30 March ~ Stockport County are inching closer to a dilemma they should be well prepared for. Sale Sharks rugby club are set to move to a new stadium in Salford next season, parting County from their long-term landlord. Without help, or a viable alternative, the club could be facing vagrancy. Sharks' parent company, Cheshire Sports, bought the football club and stadium in 2003. When County supporters bought their club back two years later, Cheshire Sports maintained their ownership of Edgeley Park. County, four points above the Conference relegation zone, have remained rent-paying tenants since, although the £75,000 due for the rest of this season has been waived due to the club's precarious financial state.
Having spent a good chunk of time in administration in recent years, and with the club perhaps facing a difficult decision over where they will play in future, what plans have been made to find a new home?
"We have always said we would do whatever was required, at the time it was needed, and that's the situation as it still stands," is the response from Alan Livingstone, spokesman for Your Town, Your Team, the club-endorsed collective designed to galvanise supporters and carry out volunteering and fundraising duties. It is a worryingly vague answer, given that the group's charter makes devising a rescue plan a priority.
On the subject of the stadium, Livingstone points out that, although feelings will run high, fans should realise that it has not been their ground for some time. New director Spencer Fearn, who arrived in January with a vital cash investment, said of the potential eviction: "If Sale Sharks move out of Edgeley Park, then we'll deal with it." But with maintenance costs for the ageing ground estimated at £500,000 a year, a future at Edgeley Park seems unlikely unless the local authorities can help.
Stockport Council responded to budget cuts by curtailing financial support for the club. The ruling Labour and Liberal Democrat parties clashed over continuing their shirt sponsorship for 2011-12 and the deal was withdrawn. A recent £182,125 loan from the council to see the team through to the summer is secured against owed transfer funds and has a strict repayment date of August 2012.
The club appears to be running out of favours it can call in. There are no new moves being made towards private redevelopment of the land on which the stadium stands, in a fairly run down corner of the town.
An attempt was made to secure a three-way deal for the council, County and Cheshire Sports on the profits from a new leisure complex on the site but discussions between London-based developers Conduit and the council broke down in late 2011. Livingstone says the fan group is keen to remind the council about the scope for redeveloping Edgeley Park, but with Sharks closing in on a deal to make their long-anticipated move away from Stockport, it is to be hoped they and the club are rethinking their limited options. Rob Allen