Problems for Paul
If Peterborough United were The Apprentice of 2009-10, Stockport County are surely somewhere closer to Coronation Street. An ever-changing cast, regular instances of backbiting and intrigue, and unwelcome strangers from outside taking possession of the family home, supporting Stockport County is gripping, frustrating but certainly never dull. Today’s appointment of Paul Simpson as manager is just another twist in a story that, over the past decade, has seen four different owners and seven full-time managers (in addition to numerous caretakers), three relegations, one promotion, the loss of ownership of Edgeley Park and administration. Wembley winners just two years ago, the wheels have come off in dramatic fashion since. 2009-10 was a particularly disastrous year both on and off the pitch, with the club spending the entire season in administration and suffering the worst playing record of any club in the four English professional divisions. June saw the club — finally — exit administration and today — finally — sees the appointment of a new full-time manager. A fresh start, at last. Possibly, anyway.
Paul Simpson is an interesting choice as manager. Initially a failure at Rochdale, Simpson was highly successful at Carlisle, winning back-to-back promotions from the Conference and League Two between 2004 and 2006. His achievements were rewarded with a move to Preston North End, where an undistinguished 18 months ended with the sack midway through 2007-8 with North End sitting near the foot of the table. A subsequent two-year spell at Shrewsbury ended in April after he had failed to guide them to the playoffs despite enjoying relatively large financial resources.
Simpson thus comes to County with a mixed reputation. It will be interesting to see how he copes in this division without the financial muscle that he enjoyed as manager of the well-supported Carlisle or the well-financed Shrewsbury. Whilst the 2015 consortium appear to have some monetary backing behind them, from the new chairman, cake entrepreneur Alwin Thompson, there has certainly been no talk of splashing out greatly on players, and most County fans accept that next season will be a long, hard road. Simpson inherits a squad that has been decimated by a year under a transfer embargo and currently boasts just eight players who have made more than a handful of appearances for the club. Simpson will have to move quickly and decisively to sign enough seasoned professionals to ensure the team stand a good chance of surviving in League 2 next season, never mind anything else. Given that most clubs have been preparing for next season for at least two months already — if not more — Simpson will have a lot of catching up to do if next season is not to be a repeat of the last.
Simpson will also have challenges off the field. He knows he was not the first choice of either the fans or the new board — that was very obviously former manager and County legend Jim Gannon. Gannon’s return had been talked about by County fans all season, and when the 2015 consortium, which includes the sponsors of Gannon’s personal website, Tony and Mary Gibbons, took over the club, his re-appointment seemed imminent. The death of Gannon’s father, Jimmy, in Ireland delayed matters somewhat, however and, with pre-season having already started under the guidance of Gannon’s assistants, Peter Ward and Alan Lord, the necessity to make a permanent appointment who could build a squad ready for the new season became acute. County and Gannon were unable to commit to each other — though it is unclear who rejected who — and so Simpson was appointed instead. Confusingly, both Ward and Lord have been kept on under the new regime. Whilst both are undoubtedly fine coaches — Lord, in particular, has an excellent track record of developing young players — and provide continuity, their retaining also begs the question of how much autonomy Simpson will enjoy, given he apparently has not even been given the choice of picking his own backroom staff.
Simpson will have a major task on his hands to stamp his authority both on and off the field on a club still besotted with its ex. Jim Gannon was known as ‘The Ghost’ in his playing days for his ability to appear unnoticed at the back post when attacking corners, and his spirit still looms large over Edgeley Park. Given the huge rebuilding job the new owners will have to undertake, and how far behind we are compared to everyone else in terms of preparation and player acquisition, one cannot help wondering whether the board have secretly written off 2010-11 already and are working on sorting the club out off the field in preparation for life in the Conference in 2011-12 when Jim Gannon, that fondly remembered cast member of days gone by, will decide he is suddenly ready to return and dramatically re-enter the stage, where his backroom team will be helpfully waiting for him. Like most things at Stockport County over the past decade, the conspiracy plotline just fits together too well. For the sake of both Simpson and, speaking as a County fan, I hope he is strong enough to buck the trend and manages to become more than the proverbial sacrificial lamb.