Edgeley Park

National League North: It’s Do-or-Die time for Stockport County as play-off race reaches its conclusion

ON the final day of the 2006/07 season, STOCKPORT COUNTY defeated Darlington 5-0 away from home, coming away with their largest victory of the last decade, in what was one of the tensest ends to a campaign imaginable.

Fast-forward 10 years and they face an equally thrilling finish to the National League North season – but County fans will be hoping that history won’t repeat itself. Back then, the Hatters fell agonisingly short of the League Two play-offs, missing out on goal difference despite that final-day flourish.

However, the circumstances are remarkably similar. This Saturday, County know they need to win (preferably, win big), and hope results elsewhere go their way. If that happens, then the Hatters’ objective of promotion will become one step closer.

It has been a whirlwind season of rollercoaster emotion for Jim Gannon’s men and promises to be exciting to the end. Given the situation County found themselves in just a week ago (4 points adrift of the play-offs with only 6 left to play for, having had their fate in their own hands at Easter), it is testament to the spirit and determination in the camp that there is even a chance of promotion. Yet, a battling 2-0 win at Bradford Park Avenue last Saturday, coupled with favourable results elsewhere, cut the gap to 2 points. A season that had withered away the week before was suddenly up and running again.

It’s a well-known adage that football is cyclical, and the game works in mysterious ways. Back in 2007, Darlington were vanquished by County, albeit in vain, as the Hatters really began to believe their club was on the rise. Gannon had taken over midway through the previous campaign, saving the club from near-certain relegation, but in his first full season, assembled an exciting side which may have fallen just short, but had the foundations of greatness. The following season, County were promoted (Darlington being one of the defeated play-off teams that year), before their subsequent implosion; the rest is history.

Stockport County manager Jim Gannon
County manager Jim Gannon celebrates winning the League Two play-off final in 2008

Switch to 2011/12, and both County and Darlington found themselves in the Conference National relegation zone. At Edgeley Park, back Gannon came for his second spell, helping to perform another Houdini act as County survived. Darlington’s tale didn’t end so well – the Quakers were relegated, and went out of business.

And so we come to today, and the similarities abound: having taken over for a third time and staving off the threat of relegation midway through last season, Gannon’s first full season back in charge of County has reaped the same encouraging growth of a youthful, dynamic and exciting side. There may be no 9-wins-and-clean-sheets record to speak of, or indeed Football League status at all, but this is a County team showing huge potential. Strangely enough, there again are Darlington – back at this level after reforming as a phoenix club in 2012.

Here are two clubs between which there is little to no needle, but a long history of competition, and a potential intertwining of fortunes. Except this time, County require a different kind of favour from Darlo; as with 2007, 2008 and 2012, their misfortune could be to the Hatters’ favour.
The FA this week rejected Darlington’s appeal against being barred from taking part in the play-offs over ground-grading rules. It means that should the Quakers finish in the top 5, their place will instead be taken by the team lying in 6th; but that’s not all.

Here’s the scenario: to make the play-offs, County must defeat Gloucester City on Saturday. No ifs, no buts. If that happens, they then need either 3rd-placed Halifax to beat Chorley (6th), or Darlington (4th) to beat Salford City (in 5th).

If Chorley draw, goal difference could come into play, and if County win by a 4-goal margin, they’ll be in the play-offs. If they win by 3, the two sides will be level on goal difference, but if Chorley draw 1-1 and County win 3-0 (or indeed any other combination where County’s winning margin is 2 goals more than Chorley’s score draw), it would leave both clubs dead level on points, goal difference and goals scored. In this scenario, County would progress on head-to- head record.

Top of the National League North table
Top of the National League North table

What all of this means is that the odds are stacked heavily against the Hatters, and the chance of 2007 repeating itself and County missing out on goal difference is very real. However, there is also a realistic opportunity to progress – it is not outlandish to suggest that at least one of Chorley or Salford will slip up in tough final-game matches, where the pressure is on them.

Regardless of the outcome, an infectious atmosphere awaits on Saturday, as County go in search of one final push. On its day, Edgeley Park can be truly electric – memories of the miraculous survival against Carlisle United in 2006, sweet play-off victory in 2008 and clashes against Leeds United in 2009 and 2010 come to mind, when there was not a spare seat in the house.

This season has also seen its own special occasions, such as the night against AFC Fylde when a new bond between players and fans was formed, or when FC United came to town and the Step Two record attendance was not just beaten, but smashed. County are hoping to break that record once again for the third time in two seasons on Saturday.

While it is easy to reminisce about better days, it is testament to how much progress County have made this season. Gannon often speaks with a clarity of mind and understanding rarely seen in the game; this week, in a rallying call to the Hatters’ supporters, he referenced those who have stuck by the club “through thin, thinner, a bit of thick and then thin again” – the ‘thick’, of course, being that magical period between 2006 and 2009 – and suggesting that Saturday’s task requires County to be “relentless for 90 minutes”.

Of course, there is always the danger with these types of situations that they could end up a damp squib; County may miss out after all, and reflect next week that this was the one that got away – but even if that is the case, time will show this season to have been a success in so many ways. For the first time since 2006-09, there is a real connection between fans and players, coupled with a mood of positivity and progress. With a near-fully fit squad and plenty of momentum, there is reason to be hopeful.

The opportunity of promotion hangs in the balance this weekend. The Hatters’ season may live on, or may come to a somewhat low-key end; but whatever happens, 2016/17 will surely be remembered as the season when Stockport County started to believe again.