There is a light that never goes out…

A fan’s perspective on Stockport County’s rapid decline through the football league to their current position in the conference north. Covering the past eight years. Written by Chris Crook. 

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Stockport County Football Club, formed in 1883 and nicknamed “The Hatters” have had a rollercoaster ride in recent years and instability on and off the field led to a subject that is still a taboo at Edgeley Park, administration, at the end of the 08/09 season.

Currently playing in the National League North, County are often described as the “Non-league giants” of the division, with a stadium capacity of 10,841 and the largest fan base in the division, you can see why. The ex-championship side has enjoyed a succession of successful years in the past, beating big named sides as well as winning silverware. However, the misery of administration has overshadowed Stockport County’s decorated past.

In 2008, Stockport were promoted from League Two, beating local rivals Rochdale 3-2 in the play-offs at Wembley, their first ever at the country’s national stadium. This was quite rightly a fantastic day in County’s 125 year history and the 19,000 County fans that made the trip to London were ecstatic.

However, financially, the Hatters weren’t equipped to deal with promotion and despite a major increase in the club’s average attendance. Their joy at winning promotion was soon to turn into doom and gloom and in April 2009, just ten months after The Hatters were promoted into League One, the club had no other option than to file for administration. Key players were sold and Jim Gannon was made redundant by the ruthless administrators appointed at overseeing the sale of the club. The instability and turmoil that the club was experiencing took its toll. County experienced back to back relegations and in 2011, fell out of the Football League for the first time in 109 years. A brief respite in the turmoil saw Jim Gannon (back for his second spell at the club) steer County clear of relegation but less than a year later, Gannon was unceremoniously dumped by the new CEO, Ryan McKnight, and County were relegated after falling into the bottom 4 towards the end of the season.

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This week I spoke to Stockport County director and long-time supporter Jon Keighren, asking for his thoughts on administration as well as the future of the club. “It came out of the blue and very few people were privy to the fact that everything was collapsing behind the scenes.  It was fuelled by a web of lies and deceit, and that’s what hurts me as a County fan more than anything. I don’t blame the Supporters’ Trust, they were well-meaning and dedicated in their efforts, but they were also naive and gave too many delegated powers to people who should never have been allowed in the building.” Jon also added – “The consequences on the field were inevitable – fair play to the succession of managers who tried to pick up the pieces, not least the incredible Gary Ablett, but a massive decline in our league position was the obvious outcome.  But off the field is where the pain was worse – some of the club’s suppliers went to the wall as they were left with massive unpaid bills.  Lots of small, local businesses had their fingers burned, and it has made the job of our Commercial Managers all that much harder in subsequent years.  Simon Dawson is working incredibly hard to rebuild those bridges, but in many cases, he is having to apologise for the sins of people who have fled the scene.

But we have achieved a great deal in the last two years in terms of bringing stability off the pitch, bringing good people in to assist with the operation of the club, bringing additional revenue into the club, bringing a string of former sponsors back into Edgeley Park and most importantly rebuilding relationships with fans, partners and the wider community”.

So, eight years on- after three relegations, eight managers and a massive debt to pay off, where do County currently stand and what is the ambition for the club moving forward?  

This season, County are currently sitting comfortably in mid table, however, the hot question of ‘Will County make the Play-offs this season’ rings around Edgeley Park every Saturday, a welcomed question in my opinion. In previous years, we’d be dead and buried by Christmas and the thought of ‘will we stay up this season’ seemed to become a repetitive theme. However, I believe that things are on the up at County, for now.

This week, I caught up with Stockport County Captain Mark Ross, I asked him some questions regarding the fans, play-offs and his favourite moments at the club so far, he told me “The County fans are seriously on a different level, in the first two games, I remember being taken back by the sheer sound of them, Once when Gary Stopforth scored in the 94th minute and the next game against Stalybridge Celtic away, we went top of the league that night, the crowd took over, they made a massive impact, all the new players that signed, nobody could believe it.”

After talking to Mark about the word on County fans lips this season (Promotion) he told me “Since I joined in the summer I have had no doubts that we will end in a play-off position come the end of the season”.  He added “My summary of the season so far is a great one, in my opinion, teams are only beating us through our own mistakes which will stop, and in my opinion we are a team that can beat anyone in the league and this season we still haven’t played at the level we know we can play at.”

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More of this by 2019? Let’s hope so! 

I also asked Jon Keighren if he thought the Hatters will get promoted this season- Jon said “This is probably a question for the manager, rather than me, but if you want my opinion I think we’re nicely placed going into the Christmas period, just a few points off the Play Offs, and in the hands of a very experienced manager. Past history tells you that Jim’s teams tend to improve in the second half of the season, as they begin to gel and take on board his coaching expertise.  So, the short answer to your question is, Yes.”

On and off the pitch things seem to be looking up, as many County fans will know, the five-year plan ‘moving forward’ is in place and more recently Manager Jim Gannon signed a contract to last until 2019. The intention to get County back on the map and back into the Football League is apparent, as the hard work continues behind the scenes as well as on the pitch.  Jon added further in our discussions earlier this week – “There is still much to do to achieve our headline ambitions, which include returning County to the Football League, as well as measures to make the business stable and sustainable, whilst regaining ownership of Edgeley Park, but we are moving through Year Two in a healthy position.

We’ve seen a huge reduction in debt, a transfer in ownership of our stadium and the return of a County legend to manage the team.  We are hoping to end this season in profit – remember, in 2012 the club made a loss of £800,000, so that shows you how much has been achieved in a relatively short period.

In football terms, we’re improving all the time, particularly over the last twelve months since Jim Gannon returned. We are also overhauling our youth development under the guidance of veteran coach Alan Lord, the best in the business.”

The club’s intentions may be ambitious but the hope and dreams of Football League success still remains. Only time will tell for County, however, the incredible support and passion from the County faithful remains a highlight and always will do, the club will look to get back to where they belong after the toughest eight years that the club will ever face but County fans can be confident when they say, there is a light that never goes out.

Mark RossWe have a lot more to give, I’m looking forward to the second half of the campaign to show this.

Jon KeighrenMy colleague Steve Bellis likes to use the analogy of a massive ship sailing in the wrong direction – it takes time to turn it around, but we will get there.

Animo Et Fide

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