On Saturday afternoon at the foot of the Conference North, something has to give. Gainsborough Trinity have lost their opening five matches of the new season but may well be forgiven for believing that their best chance of getting themselves up and running comes with a trip to play the team one place above them in the table, a team with just one point from their opening five matches of the season. Yet their opposition on Saturday afternoon not one of the traditional also-rans of this level of the game, rather it is a club that has been the subject of a precipitous fall from the grace over the last twelve years or so, one which, through a combination of mismanagement at all levels and bad luck from making the wrong decisions at the wrong time, has found itself playing at a level that it would surely never expected just a few years ago. Yet for Stockport County Football Club, the wrong end of the Conference North and the possibility of yet another season of struggle is a grim reality.
It is a path well worn to remind readers that it was just twelve and a half years ago that Stockport County were playing Manchester City in the league and beating them, and that it is only just over sixteen years since the club was only narrowly being beaten by Middlesbrough in the semi-finals of the League Cup. But the divergent paths that Manchester City and Stockport County have taken since then might be considered a parable for the polarisation of football. On the one hand, City were lucky in catching the eye of a group of people with more money than they could ever know how to spend, and that club now inhabits the rarefied atmosphere of the top end of the Premier League and the Champions League. Ambitions at Edgeley Park have never been that grand, but in those twelve intervening years Stockport County has suffered indignity heaped upon indignity which, we might have though, culminated on the final day of last season when the club was relegated from the Conference National.
Ian Bogie had been appointed as the club’s manager in March, with relegation from the Conference National looming large on the horizon. He was unable to avoid this, but there had been confidence that the club would at least be able to find its feet better and perhaps regroup in the largely part-time Conference North. The club itself turned part-time during the summer in the hope of being able stem further financial losses, but it was expected that a remoulded Stockport team should be able to challenge near the top of this division this season and a crowd of 3,317 turned out for the team’s opening match of the season against Boston United. To say that things didn’t run according to plan would be something of an understatement. A defeat by four goals to one will have left few at the club with many illusions concerning the scale of the task ahead, but matters have hardly improved since then with only a single, solitary point from their second match of the season, away at Workington, followed by three further consecutive defeats, against Altrincham, Colwyn Bay and Harrogate Town.
Following Saturday’s loss at Harrogate, Bogie resigned his position immediately and has been replaced on a caretaker basis by his former assistant, Alan Lord. Lord has been with the club for six years already and has been in this position before following the departure of club legend Jim Gannon from the club in January, and his job starts this weekend with a match against a Gainsborough Trinity side that is the only in division to have made a worse start than his club has, all of which means that this match has taken on a sense of significance that it might not otherwise have been able to manage. A win in this match might even prove to be the kick-start that this misfiring team needs. Defeat, on the other hand, would send Stockport County to the bottom of the Conference North, a new low in the history of a club which has seen little else by way of achievements in recent years.
As ever at Stockport County, however, the defining theme of the new season has been dissatisfaction on the part of the club’s support with the way in which it is being run, with particular targets for ire being Chairman Lord Snape and Chief Executive Ryan McKnight, who oversaw the club’s relegation at the end of last season. Yet Snape and McKnight are merely the latest incumbents to find themselves facing the wrath of supporters after more than a decade of decline. A lengthy list of miscreants and ne’er do wells have all had their say in running the club into the position in which it finds itself today. The question now, perhaps, is who can begin to reverse that trend and,while there have been few signs of this starting of late, there are cautious signs that, off the field at least, things could start to turn in the right direction again.
Last week, former vice chairman Spencer Fearn offered to write off his debt to the club – a not inconsiderable £265,000 – if other holders of loans made to the club did the same, an offer made on the basis that the amount of loans that the club already has is making it increasingly difficult to persuade outside investors to put money into the club, although one might argue that a club that is expected to attract regular home crowds of two and a half to three thousand people per match in a part-time league shouldn’t necessarily require outside investment at present. Fearn, meanwhile may have gone a long way towards dissipating the ill-will that stemmed from his time at the club with such a gesture. It is to be hoped that others join suit. And elsewhere, the Stockport County Supporters Co-operative’s is in the process of applying to have Edgeley Park listed as an ‘asset of community value’, which would mean that, should any current or future owners decide to sell it, supporters would have a six-month spell during which they could halt the sale and offer groups within the community a chance to make a bid for it in order to preserve it.
There are, therefore, people working for Stockport County with the best of intentions, but the best of intentions have a tendency to mean little when the whistle blows at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and the most immediate matter requiring attention is the team, so the pressure on caretaker manager Alan Lord will be great when the team takes to the pitch this weekend. There comes a point, however, at which this slide surely has to stop. Many thought that the one consolation that could be taken from relegation at the end of last season might have been a reasonable chance of seeing a winning Stockport team for once. That hasn’t happened yet, but attendance figures for the two league matches played at Edgeley Park so far this season have indicated that the interest is still there, if only somebody can put a winning team together for once and give supporters something to cheer about for once, rather than to grumble about.
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