Friend or foe?

 Dave Espley describes how quirks of geography and fluctuating fortunes on the field have left Stockport fans struggling to find a long-lasting rivalry of note

Oh, to have a natural rival. You followers of teams which share their town or city with another club don’t know you’re born. Despite a population approaching 300,000, the Stockport public can hardly find it in themselves to support one team, let alone two, with the result that County fans, over the years, have had a number of rivalries, based on various esoteric reasons.

Geography is to blame. Stuck between genteel Cheshre and hard-nosed, trendy – or so they’d like us to think – football-saturated Manchester, we do well to have any kind of football team, let alone one that’s endured for 120 years. With attractions such as the viaduct (the largest brick-built structure in Europe), a huge glass pyramid and the country’s only hatting museum, it is any wonder that the locals don’t turn up at Edgeley Park in their droves?

Although we’ve no natural enemy, we have man­aged to manufacture a few over the years. Crewe is probably the club which has traditionally fitted the bill, if only for reasons of both proximity and traditional league position (both Manchester United and City are closer geographically, but it really would be stretching things to try to claim United as rivals. I’ll come to City in a minute). You may mock but there was also the question of Cheshire supremacy to consider for a number of years, before the local government act of 1974, much to the chagrin of our more independent-minded fans, planted us in Greater Manchester.

In truth, the many fierce battles between County and Crewe in the Seventies and Eighties didn’t pack out either club’s stadium. The 5,180 at Edgeley Park in 1972-73 was the biggest crowd for the fixture between 1970 and 1987 while a couple of gates dropped below 2,000. Then again, these were occasions for committed fans only, given that the highest position either side achieved in the league during this period was Crewe’s tenth in the old Fourth Division in 1984-85. The game that stands out was an end-to-end 2-2 draw before an enthralled 1,692 in the inaugural Associate Members Cup in 1984, which also provided the first penalty shoot-out Edgeley Park had ever seen. The momentous nature of the occasion clearly got to the County players, who booted their first three penalties over the bar to lose 3-0.

Given that, and the fact that – let’s be honest – you can never really get worked up about playing Crewe, in recent seasons we’ve been reduced to the kind of rivalries that arise when you play a team a number of times in a short period, and on-field niggles develop. Thus it was with ourselves and Burnley in the late Eighties and Nineties. Of course Burnley’s traditional rivals are Blackburn, and we’ve no wish whatsoever to intrude. However, a series of ill-tempered matches, combined with some rather childish off-field provocation, originating not merely from where you might expect – fanzines – but club officials as well, led to a period in which Burnley had the honour of being County’s hate team. It didn’t help that this period culminated in the 1994 Second Division play-off final when they beat us thanks to a spectacularly inept refereeing performance from one David Elleray, who sent off two County players.

There have been other more short-lived rivalries over recent seasons, with teams such as Birmingham and Stoke, caused by our audacity in beating them in various vital games. (Incidentally, there can be fewer more satisfying experiences for followers of a team such as County than beating a club whose fans have a massively over-inflated sense of where they belong in the scheme of things – based mainly on achievements dating from before most of those fans were born.)

Of all our rivalries, however, by far the most satisfying is that which we’ve enjoyed over the last few sea­sons with the team which, on geographical grounds, perhaps should be our traditional rivals – Manchester City. The problem, of course, has been that for most of our respective histories, City have played at a consistently higher level than County. However, for a handful of recent seasons we were divisional rivals, and very enjoyable it was too.

It started after Dave Jones’s fantastic side had gain­ed promotion to the First Division in 1997. Suddenly we were equals, after years of being patronised by City fans. As Stockport is geographically south of Manchester, most of those who live here and who would prefer to seek glory rather than support their local team tended to choose City (and they have the audacity to claim that United fans don’t come from Manchester). The result was that many of them had a soft spot for County, although it proved to be a soft spot only as long as we didn’t do anything as presumptuous as actually beat them.

Our first league game in donkey’s years against City was a fantastic experience as, roared on by a full house, we took them apart, going three up after half an hour, and causing City fans to turn on their own players. The reason for their anger wasn’t so much that they were three down after half an hour, but that they were three down to County. We were a club they metaphorically patted on the head, not one that played them on equal terms – much less beat them easily.

They gained revenge of a sort in the return at Maine Road, beating an injury-ravaged County side 4-1, but it wasn’t enough to save them from relegation, and for a glorious season, we were better than Manchester City. The Wembley mugging of Gillingham renewed the rivalry the following year, but we retained the upper hand, with a glorious 2-1 win at Maine Road, in which a bumbling Nicky Weaver gifted us the winning penalty. The Edgeley Park return finished in a 2-2 draw, meaning that we’d taken four points out of six.

And, incredibly, we did the same the following season. Despite City getting promoted back to the Premiership as champions and County being relegated by about November, we still managed a draw at Maine Road, followed by a fantastic 2-1 win at home, when we scored twice in the last few minutes.

It does seem, though, that we’re moving towards a new era of rivalry, as we look destined for a second successive relegation. Burnley, Birmingham and Stoke are disappearing over the horizon, and even notional Cheshire supremacy isn’t an issue for debate as Crewe seem intent on putting a scarcely-believable two divisions between us. However, there is a glimmer of hope. Macclesfield might stay up.

From WSC 195 May 2003. What was happening this month