Interview: Former Stockport County midfielder Tom Bennett recalls club’s magnificent 1996/97 season

By Sam Findell

Whenever things are not going all that great, we are always told to think of better times.

For most Stockport County fans, great memories of the 1996/97 football league season will always bring a smile to their faces.

Promotion to the old First Division – now the Championship – and reaching the League Cup semi-finals earned the relatively unknown team just outside Manchester a place in the hearts of all football fans across the country.

The British love an underdog and County were just that as Dave Jones led his side to famous giant killings against Premier League sides Southampton, West Ham United and former Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers.

Tom Bennett was one of the club’s stars of the season, cementing himself as a fans’ favourite by scoring in both legs of the League Cup second round match against Sheffield United.

Bennett formed a solid midfield partnership with Chris Marsden, now regarded as one of the club’s finest midfield combinations.

He said: “What Dave did was find the weaknesses in the team and find ways to improve it and ultimately they became the main strengths of the squad.

“Players like Paul Jones in goal, who was a great signing for us, Chris Marsden and myself in midfield and Brett Angell up top which gave us a really strong spine,” said the cultured midfielder.

“For me any football team is about the players, but Dave Jones did do a great job that season.”

Bennett made 110 appearances for County, scoring five goals after his £75,000 move from Wolverhampton Wanderers in 1995.

However, over half of his appearances in a County shirt came in this season and he managed to get a few goals along the way.

“There were 67 games in the season, two guys were on 65 and I was next on 62.

“It may have been a long season but by the end of it we didn’t want to stop, we were always playing at a high level of skill which made us all extremely proud.”

County eventually got knocked out of the cup by another Premier League side Middlesbrough 2-1 on aggregate.

Although disappointed by the loss, Bennett believes that looking back on the season and the success they had, maybe losing to Middlesbrough may have been a blessing in disguise.

“We enjoyed getting to the semis, but at the same time we were very conscious of the fact that if we beat Middlesbrough and got to the final we would have had to play four games in the week of the final.

“Which when you’re going for promotion and thinking about long-term future this may not have been the best thing.

“But, it was a great season and you have to hold the coaching staff in high regard, they had let us cut loose and relax, it must have worked.”

The season didn’t get off to a great start for the Hatters, showing relegation form with just ten points from seven games.

The recovery was amazing, but even though many fans may have had little thoughts at the back of their heads believing they could go on and add to their trophy cabinet, Bennett and his team-mates were under no illusions.

“There was never a point we thought we could go on and win the cup simply put. From the second round onwards every game was one we’d go into expecting a loss.

“Beating Sheffield United 5-2 away from home was an incredible score with them being in the division above us.

“Then you get drawn against Blackburn and you just think there is no way we can win this away from home and go on to win 1-0.

“West Ham comes around and you get a 1-1 draw at Upton Park, which is an achievement in itself, and you believe the luck has come to an end.

But Stockport knocked out the Hammers at Edgelely Park, winning 2-1 thanks to a goal from Brett Angell and an own goal from Iain Dowie, which cancelled out Julian Dicks’ opener.

The next round saw another shock for County as they beat Matthew Le Tissier’s Southampton in a replay at the Dell, when Andy Mutch scored the winning goal four minutes from the end to make himself a County hero.

Stockport headed to the Riverside on March 3, 1997, behind after losing the home leg 2-0, but Bennett believed spirits were high in the dressing room.

“We got to the semi-final and had a little bit of belief that we could win even considering the fact they had Ravanelli and Juninho, both internationals, playing for them.”

County right-back Sean Connelly put the away side ahead after six minutes, bringing watching neutral fans across the nation to their feet, hoping to see an amazing turn around.

However, missed chances and failed opportunities cost the minnows dear but Bennett and the other players had every right to feel proud of themselves after 180 minutes of football.

“I still see the 1-0 win at the Riverside as one of the highlights of my career.

“Getting a standing ovation from the whole stadium when coming off was really special to me. It was almost like winning the final.”

One of Bennett’s former team-mates was current County manager Jim Gannon, who is currently in his second spell as manager after leading the club to League Two play-off victory in his first spell with the club.

In a succession of struggles, County have not had anything near the success of 15 years ago after threats of administration, liquidation and relegation all in the space of 12 months.

After Dietmar Hamman’s ill-fated spell as manager which left the club in a relegation dog-fight, the board looked to Gannon to steady the ship, and Bennett believes he has done a great job since taking over.

Bennett said: “It’s great that he’s got the club on a level playing field.

“What Jim has done well and has always done at every team he has managed is be very well organised and has played the game in the right way.

Bennett does not believe fans can rush into thinking promotion is likely next season, despite a good end to the year, saying: “They need to get themselves sorted financially because if you don’t have the money you can’t compete it’s as simple as that.

“They have to be realistic at what level they can afford to be at. Maybe they need a sugar daddy like two certain other teams in Manchester?”

Bennett ignored the traditional routes of a former footballer into management or punditry, but going off instead into rock music and cannot see himself managing.

During an injury-hit season, Bennett teamed up with club physiotherapist Rodger Wylde to form the aptly-named band Fracture.

Although the band did not have success in the mainstream, they reformed in 2006 when Bennett retired and have performed for private bookings ever since.

“I broke my leg at St. Andrews in 1997. I was working with Rodger a lot and I just decided to learn the guitar.

“We came up with a goal and that was to be able to perform by Children in Need that year, which was about seven or eight months away, so we got a band together with friends and supporters and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

“We’re thinking to ourselves we aren’t that good, yeah we like a laugh be we’re not that good.

“Management was never going to happen for me, I have a good job, a home and a family.

“I still play football on a part-time basis, but when people go into coaching it’s normally a year or two after retiring and I retired six years ago.

That County side may not go down in history with the Galactico’s of Real Madrid, the Busby Babes of Manchester United or the Barcelona team of current times. 

However, Marsden, Gannon and Bennett and the rest of the 1996/97 Stockport County squad, will always go down as heroes in the eyes of the fans who have stuck with this small clubs instead of listening to the noisy neighbours.

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