How Stockport County turned their fortunes around

Stockport County manager Dave Challinor interviewed by Telegraph Sport
Stockport County manager Dave Challinor was appointed in November 2021 - Telegraph/Paul Cooper

The conversation has turned to George Best and Steve Bellis cannot get his words out fast enough. “I’ll tell you a brilliant story about him,” says Stockport County’s larger than life president as he recalls that brief period in 1975 when the legendary former Manchester United winger played three games for the club in the old fourth division.

“George scored in his first game,” Bellis explains. “He swung in a corner and it looked like it had gone straight in when, in fact, an 18-year-old striker we had called Steve Massey, a local lad born and bred, had actually got a touch. Everyone thought George had scored and rushed over to him.

“Steve came back to the club recently and he’s recounting this. ‘I’m there, I know I’ve scored it but do I go and tell George Best it’s my goal or do I just go and congratulate him like the rest of the players? … I went and congratulated George Best.’”

Massey’s deference would ultimately cost him a significant milestone, though. “Agonisingly, Steve ended up finishing his career on 99 league goals!” Bellis says. “Can you imagine?”

It is a sunny afternoon at Stockport’s training ground and Bellis, happy and relaxed on a couch in the players’ lounge, is reeling off tales both past and present while some of Dave Challinor’s squad laugh and joke and play darts in the background. His association with the club stretches back more than 40 years but it is doubtful he has ever felt quite so optimistic about its future.

He was there during the halcyon days of Brendan Elwood’s chairmanship in the late 1990s and gleefully recalls the time when Stockport finished eighth in what is now the Championship, their highest-ever league position, while neighbours Manchester City dropped out of the same division into the third tier.

Stockport County's life president Steve Bellis
Stockport County's life president Steve Bellis has seen the dark times at the club - Paul Cooper/Telegraph

But there was a time when Stockport might easily have gone the way of a Macclesfield Town or Bury FC before local businessman Mark Stott completed a takeover four years ago that transformed their fortunes.

You sense when speaking to Bellis that he has never lost sight of how perilously close they came to the abyss and how such sobering memories ensure he will never take for granted what the club - sitting pretty at the top of League Two and chasing a third promotion in six seasons - now have under Stott.

The answer to that smacks you in the face the moment you walk through the doors of their bustling training facility in Carrington, a stone’s throw from Manchester City’s old base where Roberto Mancini and Mario Balotelli would once get into scuffles and, a couple of fields further on, Manchester United’s HQ.

It hits you between the eyes on a matchday at a sold out Edgeley Park where you can almost feel the loud, intimidating Cheadle End sucking the ball into the opposition net and Challinor’s swashbuckling side - who won a record equalling 12 successive league matches earlier this season - dazzle the eye.

It resonates in the love, care and attention paid to loyal supporters and former players and the thriving community programmes in a once downtrodden town whose own reinvention mirrors that at the club.

And it is curated with razor sharp clarity by influential director of football, Simon Wilson, as he outlines Stott’s “seven-year plan” to take Stockport back to the Championship and the ambitions to double Edgeley’s capacity to 20,000 and build a new training ground with the space to also accommodate the women’s team and, they hope, a burgeoning academy.

League Two rivals Wrexham are not the only ones who feel like they have hit the jackpot. Stockport’s renaissance may not have captured the imagination of Hollywood but it is a compelling script all the same. “We undoubtedly won the lottery the day we got Mark Stott,” Bellis says.

Stockport County owner Mark Stott interview
Stockport County owner Mark Stott - Sport_Scans

Yet to better understand the Stockport story it is important first to go back and recall how a club that were once playing to bigger crowds in China on a pre-season tour than United and Barcelona would eventually find itself playing part-time football in England’s sixth tier National League North.

The club Bellis had left behind in 2004 was unrecognisable to the one with which he was reunited a decade later, ravaged by a messy merger, boardroom politics, infighting and mismanagement, debt, administration, points deductions and endless managerial merry-go-rounds. And all the while the team continued to sink further and further down the pyramid.

Back-to-back relegations saw Stockport tumble out of the Football League for the first time in their history in 2011 and, two years later, they dropped out of the Conference amid disgraceful scenes that saw an opposition player punched by a group of pitch invading fans. Bellis had attended Stockport’s final home game that season, against Dartford, and still sounds haunted by the memory. “It was like a ghost club,” he said. “I remember being in the players’ bar, it was about 5.30 and there was nobody there. Dead. It was like the soul had been ripped out of the club.”

Life in National League North was a humbling experience. “The amount of times we’d travel to clubs who’d say: ‘You shouldn’t be here, you don’t belong here’,” Bellis reflects. “And we’d say ‘No, we do, because if you don’t do things the right way this is what happens’. We were there because we deserved to be.”

Bellis can allow himself a little gallows humour now but some scenes remain scorched on his memory, like trying to watch a game at North Ferriby through the thick plumes of smoke billowing across the pitch from an adjacent allotment or an awkward visit to Vauxhall Motors. “They have this portakabin where they put the directors,” Bellis explains. “There’s a very stern-faced old chap behind the counter where all they’d have is a plate of biscuits and some tea and coffee. Every time you took a biscuit you’d hear this tut and he’d bend down and replace it with another one. And they beat us, of course.”

Those were the days when Stockport’s long-standing goalkeeper, Ben Hinchliffe, was also doubling as a lorry driver and the club’s training base amounted to an old astroturf at St Paul’s High School in Wythenshawe. “There were times we’d turn up and they’d say ‘Sorry, you’ll have to wait to get on because the Under-11s are in a Cup match and it’s gone to extra time,” Bellis recounts.

Life could not be more different these days. Wrexham were stuffed 5-0 during that extraordinary 12-game winning streak and Stockport are currently four points clear at the top of League Two. Under Challinor, they seek to dominate possession and play high intensity, front foot football in a style influenced by the likes of Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Challinor joined Stockport as a player in January 2002. The next month the club were relegated with the lowest points total in Championship history. A different narrative is unfolding now.

Stockport County Dave Challinor interviewed by Telegraph Sport
Challinor has brought an aggressive and enterprising style of football to Edgeley Park - Paul Cooper/Telegraph

On a wall in the players’ lounge is a picture of the dressing room at Wembley last season, where Stockport were beaten in the play-off final by Carlisle on penalties. There is a tight bond in the dressing room and the determination to go one better this time around is obvious. “That picture got put up at the very start of the season just as a constant reminder of the emotions and regret we had that day,” explains defender Macauley Southam-Hales, who has been with the club since the early days of Stott’s takeover. “No one wants to feel that again.”

In the opposite corner resides a “forfeit wheel”. Players on a losing team in a 5 a side game at the end of training must spin the wheel to determine their “punishment”. On the day we speak, Southam-Hales had copped for buying £40 worth of cakes for staff. Other forfeits include having to chat up a mannequin or dancing for a minute. “It’s there to keep the standards high in training,” he says. “Not that you take that wheel away and it’s less competitive but it just gives more edge to the games. Like a Saturday, there’s something on the line.”

Challinor, appointed in November 2021, is now England’s 14th longest serving manager and has helped to unlock so much of Stockport’s potential. “When Dave walked into this training ground it was like he pressed a button and changed the atmosphere completely,” Bellis says.

Wilson and Stott certainly did their homework. They had admired Challinor’s style of play at his previous clubs, Colwyn Bay, Fylde and Hartlepool, and “how he was getting so much value out of what he had” and felt he was the ideal fit. “We couldn’t predict it would go as well as it has done though,” Wilson admits.

Wilson has been central to Stott’s vision and the club’s owner has admittedly publicly that he could not have done it without him. Having begun his career at Prozone, one of the pioneers behind data-analysis in football, before joining Southampton as an analyst, Wilson rose to prominence at Manchester City as a strategy and performance manager and later was entrusted with building out the City Football Group empire following the acquisitions of Melbourne City and New York City. He left to set up his own consultancy and was advising the likes of Ajax, Copenhagen and the Premier League when Stott gave him 30 days to pull together a blueprint for Stockport. “It was largely a financial plan and that’s what eventually spit out this seven-year plan,” Wilson says.

Stockport County director of football Simon Wilson interviewed by Telegraph Sport
Stockport County director of football Simon Wilson - Telegraph/Paul Cooper

The project, Wilson says, “got under my skin”, although it is amusing to think now that he was initially unsure he could work with Stott, a property mogul behind the Cheshire-based Vita Group. “Then I saw how he was with his team and it just reminded me of some of the best people I’d worked for before,” Wilson says. “I thought if you apply that same attention to detail to Stockport then this will work - and that’s exactly what he’s doing.”

Amid the lofty ambitions, though, Stockport have never lost touch with their roots. And this is where Bellis comes in. He looks embarrassed when it is suggested he is “Mr Stockport County” and is at pains to name others, such as Richard Park and George Hudson, who fought to keep the club alive during those dark days, including persuading the local council to purchase Edgeley Park and save it from demolition in 2015.

Indeed, Stott might have felt more inclined to buy Macclesfield had Stockport not gathered a little momentum in the year or two before the takeover and won promotion back to the National League in 2018/19 under legendary former manager, Jim Gannon.

“Mark said to me my role is to make sure we don’t lose touch with who we are,” Bellis says. “You’re there to protect the DNA.”

Stockport were such creative, innovative thinkers in the 1990s that Bellis recalls seeing David Sheepshanks on a flight one time and being told his club were frequently the talk of the Ipswich Town boardroom. One of Stockport’s great successes back then was the “free-ticket scheme” and the kids who benefited at that time are the ones now bringing their own children to games. It has been a gateway to a whole new generation of supporters.

The National League trophy was paraded around 88 pubs across the town and taken into schools. Stockport were the first club to have a free range hearing system for visually impaired supporters and to provide football on prescription for those suffering from obesity and so many of those inspired original initiatives are now being rolled out again but on a bigger scale. Or, as Bellis says, “with bells and whistles on”. “I always refer to Mark as Brendan on steroids”, he adds, proudly.

That personal touch is evident in the treatment of former players. They are welcomed back with great regularity and any player who has made 100 appearances or more is given a velvet cap with their name and number of games on. Equally, on a wall outside the home dressing room is a list in chronological order of every single player who has ever represented the club. You will find Best’s name there.

Stockport County's life president Steve Bellis
Bellis believes protecting the club's DNA is of upmost importance - Paul Cooper/Telegraph

The Times recently named Stockport as one of the 12 most desirable towns in England for first time homebuyers. A £1 billion regeneration programme is helping to drive greater prosperity and the football club sees plenty of room for growth, too.

“When you equate the fanbase to the size of town it’s clear there’s scope to grow,” Challinor says. “Stockport has 300,000 people. They say it’s normally about eight per cent of a town who go to the football so when you think in those terms that gets you to 20,000 people or so.”

Work on redeveloping the Railway End of Edgeley Park could begin this summer. Turnover at Stockport has increased six fold since the takeover but the club wants to be self-sustaining and, in that regard, the academy and an eventual move to a new training ground is considered pivotal.

Stockport’s location geographically on the doorstep of United and City has its drawbacks but also its benefits, just as the environment they have created and the quality of their football has made them appealing to Premier League clubs looking to place their aspiring young talents to gain experience. Louie Barry, once at Barcelona, arrived on loan from Aston Villa this season and had scored nine goals in 16 games before injury struck and Rhys Bennetts, United’s FA Youth Cup winning captain in 2022, arrived on loan last month. Promotion to League One would only broaden that appeal.

During those uglier times, Stockport closed their centre of excellence. It was considered a cost not a benefit, a decision unthinkable to those now running the club. Phil Foden, the City and England midfielder dubbed the “Stockport Iniesta”, grew up on the streets two minutes from Edgeley Park and, while talents that good will always be the preserve of the best, County want to create their own talent factory.

“We’re surrounded by massive Premier League clubs,” Challinor says. “They release far more players than they take on so the relationships we build with them will undoubtedly be huge.

“But in order to help your recruitment, if you can get players through and have a pathway story that says an Under 8, 9, 10 came through Stockport County, got into the first team and got sold on to a Premier League club then your recruitment works. We have to produce our own players.”

For now, though, Challinor’s primary focus is on securing promotion and, like the rest of Stockport, he will hope they have achieved that feat before they head to fellow title hopefuls Wrexham on the final day.

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