Whirlpool's End: Stockport County in the Conference North
Blackburn. Wolves. Manchester City. Colwyn Bay. Frickley Athletic. Brackley Town.
It doesn’t take long for things to change in football – a few right decisions and you can be transformed from nowhere to become a star pupil, held up as an example to follow.
Swansea are the most obvious example, and in previous years Cardiff and Blackpool have enjoyed similar meteoric rises from bottom to top. Longer term, many of these clubs have ended up back where they started.
Carlisle and Swansea famously went from Fourth to First Division in the 1970s and came right back down again, whilst Plymouth, Portsmouth and Southend are now back in the basement division of the Football League following spells higher up.
None has fallen quite so far as my club, Stockport County, however. As we slipped out of the Conference National on Saturday, I was left to reflect on a fifth relegation in 11 years.
It occurred to me that every other club that has fallen multiple divisions in the last 20 years has done so at least in part because of points deductions. Whilst County did have points docked in 2008-9 because we went into administration, we already had enough in the bank that season to ensure we stayed up.
We are therefore the only club to have fallen so far just by being rubbish. On this basis, I can therefore claim to support the worst team in England.
Not a nice thought, especially when remembering the only other ex-Football League team to be relegated out of the Conference National was Scarborough, and they folded a year later.
Given where we are at, both on and off the field, maybe we could be heading the same way. Off the pitch, we have a board of directors whose idea of a ‘revolutionary’ offer is to raise prices despite the ever-decreasing quality on offer, a landlord whose rent takes up 40% of our annual revenue, and a disunited fan base, factionalised since our experiment with fan ownership ended with administration in 2009.
On the pitch we have witnessed the worst season in our history and now face the prospect of going part-time and it is getting to the stage where I could watch a comparable level of football down the local park. Some people have speculated over the possibility of merging with Woodley Sports, which, until recently, was where our reserves played.
I’d like, therefore, to say we have reached rock bottom, but this being Stockport County, I’m not sure that’s the case.
I don’t support County because I expect us to win trophies or win every game. I know that some seasons, it doesn’t go your way and you get relegated. That’s why, when the good times come, we savour them, because we know they will probably be short lived.
When things do go badly, though, I expect to see some leadership from the board and a signalling of how they intend to put it right. I also expect to see the players on the field trying their best – winning is in their interests too, after all.
This season I have seen neither, on or off the field. What I did not expect is to see us slip out of England’s professional leagues with a whimper, losing 0-4 in a game mainly distinguished for one of our fans running on to the pitch, arguing with our players and then punching the Kidderminster Harriers winger.
Like many other fans, I’ve become wearied by being let down by almost everyone, on and off the field – wearied, angry, punch-drunk and helpless. Like modern football more generally, I don’t like what I’m seeing but I’m powerless to change it – and that is what hurts most of all.
And yet, powerless and pained as I am…I am still proud. Proud of who we are and proud of where we’ve been. Proud of the friends I’ve made and the days we’ve shared. Proud of the people I’ve met and some of the players who I’ve seen pull on the blue and white.
Players like Alun Armstrong, who went on to score the winner for Ipswich away to Inter Milan in the UEFA Cup. Players like Ashley Williams, who has captained Wales. Anthony Pilkington, John Ruddy and Adam Le Fondre, who are in the Premier League now.
I’m even proud of the guy who ran on the pitch and punched their player on Saturday. He did completely the wrong thing and expressed himself in totally the wrong way – but at least he was actually doing something, instead of just standing idly by and watching our club die as it whirlpools in ever-decreasing circles.
With no supporters’ group in which to become involved, and the relationship between the board and fans at an all-time low, ‘depressed observer’ seems to be the lot of every County fan right now. Unless frustration can be turned into positive action – and not of the type displayed on Saturday – then we have no chance of making our club great again.
I have given the best years of my life to this club, and it has given me the best years of my life in return. Even now, when every home game feels like a funeral, and going feels like an expensive chore, I still can’t stop thinking about them every day.
I can’t stop caring, even though a large part of me really wants to – I would probably be happier and more productive without another Stockport County defeat ruining another Saturday or Tuesday evening. I’m too far in now, though.
When I’m stood at Oxford City next season, I’ll probably drift off and remember past games, past seasons. I’ll drift away to a time when we had a manager, players, a vision to believe in.
In these dark days, when all that seems to be left is the club name and a hardcore of disenfranchised, angry fans, these memories are a reminder of what was, and an inspiration for what could be again. It is still our club, our community.
What we are seeking is something we can believe in, something we can get behind, just like every other fan. If we can somehow find that, we might just be great again – in whatever division we find ourselves in.