It is a baking hot July late afternoon, the type on which watching other people do exercise from areas of dappled shade feels like the best way to cool down. At Cheadle Nomads FC, a sports ground on the south of Manchester, Stockport County’s players are training. Seven members of the coaching staff watch over three groups performing different drills.
Around the pitch, supporters lean on a fence and catch up on the summer break; most have been counting down the days anyway. On the halfway line, a large gaggle of young children gather either side of the low wall that marks the entrance to the clubhouse. They are reminded to come away from the pitch at irregular intervals, but they gravitate there anyway. There are no Manchester City, Manchester United or Paris Saint-Germain shirts here, only Stockport County. They support a Football League club again.
It could so easily have been different. Few at Stockport ever considered the club becoming extinct, but only because they could not bear to envisage such an eventuality. Four years after hovering around midtable in League One, they were bottom of the National League North, the sixth tier of English football, and basically broke.
The collapse of ITV Digital in 2002 had made life hard. The sale of the club in 2005, without Edgeley Park included, made it virtually impossible. Stockport were stuck paying rent with little means of generating revenue as they slumped down the pyramid.
Mark Stott saved this club; his money was the difference-maker. He arrived like manna from heaven: local businessman, lifelong supporter, a vision to get Stockport back into the Championship and an acceptance that responsibilities must be delegated to experts.
But Stott’s best idea, the type that really leaves a legacy, was to bring Stockport County back into the bosom of the community that had stuck by it. He cherished people like Steve Bellis.
Over the last 40 years, Bellis has run like a seam through Stockport County. He has served as vice chairman of the Supporters’ Club, been on the supporters’ executive committee, written a sports column for the local paper, worked as the club’s marketing manager and headed the commercial department.
He played a crucial role in persuading the local council to purchase – and therefore protect – Edgeley Park. When attendances were low, he reached out to schools and community outreach programmes to rebuild broken links. Now Bellis is the club president.
At other clubs, presidency could indicate a ceremonial role. Not here. Bellis is emphatically hands-on. He has spent this summer taking the National League trophy around schools, community centres, care homes, children’s wards and pubs. His running joke is that he wants the town to see it for the last time. Stockport have served their time in non-league and have no intention of going back.
“If you do things the right way, it will come good. There’s no reason why we shouldn’t succeed. You have to believe in that,” Bellis says. “I’m usually cautious because I’ve seen the dark times, but I’ve never been as excited as I am now about the future of the club.
“There’s a huge thing about being in the 72 [the number of EFL clubs]. The town gets mentioned on Sky Sports every week. Lots of our fans didn’t ever think we would make it.
“We’ve been around for 139 years. There’s a lot to cherish (and a lot to forget). There’s a heritage there that is our duty to protect. We don’t do the community stuff for effect – we do it because it’s the right thing to do. And it makes so much sense.
“We have had people coming to buy season tickets and at the booth they say ‘the trophy came round to the kids’ school and now they want to come and watch games’. That’s our job, making that happen.”
Stott’s shrewdest move was appointing Dave Challinor as manager. It represented a coup: Challinor had just earned his fifth promotion in non-league football and taken Hartlepool United to League Two. He dropped back down to non-league because he believed in the potential of this club.
During our interview, he twice mentions taking one step back to allow several more forward. Now Challinor is the manager of the favourites for the League Two title.
“I had dropped down leagues before and people always told me I was mad,” he says. “But you have to give yourself the best chance of getting as high as you can. The infrastructure here gives me that chance.
“Everyone at this club knows that there’s an internal pressure to not settle. We want promotions and we want them quickly. We’ve all got things to prove and we all know we need to improve. But we do it together, and that gives us comfort.”
There is some money to spend, enough to make a difference. There is an intention to build a new training centre in the local area; for now Stockport use Carrington, Manchester City’s former training ground.
Both Bellis and Challinor mention the need to expand Edgeley Park, if all goes well. There is vast potential here and nobody seems to be shying away from it. After years in the gutter, why wouldn’t you aim for the stars?
But underneath it all, the community is the jewel. Challinor speaks of his pride in rising attendances, a buzz around the town towards the end of last season like nothing seen in two decades. This is a football town with a huge population that was looking for a reason to be proud of its football club. Build a team and build momentum, and they will come.
“The work that Mark and Steve have done has given the football club back to the community. You look at the crowds last season, the excitement, the joy when we got promoted. This is a big town and in a big town you need people to support their local club. Ultimately every single person that lives close to the ground and likes football, we want them in Edgeley Park. We know how powerful that is.
“My staff and I are custodians of this club. The supporters will always be here, they are the only constant. This is their club. And we needed to make sure that they knew that. The community is our greatest partner.”
As the session finishes, the kids spill onto the pitch with their families; this is why they are here. Stockport have organised the open training so that players and staff can interact with fans. Players pick up toddlers and pose for photographs. A small game breaks out, with first-team players and kids passing the ball to each other.
One child, younger than primary school age, tells striker Connor Jennings that he is coming to the first home game of the season. “I’ll see you there, mate,” is the reply. The child beams a smile that could last until his next birthday.