The supporters of Stockport County are punch drunk.
Those with longer memories will remember Stockport as a Championship outfit. Beating Manchester City became a regular (and very enjoyable) experience. But County’s remarkable fall from grace over the last decade is so drastic that perhaps only Portsmouth have experienced the same.
A full account of the last 10 years would require a book, so I start two years ago in 2011/12. Having only exited a damaging period of administration 12 months previously, County had just endured their second successive relegation – culminating in non-league football for the first time in living memory.
Despite the goings-on of the previous few years (which I won’t bore you with), the summer of 2011 was one of excitement. A potential new takeover saw the appointment of Champions League winner Didi Hamann as manager and a handsome budget to help guide the club back into the Football League at the first attempt.
That utopian dream failed to materialise. Fourth months in, the Hatters were languishing in 17th place and looking a good bet for a third successive relegation. The squad was spineless, and having lost the support of the majority of fans, Hamann departed after just 19 games.
In his place came Jim Gannon, returning for a second stint as gaffer. Gannon was a loyal lieutenant who spent 10 years in Cheshire as a player during the club’s 1990s heyday. He then returned as manager in 2006, going on to save the club from certain relegation that year, breaking Football League records in 2007 and delivering promotion at Wembley in 2008. However, the exciting journey which the Irishman had started was cut short in 2009 as County slid into administration and he was made redundant.
Inheriting an appalling squad and a wage bill which needed to be slashed urgently, the task on Gannon’s hand in late 2011 was huge. Nevertheless, Gannon pulled off a ‘Great Escape’ again, saving the club from relegation with room to spare. A sensational run of form at the end of the season meant that County finished well clear of the drop zone.
And so we came to last year; the electric buzz of pre-season returned. Gannon began to assemble a side of young players on a shoestring budget. His policy of developing youth has a history of paying off at County; Premier League stars such as Adam Le Fondre, John Ruddy, Anthony Pilkington and Ashley Williams all came through the ranks during Gannon’s first spell in the hot seat.
Two games into last season, County were top of the league and the future looked bright. However, the club’s inability to compete financially meant that the thin squad found itself under pressure. As is often the case with young sides, form dipped and the team struggled to find their feet. Meanwhile, for various reasons, an increasingly fractious relationship began to develop between the supporters and the Club’s board.
With results going awry, chairman Lord Snape launched an astonishing attack upon Gannon and his team live on the radio shortly before Christmas, after which it became clear that the writing was on the wall for the manager. Three weeks later, on the same day that the club appointed a new Chief Executive, Gannon was unceremoniously axed to the anger of large sections of the fanbase.
Gannon’s replacement was met with disbelief as a huge gamble was taken to appoint unknown Bosnian, Darije Kalezic during a relegation battle. Predictably, that particular marriage didn’t work out and the divorce came just eight weeks later.
Ian Bogie was drafted in to save the day, but it was too little, too late. With three games remaining, the team lost a crucial match amid furious cries of ‘Sack the Board’ from the home fans, before relegation was confirmed with a 4-0 defeat at Kidderminster Harriers.
A season that promised so much ended with the sacking of a club legend, the breakdown in relations between club and fans, and Stockport County’s third relegation in four years – to the sixth tier of English football.
I don’t look forward to next season. Talk of promotion and winning titles is meaningless, because we’ve heard it all before. You don’t support a club like Stockport if you’ve got an aversion to losing matches. There’s something brilliant about supporting a smaller club and becoming immersed in its rich culture. But there comes a point where, after years of unparalleled decline, it becomes a chore. I know County fans of 50 years’ service who say that things have never been as bad.
This latest relegation meant the club has been forced to go part-time. Professional football in Stockport, one of this country’s largest towns, is over for the first time since 1905. Staff have lost their jobs, there aren’t eleven players on the books and the club and battle-hardened supporters remain locked in civil war.
The only saving grace is that in Ian Bogie and Gannon’s former assistant, Alan Lord, Stockport once again have a very good management team; if anyone can lead the club back up the league ladder then they can. But without the available funds to go out and buy players, the future is uncertain to say the least. Some have even suggested that we should start with a clean slate. But after 130 years of history, that would be a crying shame.
Modern football is all about greed, money and Sky Sports. It’s so far removed from the enjoyment of the spectator and the general experience that it once was. Everything revolves around money, or rather the lack of it. Even in my lifetime, the ‘beautiful game’ has become unrecognisable. In my eyes it isn’t so beautiful any more.
Because that money and sickly, incessant hype is exactly what is killing clubs like mine off.