasn’t a massive culture shock. After all, many of the clubs in the division are names that would have been familiar to County supporters from their years in the stalwart lower divisions of the League. There are some names from the club’s past, however, that they will be unlikely to be playing again in the foreseeable future. Eleven years and one month ago, Stockport County beat Manchester City by two goals to one in a league match, a fact that seems scarcely credible in 2013. Relegation is not a foregone conclusion yet and hope springs eternal, but winning at Kidderminster – a draw will not be enough – seems like a tall order and, whilst Manchester City prepare for an FA Cup Final and the prospect of more Champions League football next season, the long-suffering supporters of Stockport County are already bracing themselves for the possibility of trips to the likes of Solihull Moors, Vauxhall Motors and Oxford City, let down by everyone and all the while wondering when this nightmare will end.
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I’m going to take a moment here to apologise for reading the calendar wrong at one o’clock this morning, after a full day at work and having had four hours sleep the night before because I was writing something else, and writing Sunday rather than Saturday with regard to this weekend’s match. This has now been amended.