LIBERATING FOOTBALL TRAVEL

Stockport County

Hatters top the league as fans’ loyalty rewarded

A fan’s guide – the club from early doors to today

Revived under incoming owner and lifelong fan Mark Stott, Stockport County have not only regained league status after 11 years but are heading to the third tier after missing out in 2023 by a single penalty kick. When he took over County in 2020, the entrepreneur spoke of the fans’ “immense character and resilience”, severely tested this century.

Apart from a brief period in the early 1990s under revered Uruguayan manager Danny Bergara, Stockport had spent nearly all the previous century in the lower tiers of the Football League. In the early 2000s, things began to unravel. Revealed to be deep in debt, the club was handed over to a supporters’ co-operative, then went into administration as owners came and went.

Dropping out of the league in 2011, Stockport even sank to the sixth tier before their recent recovery. A crowd of 34,000-plus watched a tense League Two play-off final with Carlisle at Wembley, bookended by spot-kick drama. County’s disappointment was then tempered by a table-topping campaign in 2023-24.

One of the many textile towns in the Lancashire area to embrace football in the 1880s, Stockport were formed as Heaton Norris Rovers in 1883. The 1890 name change reflected Stockport’s change in status, while the nickname of the Hatters derived from the city’s signature industry.

Joining the former Second Division, then the lowest tier, from the Lancashire Combination in 1900, Stockport moved from Green Park to groundshare Edgeley Park with their namesake rugby league club as the football XI shared divisional status with both Manchester neighbours City and United for the one and only time.

County bumped along in the lowest tier, first Division Two then Division Three North after World War I, setting all kinds of records in 1933-34 by scoring 115 goals without being promoted, 46 from the prolific Alf Lythgoe. Sadly, the club’s archives were lost in a fire that burned the main stand at Edgeley Park in 1935, by which time Huddersfield had the benefit of the striker’s services for the princely sum of £3,500. Lythgoe finished his playing days at Edgeley Park, in front of its new main stand just before the war.

Seeing out his own illustrious career at Stockport was Scottish inside-forward Alex Herd, who would surely have added to his one wartime cap for his country, and possibly honours with Manchester City, had it not been for the conflict coinciding with his late twenties. 

On the last day of the 1950-51 season, he was joined by his teenage son in County’s forward line, a rare cross-generational pairing. After three years at Stockport, David went on to have a stellar career at Arsenal and Manchester United, lifting the European Cup in 1968.

Having to be re-elected several times in the 1970s to survive in Division Four – more routine in those days – County picked up under Danny Bergara a decade or so later. A striker for Mallorca in the package-holiday days of the 1960s, the former Uruguayan youth international met an English travel guide one summer. Love took him to England, nepotism to Luton Town, where his wife Janet’s cousin knew Harry Haslam, the mercurial Manc who almost signed a teenage Diego Maradona.

Familiar with the South-American game, the open-minded Haslam took Bergara on as youth coach at Luton, where the Uruguayan oversaw the progress of Ricky Hill and Brian Stein. After taking the Hatters – Luton, that is – to the First Division, Haslam brought Bergara with him to Sheffield United. His reputation then reached the hallowed halls of Lancaster Gate, and the FA duly hired Bergara as England coach for the U-20 World Cup in Australia. 

Interspersed by an exotic interlude in Brunei, the South American was brought back down to Earth at Sheffield FC, then Rochdale, before County owner Brendan Elwood suggested he come to Edgeley Park.

The move came in 1989. Over the past three decades, Stockport had spent almost every season in the fourth tier – in fact, near the foot of the fourth tier, begging for re-election every summer. Games were played on a Friday night so as not to clash with more attractive fixtures in Manchester. Sheffield businessman Elwood needed change. He had seen Bergara’s coaching nous at Sheffield FC and recognised his football intelligence. Together, owner and coach would transform Stockport County.

First, Bergara motivated his men to play their way out of trouble in Division Four so that Darlington were granted the unenviable experience of dropping out of the League, a recently introduced phenomenon. The following season, 1989-90, Stockport were involved in the play-offs for promotion, later Everton striker Brett Angell hit 23 goals to become top scorer in the division.

Better was yet to come. A year later, Bergara became the first foreign manager in the Football League to achieve promotion when he took Stockport up to the Third Division. County came very close to an immediate second promotion when they lost 2-1 to Peterborough in the dying minutes of the play-off final, 35,000 witnessing goals from either side as extra-time beckoned.

On the way to Wembley, Stockport had nearly been undone by Mark Stein at Stoke, the man Bergara had coached at Luton bringing the aggregate score closer in the semi-final. And it was 6ft 7in forward Kevin Francis, spotted by Bergara when playing for Derby reserves, who nearly turned the tables in the final. 

Later to earn caps for Saint Kitts & Nevis, Francis and County were back at Wembley in 1994, a play-off decider overshadowed by a shocking early injury to the lanky striker, quickly followed by an early red for Stockport defender Mick Wallace. His side still had chances galore to reverse the 1-2 scoreline, but it was Burnley who went up to the second tier.

After a slight dip in 1994-95, Francis sold to Birmingham City and promotion more further away than ever, Elwood and Bergara had a bust-up over expenses at a Stockport hotel, one that also involved the club’s financial director. The Uruguayan, who had done more than almost anyone else in the club’s history to achieve success on the pitch, was out the door.

Elwood, for his part, had put nearly £4 million of his own money into the club by the time he sold it on to Sale Sharks rugby club owner Brian Kennedy in 2004, 15 years after his arrival. Bergara would do a little coaching and scouting work but would never develop another team as he had done at Stockport.

He died in 2007, criminally underused but not unsung, at least not at Edgeley Park. The main stand took his name in 2012 and his statue was unveiled in the presence of the Uruguayan ambassador in 2023.

County, meanwhile, continued to flourish in the post-Bergara era. Under Dave Jones, the youth coach under the Uruguayan, and with Brett Angell back in the fold, Stockport enjoyed the most memorable season in the club’s history in 1996-97. After a slow start to the season, Angell and former Newcastle youth player Alun Armstrong found their rhythm and began to score goals for fun.

County not only cruised up the table but put together two cup runs, most notably turning over West Ham and Southampton in League Cup replays. A crowd of nearly 12,000 gathered at Edgeley Park for the first leg of the semi-final with Middlesbrough – this, the star-studded Boro of Juninho and Ravanelli – in which the White Feather hit the second of the visitors’ two unanswered goals.

Chasing a lost cause at the Riverside, Stockport went ahead early on thanks to stalwart defender Sean Connelly but didn’t quite have enough to shock their big-money opponents. Six weeks later, an Angell goal at Chesterfield gave Stockport the three points needed to clinch a historic promotion to the second tier – anything less would have meant a titanic battle at fellow challengers Luton the following week.

With Southampton impressed enough by Dave Jones to snap him up, Gary Megson came in to oversee a creditable debut in the modern-day second tier in 1997-98, sharing rare divisional status with Manchester City. With Angell still scoring, Stockport held out with the sleeping giants and the over-ambitious until 2002, when City’s Goals For and County’s Goals Against tallies both hit triple figures at opposite ends of the table.

Worse was to follow. Two years later, County slipped down another division and almost out of the league altogether, staying up by just three points thanks to a last-day draw at Carlisle and the efforts of incoming manager, Bergara-era centre-half Jim Gannon.

By now, Sale Sharks were playing rugby at Edgeley Park and Elwood was out of the picture. Heavily in debt, County had been taken over by a supporters’ co-operative, a move which helped lift Gannon’s men back into play-off contention in 2007, missing out on goal difference. A friendly against Dave Jones’ Cardiff kicked off the next campaign, a match to commemorate the life of Danny Bergara, who had first brought Gannon to Edgeley Park in 1990.

The season was to prove equally memorable, thanks to the goals of locally born Liam Dickinson, whose 20-plus tally included an early strike in the play-off semi-final with Wycombe, and the decisive goal of five in the ding-dong Wembley final against Rochdale. His £750,000 transfer fee to Derby should have helped balance the books, along with money-spinning League One games with Leeds, Leicester and Oldham, but Stockport were still in dire straits financially. 

Five wins all season saw County sink back down to League Two, having been forced to let Gannon go. A year later, Stockport shipped 96 goals to fall out of the league altogether after 106 years. Within two years, Hatters fans were having to trek to Histon, Workington and Colwyn Bay as County floundered in the sixth-tier Conference North.

The first signs of life came in 2017-18, with a play-off defeat against near neighbours Chorley, and a crowd of 6,000-plus at Edgeley Park. By now, fans’ favourite Jim Gannon was back for his third stint at Stockport. Another battle with Chorley a season saw County run out winners, taking the National League North title by a single point from their rivals, who then needed two shoot-out victories in the play-offs to follow their rivals into the fifth tier.

With more points than the club ahead of them, Barnet, in the interrupted National League of 2019-20, Stockport’s lower per-game average still saw the club miss out on the play-offs for League Two at the first attempt. Making the semi-finals in 2021, despite the Gannon’s departure that January, County lost out to Hartlepool.

But with Stockport-born Mark Stott as owner, the club had cleared its debt and could attract former County centre-back Dave Challinor away from Hartlepool, having led the County Durham side back to League Two and just signed a three-year contract. 

The move was worth the legal wrangle, as the Salford University graduate took Stockport on a winning run to the National League title, losing only one of his first 23 games. The Hatters were back in the Football League after 11 long years.

Momentum then took Challinor’s team to within touching distance of automatic promotion to the third tier, losing out on the last day after drawing to Hartlepool. The 10,000 watching the second leg of the play-off semi-final at a fiery Edgeley Park were treated to a thriller, local rivals Salford City dominating the game as they had the home tie. Missed chances by the visitors, two goals deep into extra-time and a life-saving goalline clearance on 120 minutes from Stockport’s Italo-Serb-Manc Antoni Sarcevic took the game to penalties. 

This was a derby that had everything, including a sting in the tail. After returning Stockport striker Paddy Madden converted County’s first spot-kick, veteran teammate Ben Hinchliffe made two formidable saves to put the spotlight onto Sarcevic. The former Fleetwood midfielder made no mistake from 12 yards to send Stockport fans streaming onto the pitch.

With two consecutive promotions in the offing, the Wembley play-off final with Carlisle brought together the former Stockport manager, Paul Simpson, with the current one, Dave Challinor. His County side came within six minutes of winning the game in normal time and then within a spot-kick of victory – after Stockport’s two key penalty takers, Madden and Sarcevic, had already been substituted.

For 2023-24, Challinor galvanised his team to go on a 12-game winning run from September, a high-scoring streak that featured a hat-trick from Isaac Olaofe against title rivals Wrexham. In his first full season at Edgeley Park, the former Millwall youth player teamed up with the veteran Madden to sweep Stockport into the third tier for the first time since 2010.

 

ground Guide

The field of dreams – and the story behind it

There should soon be changes at Edgeley Park, Stockport’s home since 1902. In 2022, the management announced plans for its modernisation, and invited fans to feedback on its phased approach to expansion. Capacity will jump from 10,900 to 18,300 – ambitious for a club that has only just gained promotion to the third tier after more than a decade in non-league football.

From early 2025, work should start on the historic main Danny Bergara Stand, which famously only straddles the halfway line. Unsurprisingly old-school in feel despite its conversion to an all-seater in the 1980s, this is the only part of the ground to date back to Stockport’s earliest days in the Football League. 

The club had not long left the Lancashire Combination when a small stand was built on this Hardcastle Road side – players still had to change in the Windsor Castle pub nearby. Big gates were installed, which is just as well, as the largest man to have played the game, William ‘Fatty’ Foulke, made his Chelsea debut here in September 1905. 

In fact, this was Chelsea’s very first game, too, having purchased the 20-stone goalkeeper from Sheffield United for £50 in the hope of generating interest wherever they played. A crowd of 7,000 duly poured through the new gates at Edgeley Park to witness the former England international save a penalty, only for Stockport’s George Dodd to knock in the rebound.

Destroyed by fire in 1935, the Main Stand was rebuilt a year later in brick and steel. Its capacity of 2,020 should rise to around 2,600 with the upcoming expansion. Another 600 seats are earmarked for the last stage of the rebuild.

The last part of the ground to become all-seater, the uncovered east Railway End Is also being given priority as this former open terrace only holds 1,366 now that there’s no standing. This should rise to 4,500, planning permission willing. Currently, these six blocks A-F are usually given over to away fans, entrance through turnstiles 1-4.

Phase 2 focuses on the South ‘Together’ Stand, lining the long sideline opposite the Main Stand. This is shared between families and visiting supporters (blocks 4-5), who should both benefit from an increase to 5,500 seats. A junior fan zone sits behind it, with games and interaction with Vernon the Bear and County squad members.

The home Cheadle End, where a wooden stand was built as early as 1903, was completely redeveloped in 1995, the occasion marked by a friendly with Manchester City. Its twin tiers hold 5,058 seats, with a fan zone, the County Courtyard, behind.

getting here

Going to the ground – tips and timings

Edgeley Park is a ten-minute walk from Stockport station. Walk down the steps from the platforms, veering left away from the main entrance. Walk up Station Road, turn left at the top and use the zebra crossing before the roundabout. From there, head down Mercian Way to Caroline Street, turning left with the ground ahead of you.

Alternatively, from Stockport Interchange (Stand F) and Grand Central (stop RR) behind the station, Altrincham-bound bus 11 runs every 20mins on Saturday, calling at Worral Street by the junction with Caroline Street, journey time 7-8mins.

The sat nav code for Edgeley Park is SK3 9DD. The stadium car park is only open for players and officials on match days but the NCP car park at Stockport station (11 Railway Road, SK1 3SW) offers a special rate of £3 per car. Closer to the ground are the 73 spaces on Caroline Street (SK3 9BW), 80p for up to 4hrs, though these fill up quickly.

getting in

Buying tickets – when, where, how and how much

For in-person purchases, Stockport’s ticket office/club shop at the Hardcastle Road corner of the Cheadle End operates Mon, Wed & Fri 10am-4pm. On match days, from 11am Sat and noon Tue, sales are from the portacabin by the Cheadle End car park. There are online sales, too.

The promotion run-in of 2024 saw games sell out, with an average gate close to capacity for much of the season. Demand will only increase for League One matches. Until Edgeley Park is expanded from 2025 earliest, expect tickets to be at a premium, meaning you should book online straight away. For all enquiries, contact 0161 266 2700, tickets@stockportcounty.com.

For 2023-24, admission was set at £22, £16 for seniors and students, £10 for 14-17s, £8 for 6-13s and £2 for under-6s. For five marquee fixtures, these prices rose to £24, £17 and £12 for over-13s and above. This would also be a reasonable guideline for 2024-25.

what to buy

Shirts, kits, merchandise and gifts

The County Store (Mon, Wed & Fri 10am-4pm, match-day Sat from 11am, match-day Tue from noon, then 30mins after final whistle) stands at the Hardcastle Road corner of the Cheadle End. 

All bearing the name of the urban design company overseen by Stockport owner Mark Stott, Vita, the home shirt of storied blue currently features diamond patterns of red and darker blue, the shapes repeated across the away top of peppermint. There’s a marble effect for the third-choice colour of anthracite, or coal black. This is offset by a collar, badge and sponsor’s name in vibrant yellow.

Original gifts include coasters depicting the Cheadle End, A3 prints of Stockport players created by Tom Wilson in retro comic style and SCFC pens in pride colours.

Where to Drink

Pre-match beers for fans and casual visitors

Many stop off at The Armoury on the way from the station to the stadium, a smart yet comfortable Robinsons pub that welcomes away fans with TV football, varied mix & match bar snacks and a beer garden. You’ll find it by the roundabout, halfway to Edgeley Park.

On the way back from the match, traditional corner pub Ye Olde Vic at 1 Chatham Street is also handy for rail travellers, opening from 5pm. Sought-after hand-pulled ales make sure it’s had a regular presence in the Good Beer Guide for 20 years or more.

Visiting supporters are served with a smile at the Sir Robert Peel, closer to the ground where Castle and Worrall Streets meet. Big-screen live sport is one of several plus points at this community pub, along with Motown nights, drinks deals on pints and spirits, and late opening on Saturdays.

At the ground, home fans congregate in the County Courtyard behind the Cheadle End, with one outlet dedicated to pouring pints over a long counter. Payment is contactless only. The fan zone operates pre- and post-match, as well as at half-time. Those with hospitality packages are served in The 1883, also in the Cheadle End.

CITY

AWAY DAYS