Stockport County in pieces

I DIDN’T go to Edgeley Park for Stockport’s game against Northampton this afternoon. I could have gone. Perhaps I should have gone. But I’d already arranged to spend the day elsewhere with friends – and while there may be fans who would readily cancel social engagements to follow their team, I’m not one of them. Still, being a football supporter isn’t a competition, you know.

A 2-2 draw confirmed County’s relegation from the Football League, barring the sort of mathematical miracle that would surely prompt a stewards’ enquiry. That relegation is the culmination of years of misfortune and mismanagement.

I could go into all the details, but I’ve written about it before on this blog and tonight, quite frankly, I can’t be bothered going through it all again. If you’ve no idea why County are in such a mess, Rory Smith’s article in last Thursday’s Daily Telegraph is a good place to start educating yourself.

Instead, I’m going to indulge myself here with a few memories. Looking forward to life in the Blue Square Premier is for another day. Tonight, I’m going to wallow in the past.

First match: A Fourth Division home game against Wolves in September 1987. In the 1980s, and long before that, County tended to play home games on a Friday night – but this one was on a Saturday.
I remember the score – Wolves won 2-0, with goals from Phil Robinson and future County striker Andy Mutch – and the fact that it chucked it down all afternoon. The pitch looked lush and green at kick off.
By the end, it looked as if it had played host to a small rock festival, except that no one was requesting an encore.

Most unlikely intervention by a group of schoolchildren: Any struggling fourth-tier club is likely to have the odd character among their regulars.
At Edgeley Park in the late 1980s, there was a guy in the main stand who would often pipe up with an agitated shout of: “Get your red shirt on referee!” (Almost every visiting team in those days wore red.)
Newport County’s amber strip might well have confused him when they travelled to Stockport in January 1988 – but no matter. After Newport went 1-0 up, a group of kids nearby spent almost the entire evening chanting: “County! County!”
Stockport came back to win 5-1. So impressed were the club with the support of the children in question, as I recall, that they were commended in the following week’s Stockport Express. They may even have got some kind of prize.

Best programme notes: Danny Bergara was the man who transformed Stockport from perennial Conference dodgers to annual third-tier play-off finalists after taking charge in 1989. And he did it on a diet of attacking football and marvellously surreal programme notes, peppered with Uruguayan proverbs which always seemed to lose something in translation. I retain a particular fondness for the way he once likened building a successful team to climbing the property ladder, a metaphor he chased remorselessly over 500 words until it collapsed from exhaustion.
Years after Bergara left County, I was lucky enough to interview him. It was ahead of an FA Cup tie at Tottenham, for whom Bergara was working as a scout. I asked him to assess Stockport’s chances. He didn’t disappoint.
“The hare will run out in front of you when you least expect it,” he said. I reckon he taught Eric Cantona everything he knows.

Best silencing of a future World Cup final commentator: The North West football scene has long been dominated by the Manchester and Liverpool quarter – but even so, Stockport fans felt they got a raw deal from Granada when it came to coverage.
In September 1989, the local Friday night preview show Kick Off looked ahead to the weekend’s games. “Stockport County can go top of the Fourth Division tonight,” announced reporter Clive Tyldesley. Then came the punchline: “If they beat Hartlepool 5-0.”
He said it with an air of “no chance”. And he was right, Because Stockport won 6-0 that night.

Oddest (possibly apocryphal) display of supporter dissatisfaction: I was born in Stockport, but moved to Preston when I was at high school on account of my father’s job. To a school full of Prestonians, I was something of a curiosity. And the kids who were into football found my support for County particularly curious. One Preston North End supporter (who remains a mate to this day) recounted following his team to Edgeley Park for a game, and being left bemused by one disenchanted home fan who left before the end, muttering: “That’s rubbish, County! I’m off home to watch Fawlty Towers.”

Worst penalty ever seen: Brett Angell didn’t always inspire confidence, particularly on the occasion I saw him having to leave the field because he’d lost a contact lens. He was, though, Stockport’s top scorer when they almost won promotion in 1990. Despite that, he could be infuriating. With the score at 0-0 in an important game against Peterborough in March that year, Stockport got a late penalty. Angell hit it so far over the bar that even Chris Waddle might have felt compelled to console him.

Tallest striker ever seen: Kevin Francis garnered a lot of attention for being 6ft 7in. I once saw him reduce Swansea keeper Lee Bracey to a quivering wreck purely by standing in front of him at corners.
Sometimes, it worked both ways – he once scored at both ends in about 10 minutes against Rotherham, having lost his bearings while defending a set-piece.
For every goal he scored, he would usually fluff another couple of golden chances, but he was the main man for County as they started to climb under Bergara.
There was a spell when Saturday lunchtime was complete without Jimmy Greaves affectionately taking the mickey out of Francis as Ian St John chuckled away in the background.
Years later, Francis came back to watch a league game against Sheffield Wednesday. So many people wanted to talk to him, shake his hand and pose for photographs that it took him about half-an-hour to walk round the ground.

Game I most regret missing: County did win promotion in 1991, after 21 years in the Fourth Division. They made sure on the final day of the season, beating Scunthorpe 5-0. I wanted to go, but couldn’t get a ticket. Instead, I ended up going with a couple of family friends to watch Manchester City against Sunderland.
Quite frankly, the thought of anyone turning up at City as a second choice after failing to get into a Stockport match sounds absurd now.

Most agonising defeat: Stockport went to Wembley four times in three seasons under Bergara, losing two Autoglass Trophy finals and two third-tier play-off finals. The second of those play-off defeats, against Burnley in 1994, hurt the most.
A goal up through Chris Beaumont inside two minutes, County lost Michael Wallace to a red card for spitting at Ted McMinn, then conceded an equaliser to David Eyres. When Beaumont was then sent off for lashing out at an opponent to leave Stockport with nine men, it was just a case of waiting for the inevitable Burnley winner, which came from Gary Parkinson.
At this time, Stockport had a significant rivalry with Stoke City, stemming in part from a play-off clash a couple of years earlier. On the way home, passing the M6 turn off for Stoke, I saw a couple of men hanging a banner from a motorway bridge. “Well done Clarets,” it read. Ouch.

Greatest display of sustained heckling: By the time he brought Lincoln to Edgeley Park for an FA Cup first-round tie in November 1995, John Beck’s predilection for long-ball football had seen him pigeon-holed as a one-trick pony, if you’ll excuse my mixed metaphors.
And so every time he tried to shout instructions to his players, a group of County fans would start yelling: “Hoof it! Whack it!” This went on throughout the first half until Beck, getting increasingly agitated by such undisguised piss-taking, retreated to his dug-out. County won 5-0.

Best own goal: Come on, you must have seen this one on YouTube. I’ve still no idea what possessed West Ham striker Iain Dowie to plant a perfect header past his own keeper in a Coca Cola Cup fourth-round replay at Edgeley Park just before Christmas 1996.
What topped it off was what could only be described as a Homer Simpson-esque reaction from Dowie on realising what he had done.
West Ham had dominated the game up to that point, but were completely thrown for a few minutes afterwards, which was long enough for Angell to head County 2-1 up. After that, the Hammers resumed their dominance, but couldn’t score. Stockport went on to the semi-finals, and then to the First Division.
Ah, the League Cup. Could be a while before I see Stockport play in that again.

Strangest afternoon involving a former World Footballer of the Year: The first Stockport game I attended as a journalist was a testimonial for Jim Gannon in August 2000. (It ended in an acrimonious legal battle, but that’s another story.)
That day, they played a Manchester City side just promoted to the Premier League, and thumped them 4-1. The result was even more bizarre given that City’s side included former World Footballer of the Year George Weah, who scored their consolation goal.

Worst away trip: I had a nightmare visit to Birmingham in October 2000. On the pitch, County lost 4-0 and finished the game with full-back Shane Nicholson in goal after Carlo Nash was sent off.
Off the pitch, I had a pre-match row with a fellow journalist over use of a phone line. Then Birmingham manager Trevor Francis threw me out of his post-match press conference for talking (I was trying to phone through my match report at the back of the room, when I really should have done it outside).
To complete a forgettable night, my car almost blew up as the engine overheated in an M6 traffic jam on the way home.

Most ham-fisted attempt at moving home: I spent a day in December 2000 at a council planning meeting in central Manchester, waiting for a decision on the future of Maine Road. A cluster of fellow County fans were there too.
It was all a result of chairman Brendan Elwood’s plan to move Stockport to Moss Side when Manchester City left for Eastlands. Stockport’s supporters were disgusted and bewildered.
Elwood, who had been a popular chairman up until that point, was shocked by the level of feeling.
Manchester City Council’s decision? To reject County’s application. They ruled instead that Sale Sharks could take over Maine Road. You probably know how that story ended.

Quickest managerial U-turn: The home game against Birmingham in March 2001 was overshadowed by Elwood’s attempt to bring in Roy Evans as a special adviser to assist Andy Kilner as Stockport battled relegation from the First Division.
Kilner made it clear, very publicly, that he didn’t want any help. Evans, uncomfortable at being appointed without  managerial support, backed away. Elwood was forced to scrap his plans, but many observers felt Kilner would be sacked if Birmingham won at Edgeley Park.
But County won 2-0, thanks to a couple of goals from Shefki Kuqi, who celebrated by running to the bench to embrace Kilner. Who, as it turned out, was sacked seven months late anyway.

Biggest managerial accident waiting to happen: I attended Carlton Palmer’s first press conference as Stockport manager in November 2001. As we waited for it to begin, a club official turned to me and said: “We’re going to get so much publicity out of this, you know.”
Palmer then led County to 10 successive defeats – a club record at the time – and relegation in March.

First time I was chucked out of the ground: I was always a well-behaved supporter. I’d like to think I’ve always been a well-behaved journalist. Not everyone will agree.
When County signed Aaron Lescott from Sheffield Wednesday in late 2001, I tried to get an interview with him for the Stockport Express. The club weren’t particularly helpful – I suspect because they were trying to build up their official website at the time, and wanted an exclusive chat with him.
I got a tip-off that he was at the ground having some physiotherapy. Somehow, I managed to find my way in and ask him for a chat. “I’ll be out in a few minutes,” he said. He wasn’t. And even if he had been, a club official quickly escorted me from the premises anyway.

Most unsuccessful attempt at finding consolation during a difficult personal time: I got a staff job at the Manchester Evening News in December 2004. Within three months, I thought I had lost it, due to an almighty cock-up that caused me to miss Kevin Keegan’s resignation as Manchester City manager.
At the time, I was living alone and not getting much of a social life, due to the fact that I was working a lot of late nights. I wasn’t really in a good mind anyway, without spending a weekend brooding over my future. I needed to get out of my flat, so I took myself off to watch Stockport play Colchester, hoping to be cheered up. (That in itself probably gives you an indication as to my mental state at the time.)
It didn’t work. County lost 2-1 to a goal in the last minute. However, I did end up keeping my job.

Only visit to Edgeley Park for a Sale Sharks game: It’s not a good idea, on the whole, for a County fan to admit to having paid to watch Sale Sharks. It’s Sale’s owner, Brian Kennedy, who still has control of Edgeley Park – a legacy of his time at the County helm. And it’s Kennedy who has attracted much of the blame for County’s financial plight.
But I might as well own up. I went to watch Sale play Bath in April 2007 because it was Jason Robinson’s final match before retiring, and I wanted to be part of the occasion.
Robinson scored the winning try for Sale right at the end, so I felt that decision was justified.
There’s something else I should own up to here, too: I once went on a couple of dates with a woman who was a Sale Sharks season ticket holder. I’d like to say it didn’t work out because of sporting differences. But the truth is that I had virtually none of the qualities she was looking for in a boyfriend.

Longest distance travelled to see a four-month winless streak ended: I had a rare free Saturday in February 2010. Rather than do something sensible with it, I decided to watch County away at Exeter.
I got some freelance reporting work to cover the cost of the trip, and away I went.
At the time, County had gone 17 League One games without a win – a run that included a club-record 12 straight league defeats – and were nailed on for relegation.
Yet I just had a feeling they might win. And I wanted to be there.
Sure enough, Jemal Johnson scored late on, and the long wait for victory was over. The highlight of the long train journey home was the disembodied voice of a particularly aggressive station announcer at Newport, yelling at some kids for causing a minor nuisance on the platform. He succeeded in freaking out not only the children, but just about everyone else at the station.
To date, the Exeter game remains the last time I saw a County win.
Still, there will be other victories. Won’t there?

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One Response to Stockport County in pieces

  1. chopper says:

    Sad to hear about Stockport’s plight. I hope things turn around for County soon and that there will be more of these good times to come.

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