EDGELEY PARK: Anticipation Blossoms

Whenever I think about which club’s fans have suffered the most in recent years, I’m always drawn to Stockport County’s. A decade ago, County supporters were backing a team in League One. However, three relegations in four years took the Hatters into the sixth tier of English football and they’ve struggled to make themselves real promotion candidates since.

Last season, though, things began to click under the leadership of Jim Gannon – in his third spell as manager. County finished in a play-off position for the first time since Gannon took them to League One in 2008 and – although they lost to Chorley – it looked like Stockport were on the way back after years of instability.

This season, Gannon’s team started slowly but a magnificent unbeaten run has launched them into a title race. When the girlfriend and I headed to Edgeley Park for County’s game against Southport, the home side had the chance to extend their run to 19 games without defeat. If they won, they’d also go level on points with Chorley at the top of the National League North.

The Highs

Stockport’s superfan coach

We sat in the impressive, two-tiered Cheadle End, which holds 5,044 supporters – about half the capacity of the whole ground. Accompanying us at the front was a gang of children who were making the most of their half-term by lining up behind the goal for the best view in the house.

Also after a prime viewing spot was a man in the front row who looked like a member of the Stockport coaching staff. He was dressed in full National League attire (a sky blue puffa jacket with black Jako trousers), continuously texted during the match and shouted words of encouragement from the edge of his seat. But soon, we started questioning whether he was actually a coach or just a Stockport superfan.

He looked less and less professional as the game went on. His constant twitching and animated mannerisms were more lively than the kids around him. Later on, we noticed he had a white carrier bag with him that looked like it was straight from the local chippy. Was this guy an actual paid member of staff?

When Stockport went two goals down after half an hour, his animation grew further. He joined in with the incredible chanting from the supporters behind him and raised his fist in a rallying gesture as County looked to find a way back into the game. He became more frantic when Stockport had a goal ruled out for offside and later called a Southport player a ‘dirty git’ during a red card appeal and joined in with the cries of ‘off, off, off.’

When Stockport eventually scored just before half-time, he flew out of his seat and banged on the advertising boards with the schoolchildren. Much to our disappointment, he disappeared in the second half but he did return to the Cheadle End at full-time and saluted the crowd one more time with his takeaway bag in hand. What a legend – be it coach or superfan.

The inevitable comeback

From the moment Stockport scored their first goal, their victory felt inevitable. The team came out for the second period with the same full-throttle mentality they displayed in the opening 45 minutes and quickly found the two goals required to turn the game around.

Man-of-the-match, Darren Stephenson, diverted Sam Minihan’s ball past the Southport keeper to level the score before Sam Walker found a superb winner three minutes later. He bent a luscious free-kick over the wall that crept just inside the post and wheeled away to the home fans in the Popular Stand whilst being mobbed by his teammates.

Despite 25 minutes remaining on the clock, Stockport never looked like conceding after taking the lead. There was a feeling of euphoria around the ground in the closing stages rather than nerves and it reminded me of the last match I watched out in Portugal.

Benfica were a team who’d won every league game since their new manager took charge and you could really feel the momentum at the Estadio da Luz as they romped to a 10-0 win. Although this game didn’t have a 10-goal swing, the same feeling of momentum resonated around Edgeley Park.

Stockport extended their run to 19 games unbeaten with 16 of those results victories. Chorley and Spennymoor Town still hold the cards in the promotion race but the pressure is certainly on the other teams now.

Full Stockport experience

While waiting for the train home, we met a Mancunian friend of ours in The Blossoms – a pub that indie band and Stockport natives, Blossoms, took their name from. The five-piece have a strong connection to their home town, with Edgeley Park featured in their video for Honey Sweet and the band also playing a homecoming gig at the ground in June.

The Blossoms was a cool place to visit and felt very cosy. A group of elderly men and women were crammed in a small room playing tunes while we were there and a couple of Stockport fans turned up to discuss the match with the barman. It felt like a perfect ending to our trip and gave us a quintessential Stockport experience.

The Lows

Home numbers

On a night that featured a thrilling comeback, an electric atmosphere, a (possible) coach going berserk and a drink at a top band’s home bar, it’s difficult to find any faults with our evening out.

I guess one thing that didn’t quite meet my expectations was the home attendance figure. Stockport had been attracting gates closer to 5,000 in recent home games but the match against Southport brought in the lowest number of fans for a number of weeks.

Another 1,000 fans in the seats around us could have created an even wilder night but the total of 3,724 is still incredible for the sixth tier and the Cheadle End was rocking even at 2-0 down.

The Verdict

Edgeley Park is a fantastic ground that I’m chuffed to have finally visited. Getting in was a bit more of a hassle than I thought, as I was expecting us to pay on the gate but we had to queue up at the ticket office. Finding the right entry was kind of complicated too, with access to the Popular Stand being in the Cheadle End car park and the Cheadle End entrance being on the road by the Main Stand. We made it inside with plenty of time to spare, though, and enjoyed seeing a club with such an illustrious history finally move their fortunes in an upward direction.

Stockport 3 – 2 Southport
National League North

Ground rating: 7/10

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