Apart, together, apart: The recent past of Norwich City and Stockport County

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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.

The Seventy Two
The Seventy Two published an outstanding series of articles about the Football League between 2010-12 and was the brainchild of Leicester City fan, David Bevan. As well as collaborating with The Two Unfortunates on the Football League Blog Network and a mammoth 2011-12 season preview, the site featured a host of leading bloggers and David was rewarded with a nomination in the 2011 Football Supporters’ Federation awards. Latterly, he was joined as co-editor by Joe Harrison and TTU is happy to present this archive of the site’s output.

6 Comments

  1. Samuel Marsden
    January 24, 2011

    Good article.

    I’ve been to Stockport twice this season, on those two visits they have leaked nine goals. The first visit was when they lost 5-0 to bottom of the, then, bottom of the table Hereford. Paul Simpson was still in charge, and although not happy, the fans were not as pessimistic as the ones I spoke to on Saturday.

    It wasn’t just losing 4-3 to Lincoln which had the fans certain of relegation either. Before the game, despite some relative optimism for at least a point, many supporters had decided the Football League was slipping away from them. They blamed the board, Sale Sharks and the players. They suggested Peter Ward, the current caretaker, is not committing and some hinted he is waiting for Gannon to take him to Port Vale in some capacity. If that is the case I hope he goes, and they get someone in who is committed to keeping Stockport in the League.Time and money certainly aren’t on their side though.

    Reply
    • theseventytwo
      January 24, 2011

      Was that for Winkball (that’s what it’s called, right? haha) again? I bet covering that was a real contrast with the Man City-Leicester game.

      Reply
      • Samuel Marsden
        January 25, 2011

        That’s right, with Winkball! It is a real contrast, but I really enjoy talking to the fans of the League clubs like County, Bury, Rochdale and Oldham. It’s great to learn more about them, and most of the fans are really loyal and have good opinions.

        Reply
  2. Charlie, Stockport
    January 24, 2011

    Hello, just want to say as a County fan that this was a great read, and I too have a soft spot for Norwich after that day in 2002. One thing to point out is that we were also celebrating the fact you’d taken Burnley’s place in the final playoff spot!

    Just to clear up a couple more things as well if I can. In 07/08, our promotion season, wages certainly weren’t the problem – we had one of the smallest budgets in the division, which made Gannon’s achievement even more impressive. One of the financial problems was tax that had been owned since previous ownerships.

    The other problem was there was a loan taken out in the summer of 2008 (after promotion, it’s important to note). Not a bank loan, but £300k from a company called David Farms Ltd – who were given debenture over the club’s bank account, a suicidal decision. There were also problems such as some sponsorship monies being counted twice, leaving a gap in the budget. There’s plenty more to it, but it’d take a long time to explain and I wouldn’t want to upset anyone!

    Things such as previous ownership, not owning the ground are indirect causes of the club’s current problems, but as shown 2005-2008 could be coped with. There’s no one thing that is to blame, in fact, but the decision by administrators to get rid of the coaching staff in 2009 was all but lethal.

    Reply
    • theseventytwo
      January 24, 2011

      Cheers for the comment Charlie, I’ll make sure Matt sees it.

      I enjoyed my only visit to Stockport (so far), too, with Leicester a couple of years ago. The County fans up the other end were probably the best home supporters in terms of noise (per person, anyway!) all season and left an impression to this day.

      I hope everything works out. It’s never nice for anyone to drop out of the league but it seems like it would be an especially harsh kick in the teeth for Stockport. And that’s even before you start wondering whether they would survive a relegation like that.

      All the best.

      Reply
  3. Matt
    January 24, 2011

    Hello guys,

    I had come across David Farms Ltd before – as you say, a truly terrible decision that combined with other dreadful decisions. I do know some County fans are hopeful of a return, at some point, for Gannon – are you hopeful of this, perhaps if you do survive this year? I know he’s unwilling to relocate from the North West so his prospects at other jobs are a little limited if he keeps to that.

    Matt

    Reply

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