IN 1977-78, Stockport County versus Southport could easily have been game number 40 on a Littlewoods Pools coupon – as a Football League Division Four fixture. The 1977-78 season was the last time the two clubs met in the league, for at the end of that campaign, Southport were voted out and replaced by Wigan Athletic. Stockport were relegated in 2011 and suffered a second drop in 2013. Both clubs are now in the National League North.
The mere thought of Stockport is a reminder that industrialised football began in the north of England and Scotland and clubs like Stockport, along with Rochdale, Bury, Oldham and others, represented the heart of “real football”, clubs that were part of the community and places where the working man could unwind went on his way home from the mill, the factory or the mine.
Arguably, they belong to a model that has almost become extinct, with in-town grounds being replaced by cookie-cutter stadiums and the old client base that trudged to the match, all flat caps, Bovril and rattles, has been transformed. It hangs on in certain places, but the environment that gave us clubs like Stockport has changed, and it won’t be coming back.
It would be harsh and a little patronising to say that clubs like Stockport were left behind as football reinvented itself in the 1990s because you only have to go back 20 years to find that the club reached the semi-final of the Football League Cup. And in 2002, they were in the Championship, so what went wrong?
Financial problems, constantly changing management, on and off the field and declining crowds, which have remained remarkably loyal during this turbulent period, paint a gloomy picture of the recent history of a club that has always struggled in the shadow of the Manchester giants just up the road. But there is a strong heart beating in Stockport’s Edgeley Park ground.
“The scarf my father wore”, a slogan emblazoned along the back of the big stand behind the goal, on a giant blue and white scarf, tells you that people really care about their club. True, they’ve seen better days, but they do have a plan. They’re currently part-time, but they hope to change that in the near future. Two years ago, the club’s directors issued a document that outlined their hopes for Stockport County, including the aspiration to return to the Football League by 2020.
It’s a tall order, although Stockport are one of the best supported non-league clubs around, averaging more than 3,000 per game. The National League North is an interesting competition, with a lot of clubs with Football League links or ancestry seemingly biding their time, including Bradford Park Avenue, Boston United, Southport, York City, Kidderminster Harriers and Darlington. Then there’s FC United and Salford City to make it more competitive, not to mention Blyth Spartans. Stockport stand out as a sizeable fish in that pond.
Stockport itself is a town of 136,000 people and although the catchment area is broader, it is an area that includes lots of clubs, not least United and City. It is a town that featured in many paintings by L.S. Lowry. It’s easy to wallow in a bit of cloth cap nostalgia about the place, but it’s a different, more challenging and uncertain world today than when good-to-honest working class folk occupied the terraces of Edgeley Park and were not as easily distracted by events at Old Trafford and Maine Road.
Stockport County were founded in 1883 with the wonderful name of Heaton Norris Rovers and first joined the Football League in 1900. They dropped out in 1904, spending one year in the Midland League before returning in 1905. Their opening game of 1905-06 was against league new-boys Chelsea, who played the first ever game of their history at Stockport, with the County winning 1-0.
Edgeley Park opened in 1903 and remains one of the best appointed grounds in the country. It’s a 10 minute walk – at best – from the railway station, a stroll that takes you past red-brick industrial revolution-era buildings – the Bluebell Hotel, for example, and past rows of terraced houses that were undoubtedly the homes of mill workers and hat-makers from the town. They provide the sort of approach that was typical of inner-city football grounds until the concept of out-of-town was invented. At Stockport there’s what looks like a disused factory or workshop outside the stadium which probably made overalls or similar industrial clothing in its heyday. While this is evocative of a different time, you wonder how long it will be until the area is developed – isn’t that the script these days?
I got into discussion with two Stockport fans who sell used replica shirts, in some places, they’d be called “vintage” and attract a premium. “We don’t expect many people today, perhaps 1,200 as it’s the Trophy,” said one of the blue-shirted loyalists. Lo and behold, the crowd was as low as that. Pity, as the game wasn’t bad at all.
Stockport took the lead after 11 minutes, Jason Oswell setting up Bohan Dixon to score from close range. But Southport were behind for just three minutes as Andy White netted from 12 yards. Southport looked the better side for long periods and went ahead on 68 minutes when Brad Jackson crossed for the impressive Jason Gilchrist (making his debut after signing from FC United) to score. It looked ominous for the home side at this point, but four minutes from time, substitute Darren Stephenson (Daz to his friends) grabbed the equaliser, meeting Gary Stopforth’s low cross to send the FA Trophy tie to a replay.
It had not been a disappointing day, although the weather was cold, very damp and a stern reminder that winter was coming. Stockport are a club with no airs and graces – some former league outfits would consider themselves too good for the level they’re playing, but I found none of that at Edgeley Park. And a tenner to get in at step two? Good value. I walked away from this club wishing them only good things in the future.
Oh yes, 2-2 on the pools coupon would definitely be a firm X.