County caught

Stockport supporters have been taking action to highlight the crisis that has gripped their club, as David Meller reports

On a freezing Wednesday morning late last December around 300 Stockport County supporters gathered outside Edgeley Park and downed shots of whisky and hot water to keep warm. After eight months of administration we were preparing to march to the club’s administrators in Manchester city centre, to raise knowledge of a club moving towards liquidation and those responsible for doing so. The question was whether the march would yield anything constructive.

What pushed the club into administration was a £300,000 loan agreed by previous chairman Norman Beverley and former (and, to many supporters’ anger, the current acting) chief executive Mark Maguire with David Farms Ltd – a company specialising in stadium construction. The loan was meant to help restructure the club and, inevitably, lead to a new stadium built by Farms.

The loan was ill-judged but its background begins in 2003 with the takeover of the club and purchase of Edgeley Park by double-glazing and fitted kitchen magnate Brian Kennedy, who also brought rugby union side Sale Sharks with him. After two years of ownership he sold the club for £1 to a supporters’ trust in 2005. But in exchange he took 30 per cent of all transfer fees and the majority of the revenue from matchdays to recoup the £4 million he had supposedly spent.

It was a crippling deal for the club and meant players continually had to be sold to survive, making our League Two play-off success against Rochdale in May 2008 even more memorable. Owning a stadium was the answer for the club’s future in League One and, possibly, beyond but it became the cause of the problems.

Over this eight-month period administrators Leonard Curtis came under criticism by doubling the initial Farms debt through their £300 an hour fee. There was also the failure to communicate with supporters about the one interested consortium, led by former Manchester City player Jim Melrose.

Leonard Curtis were once so certain of Melrose’s takeover they allowed him to appoint current manager Gary Ablett back in July. Melrose also seemed certain, as he walked around the club’s training ground in a personalised training top and urged fans to buy season tickets. He even talked about a new stadium within three years.

But the deal dragged on. The Football League refused to hand back the “golden share” (required by every club to compete in the League) and Melrose would not to pay the £200,000 non-refundable deposit to enter into exclusive negotiations. By turning up en masse on Leonard Curtis’s doorstep it was hoped they would understand how their lack of communication about the Melrose deal and the amount of additional debt were unacceptable. The march achieved this quickly, with a statement issued the following day stating that the sale to Melrose would be completed by mid-January and that their overall fee was negotiable.

The immediate press coverage generated locally and nationally, particularly by lifelong County fan and Daily Mirror journalist Oliver Holt, also resulted in renewed interest from Kennedy. Fearful of the negative press and the “Brian Kennedy is a shark” march banners, a Kennedy spokesperson said he wanted to “inject harmony between the football and rugby clubs”.

Yet after the initial optimism little has improved. The Football League again refused to hand back the golden share and Leonard Curtis said it will be February at the earliest until the takeover is complete. Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council also continue to offer nothing in financial support unlike other councils like Peterborough City Council (with Peterborough United) and Hyndburn Council (at Accrington Stanley). This is despite protesting outside Stockport Town Hall during the march and attempting to hand over some questions to council leader Dave Goddard. Unsurprisingly, he was “away on holiday”.

Unrest is also growing, with abusive messages directed at Sale Sharks and Kennedy spray-painted across Edgeley Park’s main stand in mid-January – a thoughtless act since Kennedy could still be the key towards staying in existence. Yet it does represent what a lot of us feel. Before the Kennedy era we were universally proud of Edgeley Park, but for many there is now little to no sense of pride about the 109-year-old ground.

Still, a set of supporters got up early on a Sunday morning, headed to B&Q and cleaned up the graffiti. And this is what administration is demonstrating and what the march showed – a determined and loyal supporter base worthy of investment. That could be the most constructive thing from that cold day last December.

From WSC 277 March 2010