“It’s been a long 11 years,” Stockport County Club President Steve Bellis said ahead of the opening game of the Sky Bet League Two season.
It’s been a long road back for County, who, after more than a decade away from the EFL, are one of the favourites for promotion again this season, after hitting rock bottom when they fell into non-league football.
But things look very different at Edgeley Park these days. A Club rejuvenated since local businessman Mark Stott completed a takeover of his hometown team in January 2020, County are building something special and, coupled with the backing of an excited and loyal fanbase, things are on the up for the Hatters.
“There were many people out there, maybe even myself included for a little while, that wondered whether this day would ever come,” Bellis continued.
“So, to be stood at Edgeley Park on the opening day of the season as an EFL Club, it’s something everyone is so excited about and the buzz around this place for the last couple of months has been great. We just cannot wait for what’s to come.”
Having started on the Supporters’ Committee in the 1980s, Bellis was a member of both the Junior Supporters’ Committee and the Executive Committee, before becoming the club’s first Marketing Manager in 1989.
“It’s fair to say things were tough then,” he said.
“We used to say back then if we finished 90th out of the 92 then we’d had a good season because it meant we weren’t considered for re-election which is how it worked back then.”
After being consulted by then-Chairman Brendon Elwood on setting up a new membership scheme, Bellis came to the conclusion that Stockport were suffering from a “dying audience”.
A pioneering community programme saw Bellis and County take first-team players into local primary schools to educate them before extending an invite to take in a game, and by 1996 Stockport boasted the youngest paying audience in professional football with more than 40% of County’s paying crowd being children.
“We built ourselves up from there,” Bellis explained.
“We built our junior support base through the 90s which was a great thing to do, not many Clubs were doing it back then, not like now. We were very pioneering back in those days because we had to be. There are some very big football Clubs not a million miles down the road from us and we were competing with them.
“From there, we found ourselves having success both on and off the pitch and in 1997 found ourselves getting promoted into what is now the Championship, which was brilliant.”
But a rocky road followed and Stockport dropped out of the EFL for the first time in 2010/11, finishing rock bottom of League Two, seven points clear of safety. Things went from bad to worse in 2013 when County needed a result on the final day against Kidderminster Harriers, but a 4-0 loss saw them relegated to the sixth tier.
“I never thought the club would end up playing non-league football and I certainly didn’t think we’d end up in the National League North. But you learn so much from that and what you do then realise and appreciate is how important the 72 are, because when you’re out of it you can very quickly fade away and be forgotten about.”
But ‘fading away’ seems very unlikely now. Two promotions in three seasons has seen Stockport take a huge step forward. On the pitch, County fired their way to promotion from the National League North in 2018/19, before winning the National League title last season and returning to the EFL.
Bellis added: “It’s been so tough. When our new owner came in he set an ambitious target of getting to the Championship within seven years, but we all knew that the toughest hurdle would be getting back into the EFL.
“The National League is so competitive; there are so many big Clubs in there all wanting the same thing, so to actually achieve that has been momentous. I can’t tell you how much it means.
“There’s so much to it, but it’s the little things like being on the highlights show, or being on Sky Sports News on a Saturday afternoon and featuring on the yellow ticker; they’re such little things but they really matter and everybody here is so excited. It’s an incredible place to be at the moment.
“One thing I thought we’d never see is Stockport County becoming trendy! You look at the demographic of some of the supporters and we’ve got so many young fans - the atmosphere they create is incredible. They deserve the moments this club is having, but the people who also deserve it are the older fans, those that have stuck by us through thick and thin - and there has been a lot of thin in the last 11 years. They deserve this as much as anybody and I just can’t wait to see the fans smiling again. This season is for them.”
Forty years on from joining the Supporters’ Board in the 80s, Bellis is still very much involved and it’s fair to say Stockport County is very much in his heart.
“It means everything to me. And I’m so honoured to be a part of it.”
After firing their way to the National League title last season, now County are hungry for more.
“I’ve had a great time this summer touring the local pubs, hospitals and venues with the National League trophy and it’s been great meeting everyone and seeing what it means to them as well.
“I’m so honoured to have the role of President at this great Club. People often say to me, ‘it must be really hard work doing what you do’, but nothing is hard work when it’s your Football Club, and when it’s your Club and you’ve just got back into the EFL, it’s even better.”
A crowd of more than 10,000 filled Edgeley Park to watch County play their first EFL match in over a decade. Despite an impressive second-half fightback, Dave Challinor’s side suffered a 3-2 defeat to Barrow, but it certainly won’t dampen the spirits of the newly-promoted club.
“In many ways, the result of the opening day was almost irrelevant,” Bellis said. “It was just about being back in the League and I think we’re going to be in it for a very, very long time.”