Sports

Stockport’s ‘soul was ripped out’, now a town and its football club are thriving

Stockport, the town, should not be thriving like it is.

Six miles down the road, Manchester has overseen a redevelopment from cotton mills to skyscrapers like few metropolises across the world.

Whether backed by Gary Neville’s Relentless Group development projects, or whole areas bulldozed and renamed by Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi overlords, the city is unrecognisable to what it was a decade ago. Birmingham may still be, unofficially, the United Kingdom’s second city, but Manchester’s concerns are more international now.

Many of the surrounding suburbs, as a result of a vastly improved tram network, have in turn suffered, with shutters replacing formerly bustling shop fronts. But not in Stockport.

Walk out of the newly renovated train station, into the plaza lined with fancy hotels and bars that feels more Canary Wharf than a Greater Manchester suburb, past a helpful sign in one of those new, trendy establishments that proclaims “Stockport isn’t s***” – and you realise very quickly they are on to something.

And for the first time in a long, long time, neither is its football team. A Peter Schmeichel long throw south- east of Manchester United and an arching Ederson pass south of Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, geography has not been kind to Stockport County.

After just fending off administration in 2009, Stockport dropped to the sixth tier of the English footballing pyramid, went part time, training on astroturf pitches of a local school twice a week. With fans flocking back to United and City, those left had all but given up.

“Nobody falls that far and comes back. Not playing the teams we were. Just keeping our club from going under was the best we could hope for,” one fan tells i on a visit to one of their recent matches.

Just like the reborn town centre that has bucked the trend in welcoming big brands back, while creating an art and culture scene that’s been labelled “the new Berlin”, County have not just risen from the ashes, becoming a Football League club again. They have put together a grand plan to better their highest-ever league finish – eighth in the Championship in 1997-98 – by 2027.

Lofty ambitions, but these goals are not just pipe dreams. With an owner who Stockport “won the lottery” to get, everything has been put into place to ensure such aspirations can be achieved, while avoiding another near-fatal fall in the aftermath. The town and community, this time around, will be at the heart of any revival.

Down and out

To understand what Stockport have accomplished, with a £1bn town centre regeneration and a football club six points clear atop League Two – as the top goalscorers of all 92 EFL clubs – you have to understand the magnitude of their prior fall.

In 2005, Stockport came 12th in a list of “the crappiest towns to live”. At the time, the football team was doing OK, toing and froing between League One and League Two, but off the pitch, the club was being destroyed.

STOCKPORT, ENGLAND - MAY 20: A general view outside Edgeley Park is seen prior to the Sky Bet League Two Play-Off Semi-Final Second Leg match between Stockport County and Salford City at Edgeley Park on May 20, 2023 in Stockport, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Stockport came close to total collapse (Photo: Getty)

“Everyone says they were in the lowest ever crowd of 1034 against Southend in the 1980s, but I actually was,” club president Steve Bellis, who has been associated with County for 40 years, tells i.

“We had done so much hard work, going round schools to help us generate our own fans rather than just having those people who saw us as a second team after City or United, supporters for life, and in comes Brian Kennedy and Sale Sharks with their merger.”

In 2003, when Sale and County were joined under the Cheshire Sports group, it quickly became clear Sale was going to take priority, with Stockport’s home for over a century, Edgeley Park, a rugby ground first, football club second.

“Memorabilia was thrown in the bin, we weren’t allowed to use our own boardroom, they took over our club shop,” Bellis continues. “They then sold the club back to the fans without all its assets – where we could make any money – and suddenly we were in administration.

“To people like me, who could see this coming, we had all left. We weren’t going to hang around and watch all the work we had done tarnished. I came back for a game in 2013, 10 years later, when we were beaten by Dartford, a part-time team who had played four games in a week, at home, to be relegated to the National League North. The soul had been ripped out of Stockport County.

“Joe Corrigan [the club’s former goalkeeping coach] always talks about the time where he was doing some set-piece work the day before an important home game and one of the rugby coaches comes out and says ‘everybody off, one of the rugby players wants to practice his kicking.’ One player. Guess who got their way?”

Before they knew it, three relegations in four years between 2010 and 2013 meant a team who were beating Manchester City in the early 2000s were heading to the village of North Ferriby near Hull and losing.

“We were playing teams like Colwyn Bay, were they even a real team?” Bellis adds. “The players were out on the pitch hours before kick-off taking selfies in front of the [Edgeley Park] Cheadle End, they had never seen anything so big.

“We were playing at Vauxhall Motors, it’s not a place, it’s a factory. I remember going to North Ferriby thinking there can’t be a football club here. It was a village of allotments. We aren’t disrespecting them, but it was very humbling.

“For training, we would use St Paul’s Catholic High School in Wythenshawe, and would get booted off by a local Under-11s team. We kept on being told we didn’t belong this low down given the size of the club and our fanbase but we insisted we do, its our fault we are here.”

After his 10-year exile, Bellis was invited back into the club to at the very least restore a sense of pride. Thanks to the work he and others had done in the 1990s in persuading school kids to pick them over their illustrious rivals up the road, County were still getting big crowds, in the sixth tier.

It took a long six years to get out of the National League North. Once they did, however, under the management of former Stockport great Jim Gannon, the only way was up, especially after that lottery ticket came in.

An owner like no other

With the club stable and out of the depths of despair thanks to the loyal supporters who inherited County from Cheshire Sports Group, investment was needed to take them back full-time and start any form of recovery. Without it, a lifetime fighting in the lower reaches of the pyramid beckoned.

The usual shady characters tried their hand in acquiring the depleted asset.

STOCKPORT, ENGLAND - MAY 15: Mark Stott the owner of Stockport County celebrates after the Vanarama National League match between Stockport County oand FC Halifax Town at Edgeley Park on May 15, 2022 in Stockport, England. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)
Stockport ‘won the lottery’ with Mark Stott (Photo: Getty)

“One Chinese consortium claimed to have proof of funds, using a Barclays letterhead, claiming to have exactly £1bn pounds in the bank,” Bellis says. “Not a penny more or less. Safe to say we quickly knocked that on the head.”

Then, in 2020, along came Mark Stott, a local businessman whose heart is in the right place, doesn’t want the publicity and has put the Stockport community at the heart of every decision he makes. Yes, in 2023, such things do still exist.

“The minute he walked in, we had won the lottery,” Bellis insists.

“We have meetings with Mark all the time,” leader of Stockport Council Mark Hunter, tells i.

“Having a professional, football league club, makes a huge, huge difference to our projects.

“There has always been a feeling in Stockport that we want to punch above our weight, making the most of the advantages afforded to us, the airport a few miles away, motorway and rail links to Manchester and beyond.

“When people can see what is happening to Stockport, we are showing we are more than words. Big brands are coming back to Stockport, like IKEA and Marks & Spencer. That doesn’t happen everywhere now.

“We are an ambitious council and they are an ambitious club. Working together is really paying off.”

You cannot escape that ambition at the football club. Above the very same Carrington fields Roberto Mancini masterminded City’s first Premier League title, Stockport director of football Simon Wilson is busy putting his and Stott’s “seven-year plan” into practice.

By 2027, Wilson wants to guide Stockport above eighth-place in the Championship, develop a leading academy facility, oversee Edgeley Park’s renovation – all while even moving to a new training centre, despite the fact they are already blessed with Premier League standard facilities. Stott’s backing and funding is at the forefront of this drive.

“If I didn’t think it had a chance I wouldn’t have come,” Wilson says. “We knew we want to be in the Championship by this time, so when do you get set up for it? Do you do it when you get there? Or do you do it now? Let’s get ourselves set up from day one.

“The vision is increasing the standard of Stockport County and showing the communities of Stockport and all the people that interacts with it what brilliant looks like.

“It wasn’t a completely blank canvas when we came in, as there was a football club here, but it was a skeleton club. We could start again. Go full-time, have a training ground, hire an appropriate number of staff in recruitment and other areas. Easy wins.

“Luton have gone all the way up, other clubs have done it. We are set up to ensure we have the best possible chance.”

The league table doesn’t lie, but it only tells half the story of the revival.

A proper club with a Premier League polish

Attending a Stockport County match is quite the experience, especially when Bellis is giving you one of his tours.

“What a shock to hear your voice above all others,” chairman Ken Knott proclaims as he enters the boardroom, catching Bellis the raconteur in full flow, recounting one of the many tales of what life was like in the sixth tier to opposition dignitaries.

But without people who have given everything – “this club cost me my marriage,” Bellis readily admits – County would not exist. So you can forgive the storytelling.

Goal 1-0 Louie Barry #20 of Stockport County celebrates his goal with team-matesduring the Sky Bet League 2 match between Stockport County and Barrow at the Edgeley Park Stadium, Stockport on Saturday 19th August 2023. (Photo by Mike Morese/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
‘Nobody has fallen that far and come back again (Photo: Getty)

He knows everyone’s name, and they know his. Through the myriad of hospitality lounges, all of which would not look out of place at a Premier League club and are easily on par with what Old Trafford has to offer – if not better – everybody greets you with a smile, determined to make the most of their upturn in fortunes.

There is a pizza oven under one of the stands, Christmas dinner in a cup sold on the concourses and award-winning pies – it isn’t just VIPs who can feast on an altogether more enjoyable match experience.

“We are fully aware of what our positioning is,” Wilson adds. “We know where we sit among big local clubs and we recognise we want to be the opposite of all the shit things about the Premier League, whether that’s the drama around VAR or too much commercial engagement with fans, we want to flip that and be the opposite.

“But we also want to take the best things of it, in terms of really good quality service and best technology, retaining this ‘proper club’ tag that people keep telling me we have but with a Premier League polish.

“Mark was adamant we make all these upgrades straight away, as he cares what service we provide. Why shouldn’t stuff here be as good as you can get anywhere else if not better? Yeah, the football might not be but we’re trying to make the match experience as good as possible.”

The pre-match entertainment, of course, revolves around Bellis, as he treats VIPs in one suite to a game of ‘Heads or Tails’ for the chance to win admittedly naff prizes – all part of the fun.

The football in these parts of the stadium is often secondary, as everyone needs to be cleared out quickly to set up for various wedding receptions the next day. Being self-sufficient, financially, given their previous mismanagement, is an important part of the rebirth.

At the heart of the community

During the week, Edgeley Park remains at the heart of the community, helping Stockport the town continue to be a hub for life.

“Come to Edgeley Park on a Wednesday morning, there are groups of older people doing yoga in the dressing rooms, art therapy sessions in the boardroom, people who are socially secluded have somewhere to go. All free, no benefit to us, other than connecting more with Stockport people,” Bellis continues.

“Mark made me club president in 2020, and just said to me my job was to make sure we don’t lose our DNA. That’s how important it is to him.

“In 40 years, even after all the work we have done in the 1990s, I have never been more excited about what the club is becoming. And to think of Stockport on a list of the best places to live in The Times is just unbelievable.”

Another major advantage is the stadium, which unlike Old Trafford and the Etihad, is very much walking distance from the main station.

En route, elaborate new apartment blocks on par with anything Neville can conjure have sprung up, but it is the thriving entertainment scene – whether it be bars owned by world renowned local band Blossoms or the hip Underbanks area – that has helped Stockport generate this new-found reputation as a desirable place to live.

“We are not trying to copy Manchester with our regeneration,” Paul Richards, Stockport’s Director for Regeneration, tells i. “There is something unique about suburban living in Stockport.

“Manchester is now an international city and the economic powerhouse outside of London. And there are benefits for all of us by a rising tide lifting all boats, with the opportunity to have a more suburban feel, even in the town centre, appealing to some people, with more green space and the Peak District 10 minutes away.

“People make the mistake of thinking regeneration is just about the buildings. But we are Greater Manchester’s Town of Culture for 2023, so working with the community, and the football club, we put on hundreds of events each year. Edgeley Park is the heart of it all.”

An elite club approach

All of these grand plans for a community club worthy of the second tier would not be possible without the game’s foremost promotion expert.

“Everyone always asks me what my secret is, and I always come up with a boring answer,” Stockport boss Dave Challinor, who has overseen six promotions in 12 seasons as a coach, tells i.

“I’ve always said good players are key to it, but I have always tried to set up my teams to relate to the club, relate to the supporters and how that’s run. I wish there was some wild answer to that but unfortunately not.

“Here there’s a plan in place, off the pitch, what the club wants to look like and where the club wants to go and the challenge is putting that in place on the pitch.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 28: Stockport fans during Carlisle United v Stockport County, Sky Bet League Two Play-Off Final at Wembley Stadium on May 28, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by MB Media/Getty Images)
Stockport are using last season’s heartbreak as ammunition (Photo: Getty)

“But the owner invested in the infrastructure of the club and there is a clear identity of where he wants it to go. When I came into the club, the identity was really detailed off the pitch but on the pitch it wasn’t clear.

“And I think what we’ve done is we now have a team that the supporters can relate to in terms of knowing a minimum of what you’re going to get on Saturday or Tuesday. If you can get the alignment between the owners and understanding where we are and what we are and where you want to get to then you can have you can have success.”

Famed for his ultra-long throw-ins as a player, Challinor came back to Stockport from humble coaching beginnings, but has transformed the fortunes of his side in no time at all.

Getting them back to the Football League in his first season at the club, recovering from last term’s League Two Play-Off final defeat was going to be no easy feat, but Challinor keeps an image of that loss in the Edgeley Park changing rooms to act as motivation.

The results have been astounding. Stockport embarked on a 12-match winning run earlier this season, equalling a League Two record, to storm to the top of the table, and overcame a recent blip with a 8-0 hammering of Sutton United last weekend.

Challinor has to take huge credit for such form, but there is a bigger team in place all working together to drive County forward.

“When I went to Sunderland under David Moyes to work as football director, we played Liverpool at home,” Wilson says. “We were good for the first 20 minutes, keeping the ball, playing good possession stuff, feeling our way into the game.

“The fans started to look disgruntled, a bit bored. Then we lost the ball, Lee Cattermole smashed someone, and the whole place went up and it’s like ‘ah, that’s what they value’. You have to cater your team around what the fans want.

“The feeling around Edgeley Park is more Liverpool than it is Man City if you know what I mean. Like high intensity, high press, more personality. We still want to be a really good modern football team and we want to develop our young players to be able to play for the top clubs in the country. So we want to make sure that it’s relevant, but it’s more Jurgen Klopp than it is 75 per cent possession.”

Such words are further proof the dark days, when players would have to deal with smoke from the North Ferriby allotments drifting across the pitch, are long gone.

Stockport County is a different proposition altogether now. And it is no coincidence the town itself is booming too – a feelgood factor not lost on those who have seen it all.

“I remember walking back out onto the pitch after we had got back to the Football League and so many supporters were in floods of tears. They thought we were done. There was no hope,” Bellis adds.

“Some kids boo at half time if we are level now.

“But we won’t lose touch with who we are. I’d walk out the door the next day if we did. Mark made it my job to protect that DNA and make sure that we never lose touch with who we are as a football club and it’s working. So far, so good.

“When we were in the mire that was when Stockport was named among the crappiest places to live. Come out of Stockport station and walk to Edgeley Park now.

“That sign is right. Stockport isn’t shit, not anymore.”

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