Why Stockport County fans should not lose hope

It’s been a busy few weeks for the national football media, as it always this at this time of the year.

It’s been a busy few weeks for the national football media, as it always this at this time of the year.

The Premier League was won April 22, while the battle for the remaining top four spots and to avoid the bottom three went on. But one issue not heavily covered by the national media is arguably as big a story as many and that is the fate that has befallen Stockport County.

On the weekend that Luis Suarez was gnawing on Branoslav Ivanovic, Manchester United were sealing their 20th league title after Tottenham had beaten Manchester City and the Premier League relegation battle was continuing, a little lower down Port Vale and Bournemouth were winning promotion. These were two great stories of clubs whose fans have had to endure tough times in recent years.  At the same time, a club just south of Manchester was relegated for the third time in four seasons.

Stockport’s 4-0 final day defeat at Kidderminster was covered in the media for the off-field violence which caused the game to be delayed by thirty minutes, with Kidderminster’s Lee Vaughan on the receiving end of a fan’s punch.

Big club
But the result on the day will have affected a significant number of people, more so, perhaps, than the violence which was more publicised. County are by no means Manchester’s biggest club, of course, with the presence of the behemoths that are United and City.  But some would claim that they are bigger than the vast majority of Greater Manchester’s other professional clubs such as Bury, Rochdale and Oldham.  An attendance of 6,113 (higher than the majority of League One clubs’ average) against part-timers Dartford when fighting at the foot of the Conference table a couple of weeks ago would support that view.  However, those claims will not look particularly credible when they start 2013/14 in the Conference North, the first time they will play their football in a regional division.

Things have gone wrong for a number of lower league clubs in the past few years.  Fans of smaller clubs will have stories of hardship to tell regarding what their club has gone through and what they have gone through as fans.  But few stories will be as bleak as the stories of Hatters fans, despite those stories beginning with promotion just five years ago.

It was 26th May 2009 that legendary manager and former player Jim Gannon guided his side to League One, with a thrilling 3-2 win over Rochdale in the Wembley play-off final.

However, that was the pinnacle for County fans in recent years. Things soon started to fall apart.

Many fans point to the club losing ownership of the Edgeley Park ground in 2002 as the start of the problems. That is true, but County have had good times since then.  A number of notable players have been on County’s books in the not too distant past, including Southampton’s Rickie Lambert, Reading’s Adam Le Fondre, Swansea’s Ashley Williams and Norwich’s Anthony Pilkington.  Some of those were a part of County’s Football League record run of a remarkable nine straight wins without conceding a goal.

Managerial revolving door
However, in April 2009, the club went into administration, with one creditor owed £300,000 and Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs owed £250,000. The club suffered successive relegations and had a whole host of different managers after the departure of Jim Gannon to Motherwell in 2009.  Gary Ablett, Paul Simpson, Peter Ward and Ray Matthias all tried but failed to halt the on-pitch slide and the club ended up in the Conference. 

At the time, the end of their 106 year stay in the Football League was not at the top of fans’ lists of concerns, however. One friend, who’s a County fan, said to me that he was just happy to still have a club to support at the time.

But maybe the decline continuing was not contemplated. Unfortunately, it did get worse. Matthias was replaced by former Liverpool midfielder Dietmar Hamann before a poor run of form saw Jim Gannon return as manager. However, Gannon was unable to lift the club out of the lower reaches of the Conference and, in January, with an end of season relegation battle looking certain, Gannon was dismissed. 

The club, now controlled by Lord Snape after continuous boardroom upheaval, opted for an unconventional managerial appointment to replace Gannon, bringing in unknown Swiss-born Bosnian Darije Kalezic. It was a gamble that didn’t work and he lasted less than two months before Iain Bogie was appointed. Bogie’s arrival, however, was too late to halt County’s slide and the defeat on Saturday at high-flying Kidderminster saw them relegated to the Conference North, where they will play the likes of Bradford Park Avenue, Gainsborough Trinity and Vauxhall Motors next season.

The scale of the decline makes grim reading for any football fan, but football goes in cycles.  What County have, that not all clubs do, is a strong and loyal support, despite it attracting headlines for the wrong reasons lately. And, despite the monumental fall, the club is still in existence.

Fortunes are not going to turn out of nowhere, but County can look at the promotions of Bournemouth and Port Vale (two clubs who have been on the brink of near-fatal collapse in recent years) at the weekend, while they were sinking into regional football.  Though it might not seem it now, and nothing can guarantee it, there is a possibility that the long-term future might just have some brightness in it for Stockport County.

What do you think of Stockport County’s performance? Have your say in the comments section below, on Facebook or on Twitter.