Twenty years ago, Stockport County were playing in what is now known as the Championship, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Crystal Palace, Wolves and Norwich City in English football’s second-tier.
But despite such dizzy heights, which culminated in a 2-1 home victory over Manchester City in front of a crowd of over 10,000 that season, it was to be the beginning of the end.
The conclusion of the 2001/02 campaign would see the club relegated after a run of 11 consecutive defeats; the start of a turbulent period that would lead to them plummeting to the very depths of the footballing ladder.
By 2009, County had gone into administration and just two years later, had lost its coveted Football League status altogether with the future of one of the most recognisable names in football under serious threat.
Fast forward just over a decade and with just nine games remaining, Stockport County’s fate is very much in their own hands as they look to return to the Football League for the first time since 2011.
“We’ve been this excited before, but that’s always been followed by some of the worst times we’ve ever endured,” Nick from The Scarf Bergara Wore tells FansBet.
“It’s not just down to the football either. There has been loads of investment on our tired-looking ground and everything we have in place off the pitch would give League One and Championship sides a run for their money.
“We’re getting our biggest crowds in years, and have a ridiculously strong squad.
“There’s a definite feeling that both the club and the town are on the up now, and it’s largely down to our owner Mark Stott, who’s a local lad who’s done very well for himself and is now pumping cash into his hometown.”
During the 1990s the Hatters achieved no fewer than four trips to Wembley and held an impressive 106-year continuous Football League record.
But the troubled club finished bottom of League Two in 2011 and after two disastrous relegations in the space of three years, were playing in the sixth tier of English football – where they stayed for six consecutive seasons.
Financial problems, ownership battles, and a far from perfect ground-share arrangement with Sale Sharks were just some of the contributing factors in the demise of a club whose colours have been sported by the likes of George Best and Mike Summerbee.
“We honestly thought dropping into the Conference in 2011 was as low as we’d go,” says Nick.
“So to end up as a part-time side in regional football was absolutely bonkers.
“It really hit home when we played at North Ferriby and County’s Twitter update read something like: The game begins with County shooting towards the allotments – it was so bleak.
“An honourable mention goes to the pipe-smoking woman of Tamworth as well. I don’t know where she is but I hope she’s doing well.
“There was a point where we looked as though we could have dropped even further, until the board brought back club legend Jim Gannon for his third spell as manager.
“He pulled a rabbit out of the hat with promotion and cup runs, and even had us at the top end of the Conference as a part-time side when Covid intervened.”
In 2019 the club clinched a memorable promotion to the National League having been languishing in Conference North for what felt like an eternity.
And last season they came within touching distance of regaining their Football League status, only to be agonisingly beaten 1-0 by Hartlepool in the National League play-off semi-finals.
Now, under the guidance of Dave Challinor – who surprised many people by quitting Hartlepool to take over the managerial reigns at his former club following the sacking of Simon Rusk back in November – it appears only the most dramatic of collapses will prevent Stockport regaining their league status.
“Rusk took us on a record-breaking run last season but scratch the surface of that run and it was mostly made up of draws and narrow wins against sides who’d furloughed their first teams and were relying on kids.
“Having said that, we still went into this season as title favourites, but the optimism soon diminished on the first day, as we lined up without a single left-footer on the pitch and were beaten by a Dagenham side that were nothing special themselves.
“What followed for the next two months was some of the most dour, uninspiring, insipid football ever seen in these parts – so it’s genuinely a miracle he survived until October.
“So Challinor has been an absolute breath of fresh air, in complete contrast to what went before.
“From day one, we were pressing with intent and looked like we’d score every time we crossed the halfway line.
“The televised FA Cup win over Bolton in his first couple of weeks was one of the greatest nights we’ve ever seen at Edgeley Park and contributed massively to the atmosphere around the club now.
“The man is approaching legend status already, and it’s been great to see his wife and kids embrace what we’re about as a club and a town as well.”
Since his appointment, Stockport have lost on only two occasions in 29 outings with Challinor’s current win percentage standing at 82.8%.
After 19 wins from 22 National League matches under their new boss and a run of eight consecutive league wins, County now find themselves 11 points clear of nearest challengers and fellow former Football League side, Wrexham.
But the Welsh side, recently taken over by Hollywood pair Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney and enjoying a fine run of form themselves, do have a game in hand with the sides still to meet in the League in May.
Meanwhile, the two will also face-off in the semi-final of the FA Trophy this weekend; so how defining does Nick think those fixtures might prove to be as County enjoy one of their most memorable seasons for almost 20 years?
“I can’t speak for everyone but I’m confident we’ll win it now,” he says.
“Some are more cautious, believing that County will find a way to mess it up, but this is a different County though, with League One quality all through the side, so it’d take something catastrophic for us to bottle it now.
“In terms of the EFL, we’ve beaten a number of sides from there in the FA Cup over the last few years as well as going toe-to-toe with Rotherham this season.
“From what I’ve seen, the quality in League Two is much the same as what we’re used to at the top end of non-league, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see us win the title next season.
“Wrexham are in the same boat as us with rich owners who want to rise up the leagues and they’ve done their time in non-league as well, so it should be an intriguing game between by far the best two sides in this league.
“Despite being in non-league for what feels like 423 years, we’ve never actually reached the final of the Trophy so it would be a nice way to end the non-league nightmare.
“Plus, who wouldn’t want a no-pressure day at Wembley after we’ve already won the title?”
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