By Ben Collins – @BCjourno
SATURDAY’S trip to Kidderminster will bring back some unpleasant memories for STOCKPORT COUNTY fans.
The two sides meet in the National League North tomorrow with 3rd-placed Kidderminster hosting an in-form Stockport side which is outside the play-off places on goal difference. It’s a far cry from the Hatters’ last trip to face the Harriers at Aggborough for the final game of the 2012/13 season. It’s no exaggeration to say it was arguably the darkest day in the club’s history. It was certainly a day everyone involved with the club would rather forget.
As many as 1,500 County fans were believed to have travelled to Worcestershire in the slim hope the Hatters could avoid a 3rd relegation in 4 years – and dropping to the 6th tier for the first time in their history. As well as needing to upset the Harriers, County also needed other results to go their way.
For Kidderminster, the situation is actually quite similar. Back then they hoped to pip Mansfield to the Conference Premier tittle. Now they’re hoping to chase down AFC Fylde. Incidentally, their manager was Steve Burr, who left Stalybridge Celtic to take charge of the Harriers in 2010 and has just returned as Bridge boss.
That game, along with Mansfield’s home match with Wrexham, were switched to 5.15pm kick-offs, which immediately spelled danger given certain spectators (let’s not call them fans) could spend most of the day drinking, yet Kidderminster didn’t make it all-ticket.
With the home fans anticipating a return to the Football League, a crowd of 6,453 crammed into Aggborough and Anthony Malbon broke the deadlock on 51 minutes. As the hosts’ celebrations died down, a small group of County supporters encroached onto the pitch and although midfielder Alex Kenyon tried to clam them down, one punched Harriers defender Lee Vaughan.
Play was suspended for around 30 minutes while the players left the pitch and order was restored, and within 6 minutes of the restart Malbon and Cheyenne Dunkley had put Kidderminster 3-0 up. Martin Devaney added a 4th on 75 minutes, seconds after coming on, and Vaughan even missed a penalty as County’s season drew to a dismal conclusion.
That afternoon I’d covered Accrington at Bristol Rovers. It had been years since I’d been a regular at Edgeley Park but I always looked out for how my hometown club were doing.
Knowing County were facing an uphill battle to avoid relegation and having a rare free Saturday, I went to their 1-1 draw at Macclesfield 3 weeks earlier.
Although it was a valuable point, I knew they didn’t look a side with enough fight to beat the drop but I clung to the hope they could manage to gain enough points from the remaining 5 games. They took 4 from a possible 12 before facing Kidderminster so it looked unlikely.
Listening to the radio as I drove away from Bristol, I was disappointed I couldn’t be there myself to show my support and was shocked to hear what events were unfolding. Deep down I knew County were destined to go down, but for it to be confirmed in that matter must have hurt anyone with links to Stockport. The biggest emotions for me were anger and shame. Not just over the team’s meek performance but over that idiotic minority which was tarnishing the club’s name.
I know that most County fans aren’t like that but the following day’s headlines weren’t going to reflect that. However, I later heard that the right-minded majority behind the goal had urged the trouble-makers to get off the pitch, singing ‘sit down, if you love County’. They were applauded by the home fans and, despite that drama, the Hatters should receive a warm welcome this weekend.
Kidderminster’s chairman at the time said: “I have to congratulate the vast majority of Stockport County supporters who behaved magnificently in difficult circumstances. They treated the day and the occasion with tremendous respect and it is just unfortunate that one or two caused issues and problems.”
Mansfield won at Wrexham that day to clinch the Conference Premier title while Kidderminster lost to Wrexham in the play-off semi-finals. The Harriers then finished 7th and 16th before being relegated last term. County, meanwhile, have since finished 14th, 11th and 9th in the National League North and, with Jim Gannon now back in charge, have their best chance yet of climbing back into non-league’s top flight.
The Hatters are 12 unbeaten in the league after last week’s 2-1 derby win at home to mid-table FC UNITED, when the two sides set a step-two attendance record of 5,630 – County’s biggest league crowd at Edgeley Park since 6,113 saw them lose 1-0 to Dartford the week before that trip to Kidderminster in 2013.
Gannon said last Saturday: “I think everybody going away from the game will be really pleased they came today. It’s fantastic because the spirit of the club is building, and the support is building, and that is definitely going to make a difference as we go into those final 12 games.”
The difference now to that miserable day in 2013 could barely be more stark. The County side I saw draw 1-1 at home to Harrogate Town on New Year’s Day were organised, had leaders and had heart. They’ve bounced back from that setback of conceding a bizarre last-gasp own goal to get to the brink of the play-off places, winning 3 of their last 4 – they would have won all 4 if it wasn’t for a dubious late equaliser at Alfreton.
The Hatters are only 2 points behind Kidderminster and 2nd-placed SALFORD CITY, who host lowly AFC Telford tomorrow. Then after Saturday’s game, County go into a mouth-watering March in which they face 4th-placed Chorley (H), mid-table CURZON ASHTON (H), Salford (A) and Fylde (A) before hosting 8th-placed Tamworth.
Things looked so bleak for Stockport on that April evening back in 2013. It’s since taken a few years for the Hatters to get their house in order but finally the future is bright.