Sad Hatters aplenty as Stockport take the plunge

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Guest writer Ben Collins mourns some bad decisions as Stockport County's 100-year run in the Football League comes to an end.

It is never nice to see a grown man cry. And they were crying on and off the pitch at Edgeley Park last week.

Stockport County’s draw at home to Northampton, followed by defeat at Crewe, meant they were relegated from the Football League for the first time in over 100 years.

Many established league clubs have suffered the same fate in recent years, but it is the manner in which the Cheshire club has slipped into non-league that has made it such a bitter pill for County fans to swallow.

Not only has little gone their way on the pitch, they have been wronged off it, making it almost impossible for them to exist as a league club.

Granted, you’re not going to slide from League One to non-league in just two years – during which time 2009/10 divisional opponents Norwich City have made it to the Premier League – without putting in a few poor performances. But that can only be expected when you are unable to bring in leaders‚ and have to rely on a mixture of untried youngsters and short-term loan signings.

County’s decline also has much to do with mismanagement at board level ever since they were promoted to League One via the 2008 play-offs. But the Hatters have been behind the eight ball from the moment the decision was made to sell Edgeley Park to Sale Sharks in 2002. The rugby union side’s benefactor, Brian Kennedy, bought County from former chairman Brendan Elwood in a co-ownership groundshare deal.

Stockport were grouped with Sale under the Cheshire Sports banner. After making a loss, Kennedy gave ownership of County to a supporters’ trust in 2005 but retained ownership of Edgeley Park, County’s home since 1902. That has left County hamstrung since.

All profits from the ground go to Sale, while a deal was in place so that Sale received a significant percentage of transfer sales. When manager Jim Gannon had to take apart and sell the promising young side he built and led to promotion in 2008, it seemed County might be breaking even. In fact, the money they actually saw from the transfers was a drop in the ocean.

Stockport went into administration in April 2009 and remarkably, Gannon was made redundant. Gary Ablett took over but there was only so much he could do and County were doomed to relegation from League One last season.

Ex-Manchester City player Jim Melrose had several failed takeover bids during the season. The club even entertained potential Thai investors. With the club still in administration last summer, it was a distinct possibility they could go out of existence before they were spared by the 2015 Group. Acting chairman Mary Gibbons and director husband Tony have worked tirelessly to keep the club afloat this season.

Mistakes have been made. Some point to the dismissal of Paul Simpson in January. The club had not yet sunk into the bottom two. But performances and results have improved under current boss Ray Mathias. The truth is, the damage was already done. County’s late-season rally has been too little too late.

And you have to feel the County fans deserve better. The club spent years staving off one re-election after another in the old Fourth Division, before Danny Bergara and then Dave Jones steered County into the second tier during the '90s.

But even through those difficult times, a core of around 4,000 has remained loyal to the club. County have attracted bigger midweek crowds this season than teams on the other side of Greater Manchester, who have been in contention at the top of League One.

Even as Northampton were still celebrating the 78th-minute penalty that gave them a 2-1 lead killed off County’s chances, the club anthem, The Scarf My Father Wore, could be heard coming out of the imposing Cheadle End.

The players responded with a battling performance. But when the final whistle came, County were down.

Yet there was a heartwarming ovation from the home fans. You’d have been forgiven for thinking County had been promoted, not relegated.

“The fans were right behind us and their ovation at the end was overwhelming for some players,” said Mathias, no doubt thinking of midfielder Greg Tansey. “Greg's been here a few years and was in tears, as were a few others.”

Tansey is set to leave now, though, with only three players contracted for next season. And as many established clubs have found before them, it will be tough to get back into the league. County could be in the non-league wilderness for some time to come.

The Hatters may not even have a new local derby against Conference stalwarts Altrincham to look forward to, as they are battling to stay up themselves.

However, there are rumours the local council are helping County find a site for a new ground, which many feel is imperative to safeguarding their future, while several interested parties are considering buying into the club.

Most County fans are just pleased they still have a club to support, which at one stage looked unlikely. But there could be many more tears shed before Stockport fans are smiling again.

Check out the July issue – on sale from June 1 – of FourFourTwo magazine for a feature on Stockport County.