The Conference could claim both sides, but the fans of these supporter-owned clubs will not give up easily, no matter how many points the players throw away. Taylor Parkes reports
It has never been fun being bottom of the heap. The Conference spreads its jaws, so you can smell its breath. It smells of damp, failure and loss, empty stands and uncertainty. When you’re low, you think you might never stop falling. The last thing you need is to hear that someone somewhere might consider you “unsustainable”.
These days, both Stockport County and Rushden & Diamonds are owned by supporters’ trusts. This is clearly not a recipe for instant success (certainly no help when trying to attract talent – Rushden were recently rebuffed when trying to sign a striker from Bognor Regis FC). But when you’re down on your luck, a sense of self-determination is invaluable, as is the knowledge that you’re not going to turn up at your ground to find Texas Homecare there instead.
Rushden & Diamonds were well known (if not well loved) as a new-money team, formed from a merger no one wanted, until they hit harder times: now in the hands of their own fans, they have regained a sense of purpose and some kind of security. It’s easier still to be sympathetic to Stockport – only a few years ago they were firmly in the grip of strange wealthy men, trying to move the club to Manchester and rechristen them “Manstock County”. Since the fans took control, they’ve successfully fought off venture capitalists, installed their own man as chairman and recruited, in Jim Gannon, a manager who cares about the club and is cared about in return, having been one of the most loyal and best-loved players in their history. There are ways of winning, even when you keep losing.
It was never quite flat caps round here, being Cheshire and all, but, like huge swathes of the north of England, Stockport has now been “modernised” to the point where it looks and feels no different from the south. New ring roads, leisure complexes, redbrick office developments; there’s nothing here you wouldn’t find in Woking or Maidstone, which would be great if it had ever been anything other than hellish to live in Woking or Maidstone.
Reassuring, then, that Edgeley Park retains some character. A cold cuboid of old wood and girders, built among suburban streets with a view of the moors from the back of the stand, it’s a small, ugly ground with charm. There’s an electronic scoreboard, seemingly plucked from the 1978 Subbuteo catalogue, which just about manages “COME ON COUNTY” and a two-frame animation of clapping hands; the uncovered stand behind the far goal is completely empty but for a couple of ball boys, hunting under fold-up seats for the debris of hopeful passes. The nearby airport means a constant flow of low-flying jets, gleaming in a weak January light, almost within touching distance. It’s jarring – up there looks like the title sequence of a holiday programme, down here we could be watching events from 1935, stored in the ground for spectral replay on dark afternoons.
A League Two relegation scrap is not artistry’s ancestral home, but as an extreme six-pointer this game should at least do something to warm the air. But the first half is just leaden, uniformly grim. There’s simply no avoiding the fact that neither of these teams are very good, especially not when playing for their lives. It’s not brutal – there are only two or three harsh tackles in the whole game – but it’s ugly and rushed and desperate, and it’s yesterday’s mashed potatoes for the neutral.
Of the two sides, Rushden are the more one-dimensional, starting aggressively like starving hod-carriers, greeting every ball with a hoof to the corner flag, making the first half-hour little more than a sequence of ungainly foot races down either touchline (the only player who doesn’t do this is Tony Stokes, a young loan signing from West Ham whose ground-in bravado betrays his Premiership roots, along with a look of indignation whenever someone knocks him over, and his resemblance to some mercifully missing member of McFly).
Stockport have a little more natural talent in their side, but it’s not helping. Matthew Hamshaw can pull off a decent cross, and the hard, fast running of Harpal Singh would cause serious problems if he only learned to keep going, instead of slowing down around the box and waiting for the tackle that invariably leaves him on his arse, appealing for calls that never come. Most promising are their central midfielders, Danny Boshell, a lively type who hits free-kicks with cruel curl, and Damien Allen, a prospective pin-up plucked from the Manchester United youth ranks and whose speedy brain and eagle-eye passing make him an easy man of the match. Sadly for Stockport, the two of them don’t just play like Gerrard and Lampard respectively, they play like Gerrard and Lampard together. For long periods, with Rushden in the lead, they’ll both drift deep into the opposition half and, when the visitors break, there’s a huge hole in the midfield (invariably filled by Tony Stokes, running from deep on a Beckenbauer tip, until someone runs over and shoulder-charges him into a fuming blond heap).
After half an hour it’s getting desperate – County’s Robert Clare makes a farcical mess of a simple block tackle and has to sprint 15 yards to make amends, then another Rushden effort is headed off the line. Just before the break, the ball ricochets comically off a couple of Rushden defenders and falls to Jermaine Easter, who lobs the keeper, the goal, and very nearly the stand. I sigh patiently and pop my 50th Tic-Tac.
It’s another refugee from a bigger club who breaks the deadlock. Adam Griffin, a tiny, shaven-headed dynamo loaned from Oldham Athletic, comes on for the second half and scores with his first touch, flinging himself on to a good cross from full-back Mark Robinson and heading Stockport in front. A cut above the afternoon, Griffin looks like changing the game – and he becomes invaluable as time wears on – but two minutes later County are flapping like dry fish in the face of a Rushden corner. Phil Gulliver equalises past the comically flailing County keeper, James Spencer (seconds after Spencer’s gaffe, three middle aged men behind me start whistling the theme tune from Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, in perfect unison, as though they’ve done it before).
To be fair to Rushden, this refusal to employ any form of attack other than high crosses might be a tactical masterstroke: Spencer is the proverbial good shot-stopper, but faced with any kind of high ball he turns into a liquid. When that high ball is coming from wide, he becomes, technically, a gas. Rushden take the lead just past the hour, as another imprecise cross spreads merry hell in County’s defence and bounces off Simeon Jackson into the net. A kind of gloom settles, mixed into the winter twilight like motor oil.
Then nothing for a while but 20-yard head-tennis and nudges. As the cold gets darker, Rushden keeper Daniel Crane, placing and replacing the ball for a restart, spends so long hacking up divots with the heel of his boot that he might be tunnelling to China, or digging a grave. For Stockport, even clearing their lines has become a problem, as a hoofed clearance squirts off sideways into the stands – the remainder are coming down sweetly on the visitors’ chests. Rushden’s hundred travelling fans, with room to put their feet up, sing songs about glory, or the glory of remaining in League Two.
It’s not quite over, though. Last time these teams met, County were 2-1 up until stoppage time, when Rushden grabbed a lucky equaliser – today is a perfect reverse. The fourth official, perhaps trying to put off facing the chilly leather seats of his Hillman Minx, signals a baffling five minutes for stoppages and the home crowd rediscover a voice. Tin-hatted Rushden practically form a human pyramid in their goalmouth, while County bunch up 25 yards out, set for a round of British Bulldog. After much pinball, and with seconds to go, Griffin manages to grab some space and squares the ball for Stockport’s substitute, the lanky Liam Dickinson, whose first and last contribution is a firm drive from the edge of the area that beats Crane to even the score.
Down in the swarm that’s chuckling and smoking and heading for the exit, things don’t seem all that bad. One point isn’t much use, but if your team insist on playing like the dead Keystone Kops, having a hand in your own destiny eases the despair, if not the disappointment. It’s in the nature of supporters’ trusts that they will flourish first at lowly clubs, in some sort of trouble. But the number of British clubs owned and controlled by their fans is now well into double figures and more than a hundred have supporters on the board or as shareholders. As the bubble keeps bursting in super-slow-motion, it’s not too fanciful to see this spreading, as though the game is starting to learn a lesson. Clubs that keep their distance from fans are not just pointless, they’re ultimately doomed. When the people in charge are the people who care, even a match like this can’t drive them away.
From WSC 229 March 2006. What was happening this month