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OLIVER HOLT: Stockport County’s remarkable revival is part of a renaissance for non-league football

Yes, I remember Aggborough. It was late April when Stockport County played there, unusually, on the last day of another miserable season. It was 2013 and the club was still in free fall, still coming to terms with having lost their Football League status in 2011 after 106 uninterrupted years. The only way was down.

We all have memories of a moment that we consider a low point for our club. That was mine. Eleven years after being in what is now the Championship, Stockport had to beat Kidderminster Harriers to avoid relegation to the Conference North, the sixth tier of the English football pyramid. We lost 4-0. Some of our fans burst into the field and a Kidderminster player was attacked.

The players were led off the field. The game was interrupted for 31 minutes. The atmosphere in the away game was ugly and hateful and angry. The club had been betrayed or mismanaged by a number of owners and now it felt like they were dying. The police arrived, surrounded the end and drew their batons. My daughter’s hand gripped mine a little tighter. She had just turned 11.

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Stockport County is back in the Football League after 11 years

Back in the 1980s, when Stockport was in the old Fourth Division, I always thought it would be the end of the world if I dropped out of the League, but the longer County stayed in the National League North and the National League, the more I realized that was folly and that non-League football actually embodies a lot of what’s best about our game and its sense of community.

Stockport’s 11 year absence from the Football League gave me the opportunity to visit clubs such as Solihull Moors, Altrincham, Histon, Bromley, Wrexham, Chorley, Kidderminster, Brackley Town, Oxford City, Forest Green Rovers, Stalybridge Celtic and FC United or Manchester, proud clubs that had more soul than many teams that had multiple divisions above them.

Soul is not about how much money your club has or what division they are in and the truth is Stockports years in the National League have revived the club and reconnected them to their core support. It made people realize how precious they were to the community, so that when their fortunes turned after years of exploitation, they were propelled back up by a wave of popular support.

County got extremely lucky when local businessman Mark Stott bought the club and transformed every aspect of their infrastructure.

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Over 10,000 fans showed up at Edgeley Park to watch Stockport beat Halifax Town

Stott, who wiped out the £7.7 million the club owed him last month, invested money in new players but, equally importantly, showed how much he valued supporters’ loyalty by making sweeping improvements to the facilities at Edgeley Park, which had been neglected for years. Stockport’s revival owes much to Stott and the club’s manager, Dave Challinor, but it’s also part of a bigger picture of a remarkable renaissance in non-league football.

Wrexham averaged nearly 9,000 fans for games at the Racecourse Ground last season, Stockport over 7,000, Notts County and Chesterfield over 6,000 and Southend and Grimsby Town over 5,000.

A few months ago, over 10,000 fans gathered at the stadium to watch Stockport beat Halifax Town and return to the Football League for the first time in 11 years. They play their first game back in League Two this Saturday when Barrow visits Edgeley Park as a new English football season begins. A capacity of more than 10,000 people is again expected.

Stott expects many of County’s home games to be sold out. The club have sold more than 5,500 season tickets for the upcoming League Two campaign, more than they ever sold when County was in the second tier of the English game and hosted Manchester City. The club sold more than 3,000 shirts on the day they launched their new kit.

“It’s been insane,” says the county owner. “I know a lot of our fans don’t want City and United fans to move, but a lot of kids who are between the ages of 5 and 15 aren’t fully formed and maybe they’re starting to think they want to support their local team. “People are a little disappointed with the big clubs, which partly explains the turnout in the National League last season.”

Manager Dave Challinor helped lead Stockport County back to the Football League

Manager Dave Challinor helped lead Stockport County back to the Football League

When Stott bought the club, he said he wanted Stockport to be in the championship in seven years. “We are now two and a half years on and we are in League Two,” he says. “Maybe I’m wrong, but we’re promoting to League One this season. But League One to the championship is the biggest leap to make.”

Stott is brimming with optimism. Part of that is TV revenue rising from £90,000 a season in the National League to £1.1 million in League Two. Part of that is because County has bolstered a formidable squad. Part of that is that promotion to League Two means the league rules prevent Stockport’s youth team players from being poached for nothing by big clubs.

The club will build a state-of-the-art academy and apply for planning permission to extend the railway line at Edgeley Park. Ultimately, it is intended that the stadium capacity will reach 20,000.

The hope is that the club will attract more talent from the region. Phil Foden grew up a few hundred yards from Edgeley Park. ‘Sooner or later this has to be sustainable,’ says Stott. “We have a great training ground. Manchester City thus won the Premier League training. We can become a powerful force for young people locally. The vision is to bring in local talent and fill the stadium every week.’

The home game with Barrow on Saturday is the next stage of the rebirth. It’s all a long way from that April afternoon in Aggborough.

Wrexham averaged nearly 9,000 fans for home games at the Racecourse Ground last season

Wrexham averaged nearly 9,000 fans for home games at the Racecourse Ground last season

Greedy Stenson is a hollow man

In the race to sell a soul for money that has already ensnared so many in recent months, Henrik Stenson has jumped into the lead. Stenson has lost a fortune twice in his life, but now he has lost something more precious.

By signing up for the Saudi-backed LIV golf series and relinquishing the Ryder Cup captain of the European team, he has lost his reputation, popularity and credibility. We can all see him for what he is now, a hollow man who has forgotten that money comes and goes, but that if you sell your soul, you can’t buy it back.

It’s a striking contrast that golf tries to resist the invasion of Saudi billions, while football welcomes its sport being overrun with blood money. Unfortunately, the difference has more to do with business models than attitudes to human rights.

If football mirrored golf, men like Newcastle manager Eddie Howe and football director Dan Ashworth would consider a sports ban for taking Saudi money. But with the Premier League rolling out the red carpet for the Saudi regime, such a sanction will never be an option.

Henrik Stenson has exited the Ryder Cup by joining Saudi Arabia-backed LIV golf series

Henrik Stenson has exited the Ryder Cup by joining Saudi Arabia-backed LIV golf series

Gemili doesn’t get the message

Until last week, the last time I heard from Adam Gemili, he told an English journalist to rehab for the crime of asking him a question about a member of his training group who just got a 10-year doping ban.

Gemili, once a respected British sprinter, was recently told by UK Athletics that he must leave the program of Rana Reider, an American coach accused of sexual misconduct. Mili ignored the advice and then seemed surprised that his decision would receive negative publicity.

Last week, Gemili resurfaced, this time blaming the press for failing to make it past the 200m heats at the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon. Sounds like he needs a little more advice.

Adam Gemili did not get past the 200m heats at the World Athletics Championships

Adam Gemili did not get past the 200m heats at the World Athletics Championships

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