Stockport County: 'Man City were our rivals, now it's Curzon Ashton'

By Simon StoneBBC Sport
Stockport County play at Tottenham
Stockport came up against internationals including Les Ferdinand, Ledley King and Sergei Rebrov at White Hart Lane in 2001

In 2001, then-Championship club Stockport County reached the fifth round of the FA Cup, facing Tottenham at White Hart Lane in front of a crowd of 36,040.

The Hatters also reached the last 16 of a cup competition in 2014-15. Not the FA Cup this time, but the Cheshire Senior Cup and a tie at Alsager Town. The attendance? 141.

The difference between the two fixtures - just 14 years apart - could not be more marked.

It underlines just how far Stockport, who enter the FA Cup this weekend alongside the likes of Dunkirk, Deeping Rangers, Larkhall Athletic and Sporting Khalsa, have fallen.

'We had a team named after us in China'

Stockport fans in China
Stockport's tours to China proved popular and they even took their mascot along to entertain the locals

None of the other 159 clubs playing in the FA Cup this weekend can boast a continuous membership of the Football League that lasted more than a century, from 1905 to 2011.

And none have a team named after them in China either.

Stockport Tiger Star were a second division club based in Shenyang, 155 miles from the North Korean border, who changed their name after a visit from the English side in 2004.

Remarkable as it sounds, County drew a crowd of 22,000 - comparable to matches involving Manchester United and Barcelona elsewhere in China around the same time - to a friendly against Tiger Star.

The club made two such trips, thanks to contacts of then commercial director Steve Bellis, currently the director of a grassroots football organisation based in the north west who has just returned to Stockport in an advisory capacity.

Instead of heading to the sprawling mass of Beijing or Shanghai, where Europe's biggest names now tour so regularly, they went to Shenyang and Urumqi, among the stops on Chancellor George Osborne's current trade mission, in the east.

Stockport players greeted at airport by military band
Stockport's players - the "honoured guests" mentioned in this banner - received a grand welcome on their arrival in China

"They were different places - and things didn't always go to plan," said director Jon Keighren.

"On the 2001 trip I remember laughing at Andy Welsh, who was a teenager at the time, and Mike Flynn, who brought Mars Bars and Pot Noodles with them.

"When we went to the welcoming banquet and were given sea slugs and pigeon heads to eat, suddenly they were everyone's best friends."

While Stockport Tiger Star no longer exist, there remains an affection for Stockport among football fans in the region.

Visitors are still welcomed to Edgeley Park and there are loose plans to go back, although the stark reality of County's part-time status is an obvious hindrance, one of the clear differences between then and now.

Better than Man City

Stockport County
Stockport County and Manchester City were league rivals during the late 1990s and early 2000s

Stockport and Manchester City met six times in the league from 1997 to 2003. Stockport won three and lost one.

In 1999 they were in a higher division than their illustrious neighbours.

That's 1999. Sixteen years. Not that long ago.

Tony Blair was Prime Minister, the euro was launched and Manchester United won the Treble.

The years have been kind to City. Not so Stockport.

"When I was a kid, I got most of my geographical knowledge through County and the teams they were playing," said Bellis. "Not for one second did I think I would be discovering new places like Brackley and Braintree."

Stockport's fall has been dramatic.

Administration in 2009. Relegated to League Two in 2010. Into the Conference a year after that.

In 2013, they dropped into the Conference North with a hefty thud.

Man City were our rivals, now it's Curzon Ashton

Stockport County
Edgeley Park has played host to the likes of Manchester City and Everton, but now it is North Ferriby United and Chorley who visit

Instead of Manchester City, Stockport's local derby now is a meeting with Curzon Ashton, five miles from Manchester City's Etihad Stadium in distance, a million in glamour and prestige.

"I don't like to look back," said Bellis. "We have to deal with the reality of where we find ourselves.

"But sometimes little things shake you. Seeing the Colwyn Bay directors celebrate beating County at Edgeley Park is what sticks with me.

"I didn't begrudge them it - not one little bit. But you just think 'how has this happened?'."

Last season's visit by Chorley drew a season high of 3,401, modest at best by Football League standards but 650 more than any other side in the league managed.

Out of the darkness and into the light

The return of Bellis's marketing nous and the steady hand of Keighren and his fellow directors have brought stability to a club that was hurtling towards oblivion. A five-year plan is in place to return County to the Football League by 2020.

And the approach - as it has had to - has changed dramatically.

"Growing up as a Stockport fan was never easy," said Keighren, a lifelong fan who became a director in 2013.

"So many kids in the area drifted off to watch United and City. To me, you were either one of them or one of us.

"I don't think like that any more. Nowadays, you might see shirts of other clubs at Edgeley Park. We have to embrace that and try to give children and the wider community an experience they wouldn't have at United or City, purely because they can get closer to the players than is practical at those big clubs.

"For all that has happened over the last few years, going into administration in 2009 had the biggest impact because we owed money to businesses in the community and it damaged them.

"They are the relationships we are now trying to repair."

General view of AFC Fylde's Kellamergh Park ground
Stockport's players are used to rather different facilities - such as the ones that will meet them at AFC Fylde this weekend - than their predecessors enjoyed playing in the Championship

A step in the right direction would be victory in the FA Cup second qualifying round on Saturday. A win would bring a reward of £4,500.

But while Stockport's name stands out as the grandest of the 160 clubs involved, their progression is far from guaranteed. They face a tricky tie against fellow National League North side AFC Fylde, who are above them in the table.

The trip to Kellamergh Park, with its 533 covered seats and a capacity of just over 3,000, will seem a long way from White Hart Lane or a game against Manchester City.