As Manchester’s two big football teams jostle for bragging rights in the run up to what could be the most important derby clash in years, another club nearby and with a history almost as long is trying to survive on scraps.
Stockport County have been around for nearly 130 years in one form or another, almost as long as their illustrious ‘rivals’ Manchester City (1880) and United (1878), yet in terms of success their histories couldn’t have been more contrasting.
The fact that County still exist at all is a triumph in itself when you consider the geography it has to contend with, as the town is just seven miles from Manchester and its two more prosperous neighbours; that’s barely half an hour’s drive or 15 minutes on the train.
So just how does a club like Stockport County continue to not only survive, but compete in the shadow of such illustrious neighbours?
The club is trying to arrest an alarming recent decline both on and off the pitch having suffered two relegations in the last three years. They have been through administration and several failed takeovers later find themselves in the lower reaches of the Blue Square Premier Division, or the Conference in old money, and that word, money has such a huge bearing in football these days.
Financially the impact the club’s recent plummet from League One in 2009 to the Conference in 2012 has been huge, due mainly to the stark contrast between the TV revenue between the divisions. In the current agrement League One clubs each receive £900k per season (12%) and League Two clubs £650k (8%). The remaining 80%, a massive £4.7million each goes to Championship sides.
In non-league the pot is even smaller. Live games are broadcast on subscription channel Premier Sports, with home clubs chosen for live games receiving £5,000 and the away team £1,000. County have so far had four live games; three away and one at home giving them just £8,000 so far.
The club have a small but loyal fan-base and whilst inevitably attendances have dropped in the last few years, the average gate is still nearly 3,500 for home matches this season, third best in the division and higher than many League Two sides. The lack of league funding puts increasing pressure on the club to maintain attendances, difficult when the team is struggling on the pitch.
Few appreciate this more than Phil Brennan who has been following County for more than 40 years and is the clubs Media Manager. He has fond memories of George Best turning out for the club (yes it did happen!) though he concedes that success has been ‘more thin than thick’ in his time.
“We are the biggest town in the country without a football league club. If every single football fan who goes to games supported their local football team, we would be the third biggest club in the country,” he said.
While conceding the figures may have changed slightly in recent years, the argument is compelling. Stockport has a population of around 300,000 and when you consider the support for United, and that the biggest portion of Man City’s support is said to be SK based, the potential fan-base is huge.
Yet shouldn’t this also be a good thing, after all how often do we hear about spiralling ticket costs and how families can no longer afford to go to matches together? Wouldn’t some of these fans be happy going to the odd County game once in a while?
While there are some cases of this, it tends to stem from when County used to play home games on Friday nights, meaning fans of the Manchester clubs could usually take in County and their other blues the same weekend, though apparently they upset some of them.
Brennan said: “When we started to beat City regularly in the 90’s / early 2000’s apparently we upset them by rubbing their noses in it, so if you speak to City fans now, the majority don’t like us at all!”
Clearly the recruiment strategy isn’t one of borrowing into fans of other clubs, but instead one of bringing back existing supporters and creating new fans, which means focusing the kids in the area before they get mesmorised by Nani’s tricks or tales of Balotelli’s latest act of generosity.
One of the men tasked with this is the clubs Commercial Manager, Rob Clare. Clare made more than 180 appearances for the club including some of those ‘regular’ derby wins over City. Injury ended his career early and though still just 29, he is determined to help the club get back to better times.
He accepts that the community spirit so prevalent in his playing days may have suffered as a result of the recent troubles, but says the club is keen to restore its image as the ‘family football club’ and has no doubt that getting the players and staff amongst the fans again is crucial.
“Getting back to that family orientated community feel of a football club, getting your players seen in schools, shopping centre’s turning on the Christmas lights. You want to have presence at these things to hammer home the message,” said Clare.
One thing the club has done well in recent times is the number of tickets given away to local schools, but how can they be sure that children who can be notoriously fickle will want to come back, especially if their free game ends in disappointment?
“Once they have been to a few times the chances are they will have the experience of winning, losing or drawing, whatever it may be but they are still getting the real football, the atmosphere, taking home a goody bag-all these things are part of a day – it’s not just a result, we are trying to create an experience,” he said.
“We’ve got a very loyal fan base given the last few seasons we’ve had and you can budget accordingly knowing you’ve got that hard-core of people. We can’t take that for granted, we’ve got to be looking after Season Ticket holders and people who are loyal to us. If we can give them a bit back in the next few seasons that obviously helps, but if nothing else make them feel valued, part of the community.”
This process of giving something back has already started. The club launched their ‘kids a quid’ initiative for their last match with Cambridge, allowing under 16’s to watch professional football for a £1, under sevens for free and adults for just £5. The club were rewarded with a bumper gate of almost 6,000.
In a bolder move still, County have announced a new ‘Mad as a hatter’ season ticket offer for next season. If the club can sell 5,500 season tickets by May 10 then the prices for these will be reduced to just £120 for adults and £60 for under-16’s. This means two adults and two children could watch games for around £15.00 – who says families can no longer afford to go to the football?
Despite all the recent problems there is a growing good feeling about the club. There is a reputable new backer in Spencer Fearn, and Jim Gannon, the fans favourite who guided County to promotion at Wembley in 2008 is back as Manager.
There is a real belief that if County can maintain their Conference Premier status, Gannon could once again build a side that could challenge next season.
For fans of football who are disillusioned with players going on strike mid-season, or demanding transfers just to get even better contracts, you can now afford to get back to a simpler form of the beautiful game.