IT starts like this. A father says to his 10-year-son: “We should try to get to a Stockport County game before they drop out of the league.”
And so they do. One rainy Saturday in September 1987, father and son head off to Edgeley Park to watch Stockport play Wolves. “Pitch looks good,” the father says. By the end of the game, which Wolves win 2-0, it has turned into a swamp.
The afternoon provides no evidence that Stockport will ever achieve anything better than grim struggles against relegation until the coming of the apocalypse (which they will probably survive on goal difference). For reasons that would challenge many a psychology expert, the son adopts County as his team.
To his great surprise, what follows is the most exciting period in the club’s history – three promotions, three relegations, five visits to Wembley, five years in what is now the Championship, a run to the League Cup semi-finals, a last-day escape from the Conference and a year in administration.
Twenty-three years after that first game, the son – who has no children of his own, ruining the potential for mawkish symmetry in this story – decides to go alone to a Stockport County game before they drop out of the league.
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The club went into administration on April 30 last year. How that happened is a long story that has been covered on this blog before. If County don’t come out of it by the start of next season, they will be kicked out of the Football League.
A takeover bid by a consortium led by former Manchester City striker Jim Melrose fell apart in the spring. Hopes of salvation now rest on the 2015 Consortium, led by former Stockport chief executive Sean Connolly.
Four weeks ago, the consortium entered into exclusive negotiations to buy the club. This Thursday, the Football League will decide at a meeting whether the proposed takeover meets their rules – having previously rejected the Melrose bid.
In the meantime, County have been in limbo, and manager Gary Ablett has become an increasingly frustrated figure, hamstrung by lack of finance. When the microwave blew up at their training ground last week, there was no money to replace it. So goalkeeping coach Paul Gerrard – who is also registered as a player – paid for a new one out of his own pocket. A few days later, County were thumped 6-0 by Huddersfield, their heaviest home defeat since 1961.
Relegation was confirmed on April 10, but it had been coming for a long time before that. After winning 1-0 at Tranmere on October 12, Stockport lost 12 league games in a row, setting a new club record.
In the middle of that run, they were forced to switch a home FA Cup tie against Torquay to Macclesfield’s Moss Rose, because poor drainage left the Edgeley Park pitch almost continually waterlogged. The pitch, and the drainage system, will be replaced before next season.
That is, assuming there is a next season. And even if the takeover goes through and County are cleared to start in League Two come August, the ongoing uncertainty is already handicapping them. At present, Stockport have no pre-season games arranged, and 12 players out of contract. Ablett himself has no idea if he will be managing the club if and when the takeover goes through.
“People are ringing me up, saying ‘This bill hasn’t been paid’ and ‘That bill hasn’t been paid’, and I have to say it’s an experience that has stopped being enjoyable,” Ablett said recently. His first season in management has, in just about every conceivable way, been a nightmare.
That first season came to an end today against Tranmere. County’s victory at Prenton Park in October marked Les Parry’s first match in charge of Rovers. Parry, the club physio, had been moved into the manager’s chair following John Barnes’ short and spectacularly unsuccessful stint. Parry, who is still the physio, managed to keep Rovers within sight of safety. A win would secure it, if results elsewhere went their way.
For that reason, today’s game was all-ticket, with Tranmere’s 3,000 travelling fans given the Railway End and the Pop Side. There was also a significantly increased police presence in and around the ground.
If Stockport had scored first, maybe they would have found the belief to go on and win. Or maybe not, given that they took the lead at relegated Southend last week with less than 20 minutes to go and still lost.
Whatever. County had early chances, but once Ian Goodison smacked a shot high into the net from a Zoumana Bakayogo throw in seven minutes before half-time, an away win looked the likeliest outcome.
Eight minutes after the break, Bakayogo’s cross was volleyed in by Ian Thomas-Moore to put Tranmere 2-0 up. Thomas-Moore played for Stockport when they were a second-tier club. In fact, at £800,000, he remains County’s record signing. To put that into perspective, Stockport’s entire squad budget for next season is likely to be around £500,000.
By this stage, news was filtering through to the Tranmere fans that relegation rivals Gillingham were losing at Wycombe. “We are staying up,” they chanted.
In the meantime, Stockport’s young keeper Lloyd Rigby – making his home debut – accidentally clattered into a policeman while trying to prevent the ball going out for a corner.
The law had the last laugh, as it usually does. With 14 minutes to go, Rigby made a mess of a Bas Savage shot, and Joss Labadie poked in the loose ball. A 3-0 win kept Tranmere up. At full-time, their fans invaded the pitch – some mobbed Parry, some broke the crossbar at the Railway End.
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As the crowds eventually filter away, the son tries to remember a Stockport season that has ended more miserably. Yes, there have been play-off defeats and promotion near-misses, and there have been relegations. But a team can always bounce back from those. There’s always the hope that next year might be better.
It’s the off-field stuff, the sense that there may be more obstacles ahead, even if the takeover goes through, that are really demoralising. He thinks about this, and wonders if life really is more complicated than it used to be, or whether it was always like this, and he’s just getting older.
He goes home, and switches on his computer.