Midweek Muse: Revisiting Stockport County’s magic carpet ride from 1996-2001

Stockport County begin their second season in the National League North next month, alongside some familiar old foes from their Football League days in York City and Darlington. The club’s travails over the last decade plus — which have seen numerous threats to the club’s existence and their Edgeley Park home alongside the decline in playing fortunes — have put them there. Immediately prior to this decline though, they had the time of their lives for a few short seasons. Tom Simmonds looks back.

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The miserable times which a sizable chunk of the UK population is enduring at present has prompted much hagiographic nostalgia in parts of the media for the late 1990s. A time when supposedly all was well with the country and most people’s lives in it. Nostalgia for that period is old news to Stockport County fans. From 1996 to 2001, County enjoyed a trip to the stars which involved a League Cup semi-final and three seasons of giving much bigger clubs bloody noses in what is now the Championship.

The winds of change were blowing over Edgeley Park in 1995, when County chairman Brendan Elwood ended the six-year reign of legendary Uruguayan manager Danny Bergara replacing him with the youth team coach, a Scouser named Dave Jones.
The stability which Jones inherited – after being promoted from the Fourth Division in 1990 — County remained in the third tier thereafter — continued in 1995-96 as Jones guided County to a ninth-place finish. This was built on a fantastic away record, which saw them win 11 out of 23 games and score 61 goals (by comparison, they won eight home games and scored only 30 goals at Edgeley that season). This was to serve as an extremely springy launchpad for what was to come.

Promotion bid

To begin with, the 1996/97 season did not seem to be shaping up to be a successful one for Stockport. They did not win one of their first six league games, losing four of them and drawing the other two. However, it did not take long after that for things to click and four straight wins saw them start to zoom up the table from the relegation zone. Strikers Brett Angell (in his second spell at the club after his initial exploits in the early 90s earned him a move to Everton) and young Geordie Alun Armstrong started to hit form, enabled by a stable base.

County used only 24 players in the league all season. Goalkeeper Paul Jones and centre-back Mike Flynn were ever-present, right-back Sean Connelly only missed one game, midfielder Tom Bennett and captain Jim Gannon played 40+ games. Chris Marsden, who Jones would take to Southampton with him, provided both industry and class in the middle of the park and Angell, Armstrong and Andy Mutch (best known as Steve Bull’s strike partner at Wolves in his younger days) were an able goal scoring trio at the sharp end.

While promotion was achieved in second place behind another dark horse, Stan Ternent’s Bury (not in the most spectacular style — all of County’s wins from March 22nd were by either by a 1-0 or 2-1 margin), it was their extra-curricular activities in the League Cup which brought them to national attention. Two victories over Sheffield United in the second round, including a 5-2 thumping of the Blades at Bramall Lane, seemed to provide a jump start for their season. But it was what they did after which caught the eye.

Next, County were drawn away to Blackburn (who, two years prior, had won the Premier League) and won 1-0 thanks to a Tim Sherwood own goal. This, remember, was before Premier League teams treated the competition as a glorified reserve team outing, and the Blackburn side they beat was strong, containing five internationals including Henning Berg and Jason Wilcox — though they did start a young James Beattie up front that night.

Shock cup run

Any illusion the Blackburn win was a fluke was dispelled in future rounds. They later held West Ham to a 1-1 draw at Upton Park, before beating them 2-1 at Edgeley in a replay — a result which Hammers gaffer Harry Redknapp blamed on his Romanian striker Florin Raducioiu missing the bus after going AWOL during a shopping trip. Stockport, after going behind to Julian Dicks’ header, replied immediately through a textbook attacking header from Iain Dowie into his own net. Five minutes later, Angell got on the end of another high ball into the mixer and Ludo Miklosko didn’t even bother to dive for the well-placed header.

Next up was Southampton in another game which went to a replay. It is impossible not to think that these two games were what alerted Saints to Jones’ exploits and sealed their then manager Graeme Souness’ fate, given they appointed him as manager that summer. The first game was at Edgeley and, after falling behind to Egil Ostenstad’s one-on-one finish past Jones, County hit back through Armstrong’s placed finish into the corner after Angell chest-trapped a high ball and laid it into his path. They went in front almost straight away, Luis Cavaco dived to divert Marsden’s beautiful cross into the same corner of the net Armstrong had found. They held this lead until five minutes before the end, when Ostenstad turned in a tight space and scuffed a shot past Jones after Eyal Berkovic had found him with an eye-of-the-needle pass.

The replay at The Dell saw another come-from-behind job after Matt Le Tissier scored an early opener. The great man did his customary thing of making the difficult look routine as he killed a cross stone dead on his chest then shot past Jones in the same movement. County’s equaliser came about after some dreadful defending saw the ball pinball to Angell, who ran onto it and shot through Beasant’s body into the net. Mutch, who came on in the 83rd minute, scored the winner a minute later. Armstrong ran on to Tony Dinning’s hoofed clearance, and his shot was going in after Beasant failed to get enough on it to divert it. Mutch, like the good poacher he was, made sure on the line.

The semi-final against Middlesbrough is where it would end. In the first leg at Edgeley, played on a bog of a pitch, Mikkel Beck’s composed finish and Fabrizio Ravanelli’s scrambled finish after Jones had parried Craig Hignett’s shot gave Boro what was to prove an unassailable lead, though not before Stockport gave them an almighty fright in the second leg at the Riverside. Five minutes in, it was the unlikely figure of Connelly who smashed a superb half volley into the net. Try as they might, County could not find an equaliser. Boro would go on to lose to Leicester in a replayed final. County would be about to continue their magic carpet ride.

Jones was replaced in the manager’s chair by Gary Megson for the 1997/98 season in what is now the Championship, a season in which County capitalised on their momentum. Again, the season started badly, no wins in the first seven games was followed by another run of four straight wins in which they scored 12 times, which saw them climb to 10th. It was a cluster of three wins in November, including a 3-1 home win over a Manchester City side stuttering their way to relegation to the third tier, which saw them make their biggest move up to seventh.

League slump

However, County could never break into the top six, they shuttled between seventh and ninth for the rest of the season but were always entertaining in a way that Megson would not generally be associated with later in his managerial career, scoring 71 times and conceding 69. It was this leaky defence and a tendency to take a hammering when they did lose (three 1-4 defeats and a 1-5 defeat to Birmingham) which held them back. Angell and Armstrong continued their prodigious form though, scoring 15 and 12 league goals respectively and the emergence of left winger Kevin Cooper — signed permanently from Derby in the summer after previously joining on loan in the spring — that gave their attacking threat a dangerous new dimension.

It was perhaps unrealistic to expect progression from this, and a levelling off the season after saw County finish 16th and never really looking like kicking on. They were more reliant on Angell’s goals this time (17 of them) and a horror run towards the end of the season, culminating in a 5-0 thumping by relegated Oxford saw Megson depart and be replaced by club playing legend Andy Kilner.

The 1999/2000 season started well for Stockport, and they were in the top six at Christmas. However, a 3-2 home win over Wolves on Boxing Day was to be their last win until April. A 3-0 win over Swindon broke a dreadful run of results which saw them sink from sixth to 19th, as the season approached the business end. A 2-0 win over Huddersfield in the following game ended any lingering relegation fears, but this penchant for long losing streaks was something which would be seen again to very harmful effect in future seasons.

The downfall

The 2000/01 season was a struggle. County finished 19th and were in the relegation zone from October to December having lost 10 of their first 17 games. However, it was the ability this team had to grind out draws (18 of them) and another last-minute burst of promotion form (five wins in the last nine games) inspired by the signing of Finnish target man Shefki Kuqi to augment the 12 goals provided by youngster Aaron Wilbraham saw them safe. However, the writing was on the wall.

The 2001/02 season was where this journey would end in the most excruciating of ways, as County endured an awful season that was to be symptomatic of their wider decline. Stockport amassed only 26 points all season and never moved off the bottom all season, conceding 102 goals in the process.

The size of their defeats (0-6 v Preston, 0-5 v Sheffield Wednesday, 0-4 at home to Millwall) pointed at a demoralised group of players. While what Kilner had done had clearly stopped working, sacking him and replacing him with Carlton Palmer did not work either. County, like every club in the second tier that season, were adversely affected by the collapse of the ITV Digital deal, but the rot had set in well before that magic money tree was shown to have Dutch Elm disease.

While they would briefly flicker again, winning the 2007/08 League Two play-off final at Wembley under Gannon’s management and he built an exciting team that threatened the top end of League One the following season. However, as the club’s ever-present money worries grew, the likes of Liam Dickinson, Tommy Rowe, Anthony Pilkington and Carl Baker were sold off and the death spiral began.

While County now seem to be more stable — ownership wise — they are still renting Edgeley from the council, and their aspiration to return to the EFL by 2020 is now looking a little fanciful given the amount of well-funded clubs now swimming around in the non-league. The issue of having to compete for airtime with much bigger clubs in their region is one that County and others will never be free of, but their team of the late 90s should be seen as a beacon of hope and held up as an example of what this club could achieve again with the right governance.

Follow Tom on Twitter at @tallulahonearth

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