Great Football League Teams 18: Stockport County 1996-7
Stockport County are today in a dark place; facing relegation from the Football League for the first time in over a century and with the whole future of the club potentially in doubt. Here, guest poster Mozzer takes some time off his usual hobby of berating linesmen and opposition supporters (paritcularly if they might once have been Thatcherite sympathisers) alike to recall happier times.
For many County fans the 1996/7 season represents the highest point in their football-watching lives. It wasn’t the highest ever league position — that was achieved the following season with an eighth place finish in the second tier. However it was the one in which the club rose to national prominence through its cup exploits, not least on Premier League grounds, and which found itself promoted back to that second tier for the first time since the 30s, achieving it over an energy-sapping 67 games.
Stockport County had risen from being perennial strugglers through the 70s and 80s, with Danny Bergara taking the club from the 4th Division in 1991 and seeing us to 4 Wembley trips and 3 play-offs. All ended in failure one way or another, but it was a mark of how expectations had changed that the 1995 finish in 11th place was seen as a disappointment. His replacement after an acrimonious departure during that season was his first team coach, Dave Jones. Jones had a different approach to football from his predecessor and we scored fewer goals as a result. However we also appeared more stable and decent performances in cup games against Ipswich, Aston Villa and Everton in 95/6 offered signs that we were maturing as a football team.
The team was built around a solid spine that the manager was not afraid to add to, even if meant upsetting fans. Neil Edwards was an excellent goalkeeper, but in came Paul Jones, who could barely get a game at Wolves. The midfield pairing in situ when he arrived was admired by many at the club, but in came Tom Bennett, also from Wolves, and Chris Marsden, another player struggling to get a game, this time at Notts County. There was already the makings of a decent side that had mostly been cobbled together from reserve and non-league sides, notably the right-back, Sean Connelly, picked up from Hallam FC by Bergara. The ‘big money’ signing was Mike Flynn who had also arrived under the previous manager for £125,000
Hopes were high in the August of 1996 for a play-off challenge, but it would be an understatement to say the league season started slowly. 2 points and one goal in 6 games left County very much at the wrong end of the table and there was talk of Jones being on his last chance. The legend has it that the players and management sat down over a cup of tea and thrashed out a few things that had been bothering them all. The effect was greater than any hot drink has ever had. We won the next game, at home to Plymouth, firing on all cylinders from the first minute and continued in that frame for much of the next four months, losing only two out of the next 20 league games. They both hurt though, one being a 5-2 drubbing at Turf Moor when Paul Barnes bagged all five and the other being a last-minute defeat at Gay Meadow from a cross-shot that defied belief. On the flip-side we hammered then promotion rivals Millwall 5-1 after having previously beaten them 4-3 with a last-minute winner from Alun Armstrong, another Bergara recruit, this time from Newcastle’s reserves.
During that time we had crashed through the rounds of the various cups with some spectacular results along the way. Going through them produces a range of options for ‘Favourite County Moment’. It starts with a 5-2 win at Bramhall Lane in the second round of the Coca-Cola Cup. A 1-0 win at Ewood Park followed in the next round via a Tim Sherwood own goal, that delighted me not only for its own sake but because despite having just about the worst seat in the house in every other respect I had just about the best view of Tim Flowers punching the ball into the back of Sherwood’s head before it dropped into the net in front of us. There were flares and 4000 County fans in Blackburn that night and already there was a sense that this was going to be something that comes along only once in a fan’s lifetime. We steamrollered on, drawing at Upton Park before winning the replay at home thanks in part to a magnificent Iain Dowie own goal that is still remembered fondly. Next up were Southampton who got away from Edgeley Park with a 2-2 draw remembered as much for Mike Flynn’s headed goal-line clearance from a late Le Tissier shot that seemed destined to break County hearts. Instead we went down to The Dell and recovered from a goal down to win it late on with old-timer Andy Mutch gleefully blasting the ball home from a yard out into an empty net.
In the FA Cup we overcame Doncaster and through a foggy trip to Mansfield to beat Stoke in their last ever FA Cup game at the Victoria Ground before going out in the fourth round at Birmingham City in a game notable for the refereeing abilities of Steve Bruce, who was playing centre-half for the home side at the time.
By the time we lost at home to Brentford at the start of February we were a little way behind in the league, affected by the weather and cup exploits. It was around this point that things started to wobble slightly in the league as we drew and lost games we would have won a few weeks previously.
We ploughed on through to the area final of the Auto Windscreens Shield, gaining a modicum of revenge at Turf Moor on the way, winning with what was basically our second string that was reduced to ten men and the aforementioned Neil Edwards saving a penalty in a rare outing. The result was celebrated with rather more vigour than your average 1-0 away win in the 2nd round of that competition. That was followed up with a golden goal win at Bury and victory at Crewe with the winning penalty in the shoot-out scored by Paul Jones to set up the Northern Final with Carlisle. However by that point County fans were seriously starting to wonder whether we wanted to win some of these games. The backlog was starting to increase as the cup games prevented the postponed league games being played. We knew this was the best side we’d seen in a long while and that promotion was a tantalisingly close prospect.
Back in the bigger of the cup competitions we were still fighting for we’d played Middlesbrough at Edgeley Park in the semi-final first leg and despite a decent battling performance had lost 2-0. The mood wasn’t helped by the fact that it was refereed by one David Elleray, a man well known to County fans for sending off two of our players in a play-off final against Burnley 3 seasons previously. The second of their goals resulted from what many perceived to be a foul on Mike Flynn and the reaction from the stands was predictably vociferous.
We headed off up to the Riverside to celebrate the end of what was a historic cup run. No County team had ever progressed this far and we’d done it by beating top level teams, at times on their own patch. Boro clearly thought it was a done deal as well, judging by the sales of Wembley T-shirts before the game kicked off. But in this most wonderful of seasons it wasn’t quite as straightforward as any of us expected. Only 6 minutes had passed when that right-back from Hallam, Sean Connelly, hooked in his first goal for the club after over 100 games. The away end exploded as three and a half sides of the ground fell silent, perhaps unable to understand just why this annoying team from two divisions below wouldn’t do the decent thing and just roll over.
The game swung one way then the other, with neither side able to add another goal. Then came the defining moment. Luis Cavaco, a winger signed from Portugal who was lovely to watch and who scored a wonderful equaliser at Upton Park, was put through in the area. One-on-one with Mark Schwarzer in front of the away end, the game seemed to stop for a second. The County waiting to erupt again. The home fans, no doubt, with their hearts in their mouths. Luis tried to lift the ball over the onrushing keeper, but Schwarzer had done enough and he blocked it. In an instant we all knew that was that. There was still 20minutes or so left but football fans sometimes just know, don’t they? It finished 1-0 on the night — another victory on a Premier League ground — but it wasn’t enough to save the tie. The County fans roared their appreciation at the efforts of their team that had started the competition back in August with a couple of 2-1 wins over Chesterfield.
It was almost back to the concentrating on the league but the following week saw us go to Carlisle for the first leg of that Northern Final where a distinctly below-par performance saw us lose 2-0 and also lose influential midfielder Chris Marsden with a red card. We got luckier at Notts County on the Saturday where an own goal in injury time secured a thoroughly undeserved win before the return game against Carlisle. The away fans came down in their thousands, catching the local plod on the hop. The impressive turnout backed their team to a goalless draw and we were finally out of all the cup competitions. In truth I suspect it came as a relief to the management at the club. We were still 3 or 4 games behind most of our promotion rivals and although we were 6th at the start of April we were also 6 points off the automatic spots with 11 games to play.
We won a couple at home and drew a couple away before a huge game at home to Burnley. Huge for all sorts of reasons: It was Burnley, at the time easily our biggest rivals. They were challenging for a play-off spot. It was the start of a run of 4 games in eight days as we struggled to play catch-up. In the event we won 1-0 with a late goal scored by substitute and veteran Andy Mutch, much to the disgust of the away contingent and the delight of the home fans who could not disguise their glee at putting a nail in the Burnley play-off coffin. Fewer goals than at Turf Moor in the league, but this was full revenge all the same.
We followed that up with a Monday night win against a decent Watford side in a match notable for two incidents. Firstly, there was a wonder save from Paul Jones as he clawed away a header that looked certain to be heading for the top corner — one of the best saves seen at Edgeley Park before or since. Secondly, and far more distressingly, was the sight of Luis Cavaco being stretchered off after an innocuous looking challenge. It was a broken leg and it effectively ended his career with the club, never getting a proper look-in under the new manager the following season. A desperately sad end for a talented player who lit up Edgeley Park in his short time with us and who is still well regarded by the County fans.
We then went to Gillingham and lost on the Wednesday night and followed that up with yet another single goal defeat at Preston on the Saturday. After Watford we’d looked set fair. After Preston it was all back in the balance. The general feeling was that the lethargic performances away from home that week indicated that the excesses of the season had finally caught up with us. 63 games gone and 4 to go it looked like we might end up with nothing.
That feeling only grew as the normally reliable Tom Bennett gifted York a goal in yet another rearranged game. However we needn’t have worried, with Bennett himself scoring the equaliser and then helping to set up the winner for Brett Angell — a man with County previous who had returned to score the goals to deservedly reflect our all-round play. We followed that up with a nervy 2-1 home win over a Wycombe team that fought for a point they ultimately didn’t need to stay up anyway.
We had two games to go, both away from home. Chesterfield were first up on the Monday night, as they tried to deal with their own backlog of games caused by their own magnificent cup run. In their case it was the FA Cup providing the route to a semi-final defeat by Middlesbrough overseen by a dodgy referee going by the name of David Elleray! Luton were the opponents in the final game. It was now fairly simple stuff. If we won on the Monday we’d be promoted. If we didn’t, it would go down to the final game where we’d need to avoid defeat at Kenilworth Road to prevent Luton themselves from overtaking us.
At a wet Chesterfield the away fans packed the terrace and our section of that characterful old main stand. We started well and scored early, Brett Angell heading in at the far post from a quick break which exemplified our neat, passing style. After that, however, things became rather more fraught with goal-line clearances and excellent saves required by our back-line to keep them at bay. The nervousness transferred from away end to the pitch and back again as we headed into added time. Seven minutes later they were still playing and County fans’ nerves had become shredded. Finally, finally the whistle blew and there was a roar from the rain-sodden masses that was more relief than joy at that point. The players celebrated in front of us and we bounced up and down like fools as the realisation of what we’d just witnessed started to sink in.
We went to Luton still in with a shout of the winning the league, but in truth most County fans I spoke to were none too bothered by that. After all the season’s exertions Saturday was a day of celebration and the main aim of promotion had been achieved. It was indeed a celebration in the away section, which did not please locals who perhaps a week previously thought they might pip us to that second promotion spot. We took the lead but were pegged back and in truth without the excellence of Paul Jones we would probably have lost.
No matter. That was a detail that paled against the season overall. Promotion to the second tier. A major cup semi-final for the first and only time in our history. The fourth round of the FA Cup. The Northern Final of the Autowindscreens Shield. Wins on Premier League grounds. 67 games. It was a stunning, and in some ways gargantuan, achievement from a team that always tried to play football that was at least a league above its own position, and more often than not achieved it. Many of that team went on to ‘bigger’ clubs, including our manager Dave Jones. Others remained, like Mike Flynn and Sean Connelly, and merely enhanced their reputations amongst the County fans. It is the lot of the lower league fan to see their best teams broken up and their successful managers seduced by teams with greater resources. We merely have to enjoy those times when things come together.
There were, however, some great days yet to come, including victories over Manchester City, Wolves and the like, as well as somehow sticking around at that level for 5 years. Things got more difficult year on year though and when we finally dropped back down we were truly awful (though still managed a famous victory over a Man City side on a rapid ascent to the top division) and the decline off the pitch was getting well under way. However, with so many great memories in one season, with a team that the fans felt great warmth towards and which was a pleasure to watch, 96/7 remains, for me, the pick of the crop. And I was there for every single game of it. Shall we ever see the like again? Almost certainly not. For those who were there this is the season to be cherished above all others.