TRYING to make sense of the current mess at Stockport County is rather like trying to untangle a ball of wet wool while wearing boxing gloves. But with manager Jim Gannon, his assistant and almost his entire backroom staff made redundant, the club shop closed, and fears among the club’s supporters that administration could yet become liquidation, a mess is undoubtedly what Stockport are in.
As Robert Peston will tell you, no financial crisis ever comes out of the blue. And while County have by no means the biggest debt in League One – they were understood to be less than £1m in the red when they went into administration last week – their lack of assets had flagged them up as one of the more vulnerable clubs in the lower divisions.
County don’t own Edgeley Park, and haven’t done so since 2003, when Sale Sharks owner Brian Kennedy bought the club and installed both clubs at the ground, which came under the auspices of his company Cheshire Sports. When Kennedy handed over the club to Stockport’s Supporters’ Trust in 2005, he retained ownership of the ground, but agreed a deal to sell it back to County for £4m if they could raise the cash within eight years.
The Trust were one of the first supporters groups to take control of a Football League club. In a sense, they were trailblazers (although it should be made clear that the Trust appointed a board of directors to run County). But the task of running a football club with few tangible assets in a tough financial climate has stretched County to breaking point.
Alarm bells started ringing publicly in January, when managing director Mark Maguire was forced to deny that County faced administration over an unpaid tax bill. Maguire resigned on February 4, stating that his position had become untenable. Chairman Martin Reid revealed that Maguire had suggested to him that the club needed a management buy-out to secure its long-term future.
Both Maguire and Lord Peter Snape have since been linked with takeover bids for the club, although nothing had materialised on either front by the time the club was forced into administration last Thursday.
The financial problems had reached crisis point before last week. So frustrated was Gannon at the way the club was being run, that he refused to speak to the media during the last couple of months of the season, leaving press duties to his assistant Peter Ward. Indeed, County faced playing their final home game against Crewe behind closed doors a fortnight ago, until former owner Kennedy stepped in to pay a policing bill.
County were finally pushed into administration by Buckinghamshire-based company David Farms Ltd over a £300,000 loan it made to the club which had not been repaid by the agreed deadline. A Stockport County Supporters’ Message Board has since posted a statement purported to be from David Farms Ltd outlining the reasons for placing the club in administration. If the statement is genuine, it would suggest that the company has no interest in buying out County.
Meanwhile, administrators Leonard Curtis have faced the thankless task to trying to keep the club afloat and find a buyer. According to Leonard Curtis’ website, the administrators paid money out of their own pockets to ensure that County were able to travel to Brighton to fulfil their final league fixture last Saturday.
Stockport are not the only club facing meltdown this summer. Both Darlington and Southampton face a tough summer, and will be grateful just to start next season.
For me, though, Stockport’s troubles have a significant resonance. This is my home-town club, a team I have seen drag themselves from the foot of the old Fourth Division to the second tier’s top eight, then sink back to within one match of the Conference before winning promotion from League Two via the play-offs 12 months ago.
There have been glorious promotions, embarrassing relegations (in 2002, County were mathematically relegated from the First Division in March), cup final defeats and incredible near-misses (a last-minute play-off final defeat to Peterborough in 1992 was utterly shattering).
County have an eventful recent past. Perhaps they have a future.
“We have received a number of strong expressions of interest in the club and some very positive preliminary discussions have already taken place,” the administrators wrote on their website today. “We remain confident that significant progress can be made in the short-term.”
There is still hope, then, that administration will not become liquidation.