x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

A world away from the glamour of the Premier League

Stockport County's Edgeley Park home is less than 10 miles from Old Trafford but a world apart from the glamour and glitz of the likes of Manchester United and Manchester City

Stockport’s Edgeley Park ground is rarely full. While just a few miles away, 70,000 plus pack Manchester United’s Old Trafford weekly, their neighbours average just over 4,000.
Stockport’s Edgeley Park ground is rarely full. While just a few miles away, 70,000 plus pack Manchester United’s Old Trafford weekly, their neighbours average just over 4,000.

Stockport County's Edgeley Park home is less than 10 miles from the glamour of Old Trafford and the City of Manchester stadium, also known as Eastlands. Part of Greater Manchester's urban sprawl, Stockport is Europe's largest urban district (population 300,000) not to have city status.

The town may have been renowned for making hats, but it is the bricks which dominate. Brick factories, railway viaducts and gable ends.

A cold winter's night, and the team who are currently 92nd of the 92 English Football League teams have a home game.

There is live football on television, but that does not prevent the 4,000 County hard-core from attending. Their loyalty is commendable, for although they were only relegated from League One, the third tier, last season, County appear to be in free fall.

Despite a bafflingly good away record, "The Hatters" have won just one of their 15 home games in the league and conceded 39 goals - far more than any other team in their division.

And there is worse. Stockport, who were elected to the Football League in 1900, have played eight more games than Burton Albion, the team above them, because of numerous postponements over an exceptionally harsh British winter.

They have player more games too than Barnet and neighbours Macclesfield Town, who, like Burton, have played in non-league football for the majority of their existence. A drop back down would not be the same shock that it would for County.

Stockport should not be in this position. They averaged crowds of 5,000 for much of the past decade - far higher than some of the Football League teams like Barnet, Accrington Stanley and Macclesfield, who have struggled to average more than 2,000.

Relegation, poor football and mismanagement has seen even County's hard-core support shrink and they have begun to fear the grim prospect of relegation from the Football League for the first time in their proud history.

It is a history which as recently as 2002 saw Stockport play in England's second tier. They had finished eighth in that league in 1998, reached the semi-final of the League Cup and enjoyed other cup successes.

"I made my Ipswich debut against Stockport in a cup match in 1995," said James Scowcroft, the former Ipswich Town and Leicester City striker who played more than 300 top flight games. "And Stockport beat us.

"They were a good side with top players, heroes like the giant striker Kevin Francis. I've played against them many times since and they've always struck me as a proper football club who should be in League One, not fighting to stay in the Football League."

Stockport were not being bankrolled to success, but thrived thanks to the shrewd management of Danny Bergara, their Uruguayan boss. Dave Jones, the Cardiff City manager, and Gary Megson, the former Bolton Wanderers head coach also excelled in the job, but Stockport did not always help themselves.

They sacked Megson, who went on to manage in the Premier League, together with his assistant Mike Phelan, who is now Manchester United's assistant manager.

The economics were different then, though. The Hatters sold one player, Alun Armstrong, to Middlesbrough for £1.6 million (Dh9.4m) in 1998 and paid Nottingham Forest £800,000 for Ian Moore - fees which would be unimaginable at Edgeley Park these days.

Stockport's home is a traditional lower league ground. It seats 10,817, a healthy capacity for a fourth level team. The exterior of the main stand has barely changed for a century, the words "Stockport County" proudly picked out in blue and white, the team's colours. Except Stockport do not even own their own home.

Sale Sharks, the better supported top-flight rugby union team, share it and call the shots, the result of a desperate deal done by previous owners.

But try telling any County fan that Edgeley Park is not theirs as they make their way away from the town centre and the river towards the bright glare of the floodlights, walking through streets of tightly packed terraced housing.

Forget Liverpool or Everton, Stockport is the closest football ground to the River Mersey.

Times are undoubtedly tough for County fans. Words like "administration" "protests" "relegation" and "rugby" pepper their discussions, but most of them continue to follow their team week in week out.

More than 400 of them regularly watch their team on the road, many more when the opponents are closer. Almost 1,700 went to nearby Macclesfield to see one of County's four away wins so far this season, while 1,141 ventured to high-flying Bury - and saw County return with a win.

It was a rare highlight for a club who only 15 years ago were riding the crest of a glorious wave.

They enjoyed five consecutive seasons in England's second tier in which they revelled in some magnificent cup runs and league victories over their then-fallen neighbours Manchester City. The two clubs are now worlds apart.

City buy some of the best players in world football and most of them end up living in the exclusive suburbs of Stockport to the south of Manchester. It is ironic that some of England's wealthiest residential districts have a Stockport postcode and yet club desperately needs cash.

These days, Stockport do not buy players, but pick them up on loan and free transfers. They promote youngsters from a youth system they are rightly proud of. It has produced the ever-present midfielder Paul Turnbull. A local lad from Handforth, such has been the turnover of players at the club that the 21-year-old is already County's longest serving player, having made his debut just after his 16th birthday in 2005.

The youth system has produced terrific moments, even last season when County were relegated to the basement division. The 17 and 18-year-old lads reached the National Cup Alliance final where they lost a thrilling encounter 4-3 to Queen's Park Rangers away. And despite the current misfortunes, at least Stockport exist.

In 2009, the club were in grave danger of going out of existence completely, with debts of £500,000 to the Inland Revenue - England's tax authority - and other creditors. The hard-core bristle with indignation as they talk about the past mismanagement which led to their current predicament. County did not always help themselves and given the chance to court their bigger neighbours, did not always get it right.

Manchester United had faxed over a request for two tickets and a car park pass to an evening game, for Sir Alex Ferguson, their manager.

The member of staff who dealt with the request sent United tickets for the cheapest seats behind the goal, and a message that there was no space left in the car park, not even for one of the greatest managers in the history of the British game.

Not surprisingly, the senior member of staff who dealt with the request was a City fan.

"It costs nothing to be courteous, and making even the smallest link with someone as influential as Sir Alex Ferguson could have been beneficial to the club", said Andy Kilner, the former County player and manager who was in charge when County were last in England's second tier.

At least they have the loyalty of the fans, who remain proud and loud. When they score, the vocal fans up in the Cheadle End stand, which dwarfs the other three sides of the ground, start to sing. Empty seats outnumber occupied ones, but the fans stand and chorus:

It's forever being beautiful,

And the colour's white and blue,

I wore the scarf around my neck,

At Chester-field and Crewe,

My Father was a County fan,

Like my Grandfather before,

And at Edgeley Park I love to wear,

The scarf my Father wore!

Stockport is these diehards' team through thick and thin, a support that is passed through generations of local families. Like many smaller clubs, it represents their town, their people. Small can be beautiful and they don't envy all that is supposed to glisten in the Premier League. But there are 72 Football league clubs outside the Premier League and plenty of life in them. Not all have suffered Stockport's falling fortunes.

The Championship, England's second tier, enjoys average attendances of 17,260, making it the seventh biggest league in world football after Germany's Bundesliga (41,613), England's Premier League (34,963) Spain's Primera Liga (28,938), Italy's Serie A (22,936), France's Ligue 1 (19,934) and the Dutch Eredivisie (18,647). The depth of support in England is staggering.

The average crowd in England's fourth tier is 4,000. In Spain's regional fourth divisions, it is closer to 400. On Saturday, while 76,000 will pack Old Trafford to watch the Manchester derby between United and City, Stockport can expect a slightly larger than normal crowd for the visit of Bury, a town just 15 miles away.

Scowcroft, who has played in three of England's top four divisions, has experienced the stark contrast between the glamour at the top and life at the bottom.

The former England Under 21 international was at Ipswich and Leicester, before joining Championship side Crystal Palace and then third tier Leyton Orient.

"The differences on and off the field were acute the lower down the leagues you went," he said. "It was like comparing a night in a five-star hotel with one in a youth hostel."

"In the Premier League, I would train on perfectly manicured pitches. Lower down, training would be held up as trainees cleared the dog muck off the council park.

"In the Premier League, we'd travel north by first class on a train the day before the match. We'd stay in a five-star hotel. Lower down, we'd travel five hours by coach on the day of the game and arrive at the ground feeling knackered before we'd kicked a ball.

"Clubs had to live within their means, but what I found at every level was that the passion of the fans was the same. Manchester United may have more fans than Stockport County, but the hard-core County fans are just as passionate about their club as the United fans who watch their team home and away."

The highs and lows are all relative. For Stockport's big time neighbours, a solitary defeat can be seen as a disaster. For Stockport, the club going out of business would be a disaster. And while United fans may get excited by beating one of Europe's grand clubs away from home, the buzz for Stockport fans is just as pure when they beat Bury away.

"The Premier League can be a bubble where everyone pats themselves on the back," Scowcroft said, "but as I saw when I played outside it, English football not just about the top league."

County fans would not argue with that.