County at large

Stockport County have been reaping the benefits of breaking into the Chinese market and developing contacts in the more isolated western provinces, as Hugh Wilson writes

Everybody wants a piece of the Chinese market these days, but Stockport County are not perhaps the most obvious candidates to exploit European football’s global popularity. Still, while Man­chester United and Real Madrid have concentrated their brand-building activities on the big cities and eastern seaboard, County have been quietly developing contacts in China’s more isolated western provinces. In these regions – and this may come as something of a surprise to the Edgeley Park faithful – County are the most respected European club side of them all.

By all traditional measures it is unlikely to be a vintage year at Stockport County, despite the appointment of former Northern Ireland manager Sammy McIlroy. But the upshot of their efforts in China is that, after just three years of development, the connection already provides at least 30  per cent of the club’s revenue. Stockport are a little reticent about precise financial details – for fear of imitation – but an upcoming County youth tour of the region could draw crowds of 12,000 or more. Next summer’s first-team tour, if it conforms to expectations, will attract live crowds in Jang Xin province of 25,000 and play to a potential global television audience of 700 million. With that in mind, a morale-boosting, income-generating FA Cup run that lasted, ooh, 90 minutes is not the catastrophe that it might have been.

It’s a happy position to be in, but not one that has been easily achieved. “There is no quick buck in doing what we’ve done,” says Steve Bellis, County’s commercial general manager. “This is about helping to secure our existence for 20 years. As a commercial organisation, our philosophy is to give something to the community before taking from it. That’s the philosophy we took to China. We committed a lot of time and effort building the relationship, including paying for 25 underprivileged Chinese youngsters to come to Stockport for a nine-week football school. We visit China five times a year. We’ve worked very hard to earn the right to be commercial.”

That nine-week football school was the forerunner of the latest commercial manifestation of County’s Chinese links. A unique partnership between the club and a local sixth-form college is offering joint English and football coaching to Chinese students. The students are vetted by agencies in China, with the main criteria for selection being a talent for football and parents wealthy enough to afford £9,000 in fees. In return, their sons get a year of intensive courses – English and Information and Communication Technology in the mornings, football in the afternoons. The students are housed with local families who receive a weekly payment to cover living expenses.

When all visa problems have been ironed out, the college expects about 20 students. They might have come for the football, but the college thinks their parents have been seduced by the complete package. “Even the most optimistic parents must realise that not all of their sons will go on and make a living from football,” says English teacher Nichola Cortese. “But from what the students tell me, having English in China is a huge boost to your future prospects.”

Nevertheless, Stockport County make no secret of the fact that part of the attraction of the scheme is the possibility of unearthing a Chinese David Beckham on the cheap, or at least a couple of footballers good enough to grace the Second Division. But the school is making money for the club anyway, as well as reinforcing County’s reputation in the region. It is likely to become an annual event.

And the initiatives are unlikely to end there. There are plans to set up joint football and English schools in China itself. Steve Bellis has been asked to speak in Brazil about running a successful local football club in the shadow of high-profile neighbours. Most ambitiously of all, there’s a chance that a team from western China with either Stockport or County in the name will soon be competing in the Chinese league.

County’s activities could become a template for lower-league clubs struggling to survive on gate receipts and casting about for new streams of revenue. Meanwhile, the Chinese students already in Stockport are settling in. And what do they like about English life? “Girls and kebabs,” says one. “Casinos‚” says another. The local chamber of commerce should put that on a poster.

From WSC 203 January 2004. What was happening this month