Stockport County won’t be playing Manchester City again soon, but their rise has been incredible

Ian King

Stockport County head for Wembley for the League Two play-off final in rude health after a decade of serious decline which almost killed the club.


After five games of this season, Stockport County supporters might have been forgiven wondering whether they were promoted back into the EFL a year early. With just one win and three points to show for their efforts, they were 21st and only just above the relegation places.

It took them a while to fully adjust to their new surroundings, but once they did their ascent was dramatic. As late as the end of October, they were still 16th. By the end of the season they were fourth, ending with a run which saw them beaten just once in their last 19 games.

But the play-off semi-final against Salford City was a tense and nervy affair. Salford ended Stockport’s unbeaten run with a 1-0 win in the first leg, but a 1-0 County lead at 90 minutes in the second leg took the tie into extra-time. Salford pulled ahead again with eight minutes of extra-time, but Stockport levelled up just three minutes later and, with the momentum behind them, went on to win the penalty shootout 3-1.

And now to Wembley for the final against Carlisle United. Ticket sales have been strong, but not as strong as they might have been. The last official update was that 13,000 had been sold – the club gets an allocation of more than 39,000, so there’s no particular rush – but even though the final number is likely to be impressive, it may be slightly deflated somewhat by the fact that the match is kicking off at 1.30pm.

There are obvious reasons for this. The EFL have three fixtures and three days for these play-off finals, and they have to decide which division plays on which date over a Bank Holiday weekend before a ball has even been kicked at the start of the season. The Championship final is being played on the Saturday, the day with the best public transport connections. The League Two final is played on the Sunday afternoon, with an earlier kick-off time so as to avoid clashing with the last weekend of Premier League matches.

Quite aside from policing considerations in London, Sky would not be wanting this match intersecting with their breathless Premier League relegation-avoidance drama. This does suck for Stockport fans, but not as much it does for Carlisle supporters, whose wake-up time to get down to London in plenty of time for a lunchtime kick-off is going to play merry hell with their circadian rhythms.

Stockport’s return to the EFL last year came after an absence of 11 years, a period which pushed the club to the brink of its own viability. The decline from the much-celebrated 2-1 win against Manchester City in the First Division in March 2002 to the two successive relegations which sent them tumbling into non-league football nine years later was shocking enough.

Stockport County supporters celebrate their League Two play-off semi-final win

That this relegation turned out not to be the end of the club’s decline was even more so. Not only were they relegated into the Conference North two years later, but once there they had to turn part-time and finished their first two seasons in 14th and 11th place. The window of opportunity for a quick return to the EFL had already closed. For several years, it looked as though any opportunity at all was diminishing at pace.

The club’s return turned out to be as swift as their fall. It took Stockport seven years to get back into what by this time had been renamed the National League, but the improvement continued: 8th place in their first season back, 3rd in their second, champions in their third. Indeed, Stockport’s league position has improved every season since that bottoming out in 14th place in the Conference North in 2014.

The club came under new ownership in January 2020, with businessman Mark Stott taking over. He has put a lot of money into Stockport – part of the deal with him buying it was paying the club’s debt down to zero – but he is at least local, a lifelong supporter, and crowds have swollen to over 10,000 with the team now not only back in the EFL but also flourishing in it.

The timing of the takeover may have been extremely unfortunate for Stott, with the pandemic closing down the National League just weeks later, but it can only be considered to have been very fortunate for the club itself, which had the financial liquidity to get through the lockdown periods without too many issues, with the explosion of interest in lower division and non-league football since crowds were let back in only adding to that sense of momentum. Stockport famously have a “seven-year plan”, and there can be little question that they are ahead of schedule at present.

In 1998, Stockport County finished eighth in the First Division, 14 places above Manchester City, who were relegated. Over the next 15 years, County were relegated six times and promoted once; City had already won the FA Cup and the Premier League, the first two significant steps on their long march towards global domination, by the time County fell into the Conference North.

By 2013 Stockport were a part-time club playing regional football, who’d had a spell in administration from which they hadn’t emerged in a healthier position on the pitch. Mismanagement kept Stockport playing below their capability level for years, and to get back to this position in the first place might be considered correcting wrongs perpetrated upon the club in the past.

It’s unlikely that Stockport County will ever play Manchester City as equals again, but the progress they’ve made just to get to being on the cusp of a return to League One is more progress than anyone would have expected.