Changing gear

Dave Espley remembers a time when his beloved Stockport County players would arrive at the ground using much simpler methods

It was my dad who first disillusioned me. It was teatime in the mid-Seventies, and I was watching The Tomorrow People. He arrived home from work and dropped the bombshell. “I’ve just seen Johnny Griffiths in Mersey Square.” Johnny Griffiths? Scorer of a fantastic 13 goals in 1972-73? The man who personified all that was glamorous about Seventies football to my prepubescent eyes? Wow! Must affect nonchalance. “Yeah? What was he doing?” Casing the centre of Stockport for a site for his new boutique? Cutting the ribbon of the new Tesco? 

"Waiting for a 17 to Reddish."

The shattering of childhood illusions is a uniquely painful experience. Footballers don’t catch buses. Even if both their Jags are being serviced, they’ve got chauffeurs to drive them around. They don’t live in bloody Reddish, either – they’ve got purpose-built futuristic houses just outside Bramhall with tellies that come out of the walls when you press a button (George Best had a lot to answer for).

I’m not sure I was entirely convinced he wasn’t pulling my leg for years afterwards. Not, that is, until I became a County scratchcard seller and thus achieved access to the inner sanctum of the club (which turned out to be a series of grimy corridors). I gradually realised from close observation that County players were just young men like any others, and not especially well paid young men at that. The spectacle of players arriving on foot with their boots in a plastic bag was not uncommon.

Indeed there was one story, which had the definite ring of truth, concerning the team captain helping out behind the bar of a local pub until late on the night before a crucial Cup game. (Well, it was a first round tie away at Caernarfon Town but it turned out to be pretty bloody crucial to us – we lost.) County players, whatever was the case at the big Manchester two, were ragged-arsed plebs like the rest of us. Thus was the pain of my dad’s innocently delivered revelation dulled.

Imagine my distress then, halfway through last season. Walking to Edgeley Park one day to collect tickets for some game or other (it really was that sort of season) I was surprised to see in the car park a number of shiny, expensive cars. Here a Porsche Boxster, there a BMW convertible, everywhere a 4×4. My first thought was that the new restaurant the club had built was hosting some kind of flash gits conference – computer sales reps perhaps – but it was when I saw the registration plate of the soft-top BMW that the penny dropped. M10 KYF. Micky F. Mike Flynn. Team captain. Christ, these are the players’ cars!

Having one’s footballing illusions shattered twice in one lifetime is not an experience I would greatly recommend. Of course, I knew that following our recent success there was clearly a lot more money sloshing around Edgeley Park, even if our turnover would probably not even match that of the smaller of the two footballing superstores down the road at Old Trafford.

I’d clocked the column Carlo Nash wrote in the programme – called “Carlo’s Cars”, natch – in which the Top Gear-fixated goalkeeper waxed lyrical about the imminent arrival of his flash new motor, with hardly a raised eyebrow. But actually seeing the vehicular wealth ostentatiously displayed really hit home. For all last season’s talk that we were now a better team than Manchester City (and there was a lot of that, believe me), we know our place. We are a little club living above our station. We might , with a bit of luck and a following wind, become a medium-sized club with a Barnsleyesque tilt at the Premiership. But we are not, and never will be, a “big club”. Yet our players drive new BMWs with personalised registrations.

Does it matter that footballers in general, and County players in particular, are now wealthy? As a fan whose first 17 years supporting the club were spent watching a constant diet of abysmal Fourth Division tripe, surely I can’t complain about the footballing caviar that’s been served up in the last decade? No one could seriously want a return to the days when players were treated as little more than serfs by chairmen who were never required to state, in the days when players’ wages were capped, where exactly the revenue from those record attendances went. However, many would maintain that the pendulum has swung too far the other way. Despite our high-earning players, average Edgeley Park crowds are still only 7,000-odd, meaning the club has had to rely to an ever-increasing extent on the commercial department to pay those wages.

In financial terms, the club is a remarkable success. The aforementioned restaurant is part of the marketing strategy for the huge Cheadle End that was built a couple of seasons ago, and if such things have a distinct “bolted on afterwards” air – as though the club looked at the cavernous spaces under the seats and thought “mmm, we really should do something there, you know” – then the next stage in Edgeley Park’s development is staggering for fans like me who remember the days of players catching buses.

Plans were announced towards the end of the season for an identical stand to be built opposite the Cheadle End, which would complete the transition to all-seater status in the summer of 2000. The difference in the price of the two developments, however, from £1.5 million to around £10 million, is not merely explained by inflation. It has more to do with the fact that behind the stand a hotel is planned which will almost rival those at Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge.

A recent business development paper bemoaned the lack of decent hotel facilities in Stockport as the one thing that was holding the town back (in business terms, that is) and, to give them credit, the County board have seized upon this in an attempt to persuade the council to grant planning permission and possibly financial support for the hotel.

Crucial to the success of the scheme, we are told by the board, is the premise that County remain a First Division club. Presumably because the board thought, after such a poor season, that Gary Megson might jeopardise that aim, he was sacked at the end of June, ostensibly because he applied for other jobs while still employed by County. In reality, many suspect he paid the price for the commercial shenanigans that are just as important – more so, in the minds of the suits – as what happens on the pitch these days, even at clubs like County.

In some ways, Megson’s dismissal reinforced the feelings of unreality I experienced when I saw the cars in the car park that day. In the days of Johnny Griffiths, any County manager that avoided finishing in the bottom four, and thus requiring the chairman to call in a few favours at re-election time, would feel pretty chuffed. If the team finished in the top half of the Fourth Division (a purely hypothetical speculation), we would have picketed the Bells distillery, demanding to know why he hadn’t received his due managerial recognition. The club is unrecognisable from the one I started supporting.

I pass George Best’s old house on the way to work these days. It’s been up for sale recently, asking price in the £300,000-£400,000 range. It’s a nice looking place, especially since a post-Best owner, presumably no fan of the “Seventies high tech” school of architecture, got rid of the flat roof and white walls. What I find most remarkable, however, is that as I cycle past and take an affectionate look, I’m suddenly ten years old again. If Johnny Griffiths were playing for County today, he could probably afford to buy it. 

From WSC 153 November 1999. What was happening this month