The end of the season brings many different emotions to different sets of fans. Some will be basking in the glory of winning a trophy or a promotion. Some will see many positives in their team and will be eagerly anticipating the following season. Some will just be glad the seasons over and hope that the next season can’t be as bad. Others will be still trying to come to terms with relegation.
Spare a thought then for fans tomorrow at Edgeley Park, the home of Stockport County (Stockport is just South of Manchester), who go to the League One game tomorrow against Tranmere Rovers with entirely different emotions. For the visiting Tranmere fans, it will be the anxiety of hoping their team can win and that other results fall their way, so that their club is not relegated. For the Stockport fans there is an entirely different feeling, a sickening feeling, an empty feeling. The dread that this may be the last time they ever get to see their club.
Stockport County are in trouble both on and off the pitch. On the pitch they have had a torrid season and have been relegated, without really ever looking likely to stay up. The on-field issues have been shaped by the off-field problems, which are much, much worse. The biggest problem is that the club is currently in administration, which, sadly, isn’t unusual for clubs at this level, but for County it’s a potentially fatal problem. County started this season in administration and under league rules; no club can start successive seasons in administration. Therefore, County have to find a buyer before next seasons fixtures are published or they will be expelled from the league and by that time, it may be too late to even go into the division below, the Blue Square Premier, or even the division below that. County could well find themselves dropping into the obscurity of the English regional leagues.
Sadly for fans of County, the club, like many other Football League clubs in England, has suffered greatly from mismanagement by those running the club and the continual greed of the Premier League, who refused to share it’s TV money when it broke away from the league and are threatening to pull the little money they do now provide.
In 2000, the chairman at the time, Brendan Elwood, suggested, in all seriousness, that County should merge with Manchester City, as stupid an idea then as it would be now. The name he came up with for this merged club is straight from an adult video store, Man-Stock County! That kind of thinking was a taste of what was to come.
Elwood eventually sold the club and the stadium, to Brian Kennedy, the multi-millionaire owner of Rugby Union side Sale Sharks, who moved into Edgeley Park. Despite initial promises that he would devote equal time to both clubs, it became obvious that Kennedy’s focus was firmly on the Sharks and as such he ended up selling the club to a supporters trust but kept hold of the stadium.
Usually this is a positive step, as those who genuinely care about it rather than those who want to just profiteer, run the club. In County’s case though, it went wrong very quickly. The idea was that both the rugby and the football club were meant to share the money raised at the ground. They did share it, just not equally. The agreement the trust had to sign left them without the resources they needed to compete. They even had to give Kennedy a share of transfer fees raised, and as a result ended up running up huge debts.
Stories started to emerge of the bad financial situation for Stockport. It was estimated at one point they had given the Inland Revenue (the UK’s tax agency) £500,000 in a short space of time thanks to a fire-sale of players but still owed them about the same amount of money and had other creditors to pay. Eventually the club fell into administration in April 2009, a move that was seen by some as premature as County seemed to be getting repayment plans sorted out with the companies they owed. Almost immediately manager Jim Gannon, one of the rising stars of English football management, was made redundant. Obviously a manager is vital to a football club so this was seen as a petty and vindictive move by some fans as Gannon, a trained accountant had submitted his own business plan to the board which was at odds with those produced by those seeking to buy the club.
Since then there has been one group trying to buy the club, the league has rejected proposal after proposal from them. In the mean time the proposed buyers were allowed to install a manager, former Liverpool reserve manager Gary Ablett. An inexperienced manager plus a squad stripped down to its bare bones spelt out trouble on the pitch and the team have plummeted to the bottom of the league.
The only potential light at the end of the tunnel is a consortium rumoured to be interested. There is a way to go with that bid however, and it may represent Stockport’s only hope of survival.
Stockport’s fans have been let down by far too many people. By the man who stripped the club of it’s prime asset, the stadium, and then cut it loose. They’ve been let down by the supporters club who couldn’t operate under the conditions imposed upon them. Let down by the local authorities who refused to act until it dawned upon them that County may disappear altogether and finally, let down by the apathy of the richer clubs that watch the smaller clubs drowning, and refuse to throw them a rope.
So tomorrow (May 8) at a stadium that the team no longer own, Stockport may play out the last game in its 105-year unbroken league tenure. They may go the same way as Chester City and one day the fans wake up to find that the club simply no longer exists. So no matter what your emotions about the end of the season are, remind yourself it could be much worse.