Apart, together, apart: The recent past of Norwich City and Stockport County
We all develop a soft spot for other clubs at some point during our football supporting lives. Norwich City supporter Matt Wallace gradually found himself drawn to Stockport County and their current struggle for survival, both on and off the pitch, therefore has an unlikely ally in deepest Norfolk. A superb bit of writing. Enjoy.
I first saw a Stockport County game when they were languishing in the basement of League Two. I was out of my comfort zone: a Norwich fan transplanted into the North West, away from the capacity crowds of Championship mediocrity. What I found was a club on its knees under the stewardship of Chris Turner, playing at a ground they no longer owned in front of a dedicated, young but let down fanbase.
But for one brief season, as my club fell and County rose, we played in the same division, equals on the pitch, but a world apart off it. Now, six years after I first went to Edgeley Park, the cycle has completed, with County again sitting in the doldrums of League Two. Their heartbreaking fall is a lesson in football’s glass ceiling.
Stockport County have always been a memorable club for Norwich fans. It was against the Hatters in 2002 that Norwich sealed a place in the play-offs, while Stockport were relegated. The Stockport fans were given free transport that day, a gesture from the board to thank them for their support in what had been a bad season, and the fans came in numbers. A memorable image from that day is of the County fans, 2-0 down, forming a mass conga in the away end and dancing away. It is these same, indomitable fans that I sat amongst just a few years later.
While every club lays claim to its fans being the best, Stockport had reason. For season after season, they suffered mismanagement at board level and on the pitch, relegation, the sale of the ground to Sale Sharks and a general malaise that had the club propping up the football league. The fans still took to the team with a passion, travelling away in numbers and even taking over the club after Cheshire Sports asset-stripped and left them with debts. Six months later, Turner was gone and the club was adrift at the bottom.
The turnaround came with talented loudmouth Jim Gannon. Originally appointed as a caretaker, he soon made the job his own and led County to safety while playing a brand of football unusual for League Two. Gannon’s eye for talent shone through as out went journeymen and duffers like Matthew Hamshaw and Harpal Singh and in came Jamie Ward, Jermaine Easter and Wayne Hennessey. The current Wolves number one was in goal for Stockport’s entire record-setting streak of nine consecutive wins without conceding and, just a season after flirting with relegation, Stockport narrowly missed out on the play-offs due to goal difference.
Gannon gave the club its confidence back. A legend at Stockport as a player, he proved himself equally talented as a manager. Gannon brought in loans and permanent deals that improved the team rather than making up numbers, while at the heart were some youth players who played with hunger: Ashley Williams, Anthony Pilkington and Michael Raynes to name just three. After just two full seasons at the helm, Gannon led the team out at Wembley where I, and thousands of others, watched a thrilling 3-2 win cement Stockport’s place in League One.
The upturn seemed to hinge on two factors: a genuinely talented manager and a board that was prepared to back him. The following season, however, things began to turn. After County took to League One well, the board started going above Gannon’s head and started a fire-sale of players in order to service debt. This debt, which was unknown to Stockport’s fans and manager, had grown unmanageable. Less than a year after winning promotion, Stockport were placed in administration. As a result, Jim Gannon and his entire backroom team were made redundant.
What was most surprising about the whole scenario was the sheer speed at which the County dream unravelled. Having been promoted with a talented squad, Stockport had begun life in League One with few additions. The players who did so well in League Two were also performing in League One. It is hard to know exactly where the problems began – whether it was complications owing to no longer owning their own stadium, whether Gannon had spent too much on players or wages, or whether the board was simply incompetent in its oversight. Once the rot set in, the decline was swift.
The rot had also set in for my own club, Norwich. After a succession of bad managers and a board who threw money at expensive loan signings, Norwich also turned to a club legend for rescue. In stepped Bryan Gunn, and relegation quickly followed. In a model quickly imitated by Newcastle, a legend with no managerial experience tried, and failed, to keep the club alive. It was a decline that certainly didn’t start with Gunn, but he made it worse. The following season, Norwich and Stockport were on a level playing field.
Both teams began the 2009/2010 campaign at a low ebb. Norwich kept Gunn as manager and were mauled 7-1 on the opening day of the season by Colchester United. Stockport started it still in administration, under the guidance of Gary Ablett. From here, their stories split. Norwich had the luxury of continuing to sell out a 25,000 seater stadium and were backed by some reasonably big guns at boardroom level. Despite incurring large debts, their turnover was enough to put out any fires and, with Lambert taking over, the resurgence began.
Stockport had no such luxury. A club in an already congested North West, they rarely sold out their 10,000 seater ground and had no sugar daddy to come in and save them. The glass ceiling had been struck. Stockport had no rich owner to propel them up the leagues like Wigan or Fulham and, with regular attendances of 6,000, their dedicated and loyal fanbase couldn’t provide the income needed to sustain a push to a higher level. Ablett had his hands tied. Administration went on for months and a promised rescue by the Melrose consortium never materialised. While Norwich ran away with League One, Stockport propped it up.
This season, we are back at the start. Stockport lie towards the bottom of League Two, though now in the hands of the 2015 Group who finally brought the club out of administration in June 2010. Ablett has been and gone, as has Paul Simpson, but with no plug to stop the leaky defence, the Hatters face the prospect of relegation as clearly as they did under Turner six years ago. And Norwich, after one year as Stockport’s equal, are pushing on for higher ground.
The story of Stockport is one of heartbreak for the fans. Daring to dream, the Supporters Trust left the club in the same situation that Cheshire Sports did, and other owners before them. For a club like Stockport (and many other League Two mainstays), daring to dream is daring to put your club out of business.
Unless you can keep the talented manager who can reasonably aim for promotion and put every penny the club has to good use, it is a risk too far. And the footballing masochists who still turn up and pay £20 every fortnight to support a club that is incompetently run deserve more than an institutionalised cap on aspiration.