Non-League Football – Is it all doom and gloom for Stockport County?

By James Chetwood

League Champions, FA Cup Winners, Champions League finalists – it’s fair to say the sun is shining on both sides of the city as Manchester enjoys the best that football has to offer.

But journey a few miles south down the A6 and a black cloud hangs over Edgeley Park, home to Stockport County Football Club.

As I arrive, rain hammers down on the terraces and rubbish swirls around the empty streets surrounding the ground creating the perfect metaphorical backdrop for the club’s recent fortunes.

As I look up at the dreary exterior of the Main Stand, flashbacks of Division One football and memorable League Cup upsets fade away into a stark reality that next season, the Hatters will be plying their trade in the Blue Square Premier League.

It is the first time in 106 years that County will compete outside of the Football League having come bottom of League Two last season.

Whilst the Blue and Red factions of the city have been experiencing a boom in success with multiple trophies and billionaire investment, it is easy to forget about our local teams.

Situated just over 10km from both Manchester’s footballing powers, the Hatters have always struggled for support but it is not all that long ago that Stockport sat a division above their neighbours, City.

However, while City started to rise up through the ranks, County began to move in the wrong direction, culminating in two successive relegations to leave them in the unchartered territory of non-league (and, disturbingly, death threats to former board member, Mary Gibbons).

So how will Stockport deal with their new surroundings in the Conference?

The club lost their league status on the back of a long and arduous financial crisis. Despite winning promotion to League One via the playoffs in 2008, just one year on the club was placed into administration, where they spent the whole 09/10 season, being relegated in the process.

Despite a takeover from the 2015 Group, led by Dave Schofield, in June 2010, the club could not prevent a further fall and there are still some worrying financial issues hanging over the club.

County share their Edgeley Park stadium with Premiership rugby side Sale Sharks, whose parent company, Cheshire Sports, own the ground. The result means they make very little revenue from the ground as all profits, including conferencing and banqueting, go to Cheshire Sports.

Despite this though, there are actually many positives to take from the situation.  

The club looks to be stabilising with the appointment of Liverpool and Germany legend Dietmar Hamann as manager and rumours of significant investment from new director Tony Evans.

Evans, heading the board while his consortium look to secure a majority stake in the club, said: “While there can be no doubt that Stockport County is in a challenging position, I’m confident that with strong management and the fans’ support the club can achieve great things.

“I’m excited about having the opportunity to use my experience to drive the club forward both on and off the pitch,” he added.

Meanwhile, Hamann, a Champions League winner and World Cup Finalist, was expected to launch his managerial career at a higher level having worked under Sven Goran Eriksson at Leicester City.

The 37-year-old said: “You’ve got to start off somewhere when you go into management.

“I’ve been with Sven Goran Eriksson who has been very helpful and supportive over the last few months. I had a chat with him last week when I heard of the interest of the investors and Stockport.

“I had to come to a decision over the last few days and I came to the conclusion that it’s a big club in its own right, it’s the first time in 106 years I think that it’s dropped out of the Football League.

“It’s a big challenge but if you’re not up for a challenge in football then you won’t reach the heights you want to.”

Hamann finds himself with a mammoth task of rebuilding a team which was left with only eight contracted players as he takes the helm, something he is well aware of.

“The hard work starts now,” he said.

“We’ll try to acquire players over the next few days. Training and preparation for the first game will start from now. We’ll be working with the players who are on the books and hopefully we can add a few more over the coming days,” he added.

One of those players is 21-year-old midfielder, Matty Mainwaring. He was one of the few players who remained at the club after relegation in May.

He said: “I’m really looking forward to playing for Didi, he played the same position as me and he’s played at the highest level so I can learn a lot from him.”

He added: “It’s vital for us to secure a return to the Football League. The fans deserve better than what we have given them over the last few years. I think it is realistic, we are building a very strong squad.”

The club should see this now as a real opportunity to reorganise and regain some pride by putting in the work and getting results.

“I’m looking forward to possibility of being in a promotion push and playing at Wembley and getting back to winning ways,” said Mainwaring.

They will arrive in the Conference as one of the bigger clubs, with a reputation to boot and should expect to finally string together some wins, something which should in turn help to boost morale of both players and fans alike.

Talking of the fans, the club has always retained a loyal following despite the hardships and the availability of Champions League football, now from two camps just a short drive or train journey away.

Evidence show this looks set to continue as the club announced they had secured the sale of 1500 season tickets by mid-June.

Many fans talk fondly of the time their clubs have spent in non-league football so it will be up to Hatters devotees to make the most of pastures new.

Make no mistake, though, things will be tough. Only Carlisle and Shrewsbury have bounced back up at the first attempt since the introduction of a second relegation spot in League Two.

Only a handful of others have managed it at all, while some, like Scarborough fell into the abyss as they were wound up in 2007, something Hamann will be keen to avoid.

He said: “I’ll do everything in my power to bring the club back into the Football League and make the club successful.”

It appears life in the Conference will be what the Hatters make of it and I, for one, wish them every success.

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