DID you know that Keith Chegwin is an ambassador for the British Potato Council? I do now, after picking up a copy of the Express and Echo en route to Stockport County’s game at Exeter. Look.
While the front page showed Cheggers tucking in at an award-winning chippy in Exmouth to mark National Chip Week, the back featured the thoughts of Exeter coach Andy Tillson ahead of yesterday’s match at St James’ Park.
On Stockport, Tillson said: “They are a team that work really hard, but they also know that this is a division that can punish you at times.”
There’s an understatement. Stockport had, before yesterday, had picked up a grand total of three points from 17 matches. They hadn’t won a League One game for four months. They will, barring a miracle, finish bottom of the table.
That, though, has been the least of their worries in recent months. The club have been in administration since the tail end of last season. Football League rules do not allow a club to start two consecutive seasons in administration – so if a takeover is not completed by the end of summer, County will be chucked out of the Football League, and forced to drop five divisions into the Northern Premier. The mood at the club is a long, long way from optimistic.
To put it bluntly, Stockport are in a mess. And it’s very difficult to know who is to blame. Or how to sum up their problems in a few words.
But here goes: County used to be owned by a Supporters’ Trust, but went into administration as they struggled with total debts of around £900,000. They don’t own Edgeley Park, and so didn’t have assets to borrow against to pay short-term creditors, as some clubs would have done.
A consortium led by former Manchester City striker Jim Melrose has been in takeover talks with the administrators since last summer, but has been unable to agree a deal to the satisfaction of the Football League. In the meantime, County suffered 12 straight league defeats, the longest losing streak in their history.
Some County fans blame Brian Kennedy, the owner of Guinness Premiership rugby union side Sale Sharks. Kennedy used to own County too, and still owns Edgeley Park through his company Cheshire Sports, with the football club as tenants. Many County supporters believe it’s an arrangement which is costing their club dear, but I could be here all night explaining the ins and outs of why.
Some County fans accuse the Supporters’ Trust regime of financial mistakes. Some accuse administrators Leonard Curtis of dragging their heels. Some accuse the Melrose Consortium of dragging their heels. Some accuse Stockport Council of not offering enough support. Some accuse the Football League of taking a hard line on County.
I could go on. But I won’t.
It’s been a nightmare introduction to management for Gary Ablett, who gave up a role as reserve-team manager at Liverpool, where he was very highly regarded, for this shambles. Ablett had to sell his top scorer Carl Baker to Coventry and his captain Michael Raynes to Scunthorpe in January to bring in funds to sustain the club.
Amid the chaos, there have been positive signs – on the field, at least. County have started picking up points again, even coming from two-down to draw 2-2 with promotion candidates Colchester last weekend. An Exeter side struggling to adjust to League One after two successive promotions represented a serious chance of ending the winless run.
As County once were, Exeter still are run by a Supporters’ Trust, and are being done so very successfully. Exeter MP Ben Bradshaw was interviewed in yesterday’s Express and Echo, and had nothing but good to say about the way the Grecians are run.
“I think the model that we have at Exeter is such a promising one because it puts fans in the driving seat,” he said. That in itself is no guarantee of stability, though, as Stockport fans will tell him.
Through their fans, Exeter are looking to raise enough money to fund a new pitch for next season. St James’ Park’s surface, bumpy and worn, needs relaying for next season, and the club are hopeful that the ‘Pitch In’ scheme will do the trick.
Not that the pitch could be used as an excuse for the worst first half I have seen anywhere this season. There was little in the way of invention, chances, excitement or anything resembling good football.
Exeter played like a side frightened of losing. Stockport played like a side who had forgotten how to win. At the back of the main stand, Exeter’s director of football Steve Perryman – the former Tottenham captain – adopted the role of cheerleader-in-chief, trying to get chants going among the home support to lift their team.
And their team needed lifting. Richard Logan’s close-range shot was turned on to the bar by keeper Owain Fon Williams in the 12th minute as County failed to deal with a free kick – but other than that, they offered little.
And had Richie Partridge glanced Mat Sadler’s 24th-minute cross in rather than wide, Stockport might have led at the break. But 0-0 was a fair half-time scoreline. And it would have been a fair full-time scoreline. Jemal Johnson, though, had other ideas.
Thirteen minutes from the end, Stockport winger Johnson – who hadn’t done an awful lot up to that point – took on Partridge’s pass on the edge of the area, turned away from his marker and fired a left-foot shot that Andy Marriott really should have saved. Maybe he saw it late. But it brushed his hand, carried on into the net and gave 182 travelling Stockport fans some much-needed cheer.
Four months is a long time to wait for a league victory. Not that Ablett was getting carried away afterwards.
“Don’t get me wrong. We’re elated with the result, because it’s been a long time coming,” he said. “But we’re disappointed with the performance, because we know we can play better.”
The club will see out the season. Beyond that, it’s anyone’s guess. But County haven’t had their chips just yet.