I start this post at the halftime break during Stockport County’s final game of the regular league season on 27th April 2019. I’m presently sat on the sofa at my mum and dad’s house with my headphones in listening to the commentary (provided by Chris Ridgway and stalwart Jon Keighren on 104.9 Imagine FM) from the game while Caellum sits on my knee watching Paw Patrol.
It’s so far, so good in the game. After a tough start, County got themselves 2–0 up in the final ten minutes of the first half. As things stand, we’re going to win the league and gain automatic promotion to the Vanarama National League, tier five of the English football leagues.
Six years and one week ago, I was there at Aggborough to watch County lose 4–0 at the hands of Kidderminster Harriers and drop into National League North, formerly Conference North, our lowest ever level. As horrible as it was, we went down singing. It was, ironically, quite a fun day, possibly because most of us were expecting the outcome.
Two years previous to that, we’d lost our English Football League status for the first time in one hundred and six years. For those who aren’t familiar with how it works, the Football League comprises of the three divisions (the Championship, League One, and League Two) below the top flight (the Premiership). The divisions below the Football League are known technically as non-league. In 2011, that was where we dropped to.
It’s been a rollercoaster since I started supporting County with far more downs than ups. The majority of the time has been spent watching them slip from the Championship down to the level they are now at, with the exception of 2008 when we climbed from League Two to League One. That proved to be a false dawn that subsequently saw us slip three divisions between 2010 and 2013. In eleven years, we went from beating Manchester City to losing against the likes of Colwyn Bay!
I won’t lie; it’s been horrible playing at National League North level. Not only have us fans had to endure playing against teams we never thought we’d have to face in league games, but we’ve had to endure getting beaten by a lot of them. The taunts of the fans of the clubs around us has been hard to stomach. There’s also been a penchant from opposition players to celebrate goals they score against us in front of our passionate, frustrated fans. I’ve hated it! Absolutely hated it!
Thankfully, County won today’s game against Nuneaton Borough 3–0 and are champions of National League North. I’ll put that into context: we haven’t won a league competition since 1967 when we won Division Four, present day League Two. Fifty-two years! This is massive for Stockport County. It’s massive for the fans. We’ve waited a long, long time for this moment. Here’s what it means to us…
I have no regrets in my decision to switch allegiance from Manchester United to County. It was a two-year transition from when I saw my first County game at Edgeley Park, our home ground, in 1995 (a 1–1 draw against Chesterfield in the Auto Windscreens Trophy first round group stage), to arguably our most successful season in 1997, when we won promotion from Division Two (League One) to Division One (the Championship) and reached the semi-finals of the League Cup in a controversial losing effort against Middlesbrough. After that season, I was hooked on the blue and white near-neighbours of Man United and haven’t looked back.
I pick up this article the morning after the revelry of yesterday. I celebrated hard with an early night because I wasn’t feeling too well and had been up since 4:50am, most probably because of nerves and excitement. What was achieved yesterday hasn’t properly sunk in. I just keep flicking through my Twitter and Facebook feeds, liking and sharing/retweeting all the various photos and videos from the club and fellow fans. The victorious sensation is palpable intermingled with relief.
There’s also a sense of wariness about what lies ahead. What players are we going to acquire to ensure we hold our own in the National League next season? Which players are going to leave us during the summer? How does promotion affect us financially? Is there a plan in place should we be relegated next season? These are all questions that will take time to receive any answers to.
If there’s one thing I know without a shadow of a doubt it’s that Stockport County’s manager, Jim Gannon, has considered all of the above questions and more. This isn’t his first rodeo. Not only did he play four hundred and eighty games for us between 1990 and 2000, winning two promotions with us along the way, but he’s managed County twice prior to this third and latest stint.
In his first stint, he saw us safe in League Two on the last day of the season in 2006, took us on a Football League-record run of nine straight victories without conceding a goal in the 2006/07 campaign, led us to victory in the League Two playoffs in 2008 and promotion to League One, and then consolidated our League One status in 2008/09 with us even looking likely to reach the playoffs of that division for a lot of the season. Major financial problems saw him made redundant at the end of the 08/09 season when County went into administration and a tumble back down the league pyramid began.
His second stint saw him return in late 2011 while we were in Conference National (National League) to rescue County from relegation to Conference North (National League North) in the 2011/12 season before being fired in January 2013. We were relegated to Conference North a few months later.
Gannon holds a remarkable record as a manager for County: in every campaign where he’s finished the season as manager, the club has improved on its position from the season before. That trend continued in emphatic fashion yesterday. He’s the first manager of the club to guide us to two promotions. He’s had his critics, but nobody can deny that he’s been a phenomenal success for the club, both as a player and a manager. You get the feeling that we’re in safe hands while he’s around. He loves the club and genuinely wants only what’s best for it. Check out his thoughts from Saturday’s game below:
I feel bad that my support of the club hasn’t been as solid and passionate over the last few years as it has been previously. There are external factors behind this, such as becoming a father and lacking the time and money to go to games. That said, I can’t deny there’s been something of a want not to go. It’s hurt me too much emotionally to follow too devotedly. My poor mental health is a contributor. I had to distance myself somewhat because I found myself suffering worse with my depression with each disappointment County put on me. Some people will understand that; others won’t. Some may see me as a fair-weather fan; that’s their prerogative, just as it was mine not to invest myself too heavily in County over the last few years. I will say that I followed County around the country in 2012/13 when we were relegated to National League North. I like to think I earned some stripes that year.
No matter whether I’m at games cheering on the team or at home with Caellum, as I invariably am, on matchdays, my support for Stockport County is not, and never has been, in doubt in my mind. I have a certain soft spot for other clubs, such as Hyde United (due to a really positive experience after a game between them and County on New Years Day 2013) and Panathinaikos (a Greek side that’s fallen on hard times and has been my favourite continental club for a long time), but County are where my full loyalty lies and it always will.
The hope is that, once Caellum get’s into school (he starts this September) and grows up a little, I can start to take him to games. As things currently stand, I don’t believe he’d last long watching a game. He likes to run around and mess about as most four-year-olds do, so the chances of him sitting and watching a match for two hours are non-existent. Of course, I have to be steeled against the possibility he may not wish to support County. He may be swayed by my family and his brother, who all support United, or kids at school, who’ll probably support Man City in light of the club’s success in recent years. That’ll be his choice. I won’t force anything onto him, just as my parents never did with me. In fact, I think my mum and dad have both developed a little soft spot for County themselves and have even joined me at a few games.
Supporting the Hatters isn’t an easy thing to do; there again, if you support a team just because it’s easy to do so then you can’t really claim to be a fully devoted fan at all. Despite our fall from grace, Stockport County are never far from my mind and never out of my heart. Yesterday’s success really is the least our stupendously loyal fanbase deserves. Our attendance figures have remained high. We’ve never given up hope, even when that hope was pushed to its outer limits. In the long-term, we dream of a return to the Football League. For now, we’ll take this time to bask in our success and pray we never see the division we just won ever again. Onwards and upwards!
(I was going to post some images of our celebrations at Nuneaton, but decided against in case of any copyright infringement. For the best images, check out Mike Petch on Twitter and videos are available to watch on Stockport County’s official YouTube channel.)