By Jacob Greenwood
Attention turns away from the league (thank goodness!) and towards the FA Cup this weekend as The Cards travel to Stockport County for their Round One tie.
After a string of poor results, Garry Hill’s side will now be focusing on how to overcome a County side that will certainly be ‘up for the cup’ under experienced manger Jim Gannon. Despite sitting in mid-table, the side from Greater Manchester had an impressive October, losing just one game to Kidderminster Harriers and winning their four other games.
Although they are in step two of non-league, County, as an ex-league side, are still widely seen as a ‘big club’ and even have a side named after them in China. A big crowd is expected on Saturday as they look to revisit some teams they were more familiar with on their journey in the higher tiers of English football.
We talked to Sam Byrne from Stockport News about the club and what Woking fans can expect on Saturday.
Stockport will always been seen as a ‘big club’ thanks to their history, previously in Division 1, how have fans adapted to being a non-league team, are they just happy to have a club?
As you allude to in a question below, initially many probably thought County would be straight back up – firstly from the National League into the Football League, and then from the National League North back into the National League! So relegation into non-league in 2011 was gutting for the whole club, and while attendances both home and away have remained some of the best in non-league (and even better than some L2 and L1 clubs), I don’t think it’s the fans “adapting” to non-league. Just die-hard football fans doing what die-hard football fans of any club do.
You won’t find a single County fan who will claim to have truly enjoyed any part of non-league football – but as things got worse and worse both on and off the pitch over the last few years, an air of resignation and of being battered into submission from the fans seemed to appear, which is probably mistaken by some as acceptance from the fans of where the club finds itself.
When Stockport got relegated from The Conference it was though that they would come back up pretty soon, but it hasn’t happened, what has been going on at the club?
It’d probably be quicker to tell you what hasn’t happened at this club over the past few years than what has! Summing things up as briefly as possible, we dropped into non-league with Ray Mathias in charge – he’d steadied the ship on the pitch somewhat in League Two and fleetingly gave us a chance of survival, so most were happy with him staying in charge. But over that summer, a ‘consortium’ of Liverpool-based businessmen got their foot in the door and somehow were allowed to point Didi Hamann as manager with Mathias shown the door, before signing a boat-load of Liverpudlian players. The consortium, and Hamann, rather predictably left the club just two months later and County were left with a sinking ship which was now sinking even faster than before. So much has gone on over the past decade, and every single fan will point to a different issue being the most problematic, but that consortium being allowed to play Football Manager with the club despite no alleged evidence of any funds or backing was a big factor in things going even more wrong.
We swiftly dropped into the Conference North, and although there’s been three seasons of mid-table finishes, club legend Jim Gannon is back in charge with owners who are now steadying the ship off the pitch and doing their bit to tie up all the different debts/loans etcetera.
You’ll speak to some fans who won’t agree with that at all and who will argue that these same owners were some of the same people who were also in charge during our decline, and that gradual progress in the sixth division isn’t really progress – but the majority (in my opinion!) do support what’s currently going on. So that does just give you an idea of not just the issues on and off the pitch, but the differing views of the fanbase as well. I know I said it’d be a brief overview, but that’s almost impossible!
County currently sit in mid-table, what is the aim for this season in your opinion?
As mentioned, Jim Gannon is back in charge and he will have the support and patience of the vast majority of fans as he rebuilds. We really struggled last season under Neil Young with a high turnover of players and a rotten run of mid-season form, and Jim pretty much completely rebuilt the squad over the summer, so while the play-offs are the goal (Fylde will surely run away with the one automatic spot!) I imagine a season where County may just miss out on a play-off spot would be accepted by the fans, as long as progress on the pitch is being achieved. It’s a very tight division with any of around 9 teams going for the play-offs, but that will be the goal.
Coming from step two of non-league, County have already had a few games in The FA Cup this season, how did they get to round one?
We’ve had one of the more comfortable routes into the First Round, it has to be said. Three home ties in the three qualifying rounds, with only one of those coming against a side in the same division, and three 2-0 wins.
Hyde and Bishop Auckland from divisions seven & nine were swept aside quite routinely at Edgeley Park in the second and fourth (final) qualifying rounds, but the biggie was Salford City at home in the Third. Some County fans probably had a bit of a chip on their shoulder about the ‘media darlings’ of Salford after their Cup exploits on the BBC last season, so the 2-0 win and rather dominant performance was quite sweet. That provided everyone at the club with a lot of confidence as Salford were quite fancied and would have been confident of a win themselves.
How big a game is this for the club?
It’s massive. I think it’s fair to say nobody would dub Stockport vs Woking as a glamour tie for either side, but the occasion itself is big. It’s the first time since 2012 that we’ve reached the First Round proper, but as a National League side at the time, we were drawn away at Southend in what was probably the worst possible draw we could have got, and a 3-0 defeat beckoned. We’re just on the back of a run of four wins in five games now, so confidence is high all around, and many are looking at your away record and league position and fancying the win. I know Woking are pulling out all the stops to get fans travelling in big numbers, and I’m sure you’ll rightly fancy the result as well. As we discussed on Twitter, County are really pushing their reduced admission prices and trying to get as many fans through the gates as possible, so a big attendance could also be on the cards. So it will hopefully be a big atmosphere for what is a big occasion despite the tie on paper not looking the best!
Who will Woking have to watch out for on Saturday?
Easiest question you’ve given me! Danny Lloyd, the left-sided attacker signed from Fylde over the summer. 9 goals and 8 assists in 17 games so far this season for County. He’s proven a real fan favourite so far, and County will always be confident of a result home or away with him in the side. He was actually left out of the squad altogether last weekend in a 0-1 home defeat to Kidderminster with Saturday’s Cup tie in mind!
In midfield, Lewis Montrose – a former League Two title winner with Wycombe – has a touch of class and can look head and shoulders above this level when he’s on his game.
Finally, what’s your score prediction?
A: It’s a really tricky one. County could well be the bookies favourites, which is probably a bit harsh on Woking if so! I’m sure you guys will expect the win no matter your league position, just as I’m sure County fans would do against a lower division side. Jim Gannon will inspire confidence in the home fans due to his prior Cup exploits – he guided Northwich to the Second Round last season, where they were actually 2-0 up at Northampton only to lose 3-2 in the final eight minutes. He managed ten FA Cup games last season at Northwich – four more than Man Utd played, who won the entire competition!
I don’t much fancy a long Tuesday night mid-November trip to Woking (no offence!) so rather predictably, I’ll go for a 1-1 draw and a replay to follow!