“I always said: ‘This isn’t like a speedboat we’re turning around, it’s a huge tanker.”
That was the message from Stockport County’s Club President, Steve Bellis, as he addressed the Hatters faithful nine years ago after the Club dropped into the sixth tier of English football.
Fast forward to the present day, the outlook is a very different one for the Club, who started to attract interest by doing things the County way after local businessman Mark Stott completed a takeover of his hometown team in January 2020.
“Our supporters sometimes have to pinch themselves that we have found an owner that is here for the right reasons,” says Bellis. “People look at him like some kind of Demigod.“
He was a local guy who used to sell advertising in the Stockport Express Advertiser, but he wanted to put something back. If you walked in the room, you’d never know he was the owner. He makes me travel to the games because he says, ‘I’m not putting a tie on, Bellis, that’s your job’.
"He’s bought it because of the fanbase and what we do in the community and he wants to do that with bells on and turbocharge it.”
There were questions to be asked upon his arrival, including the most important one: ‘What if we just become a Club that has some wealth behind it and lose who we are?'
Bellis continues: “There are times when we do things that we think are right in business, but they don’t work if you understand the Club. As a great example, there was a meeting about having goal music, which our fans hate, because they have their own rendition when we score, so I dived in and said no.
“It’s about preserving the DNA and heritage. If I thought we were going to change our morals and ethics, I would walk out the next day.”
After stepping foot in Edgeley Park, the North West-born businessman immediately set his sights on the second tier, and, in the midst of a global pandemic, it would be no easy feat.
He laid out a plan to get the Club back into the Sky Bet Championship within seven years and two promotions in three seasons later, Stockport have taken a huge step forward.
“People scoffed, as they would, but now we find ourselves back in the EFL,” Bellis smiles. “We’ve got a great nucleus of a squad that we don’t have to add much to be competitive. We’ve got momentum and that counts for a lot.
“The training ground and facilities that we have are certainly Championship standard. The first thing Mark did was invest in the stadium. He said, ‘let’s take advantage of the fact there’s nobody here, so when the fans come back, they’re going to walk back in and go, ‘wow’.
“We have a philosophy that no business has the right to operate unless it invests into the community from which it takes. I’m a great believer that if you do good things, good things come your way. We’ll be doing a lot more work off the pitch to embed the Club into the area. Hopefully, we’ll get more good karma.”
Bellis’ 32-year association stretches back to the 1989/90 campaign when then-Chairman Brendan Elwood enlisted his help in setting up a new membership scheme. He soon came to the conclusion that Stockport – who played their games on a Friday evening so as not to clash with neighbouring giants – 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.
“We were ahead of the game – there was nobody doing anything of its kind at the time and we won awards for it,” he explains.
“We went to four schools per week and delivered an hour-long presentation, using the players as role models, and they acted out a drama about the dangers of excess alcohol, smoking, bullying, racism and other key subjects. It was very interactive and non-authoritarian.”
By 1996, Stockport boasted the youngest paying audience in professional football; more than 40% of County’s paying crowd were children.
The Club – one of the first in the country not to need police on a matchday as the dynamic begun to evolve – reaped a ream of benefits in terms of new sponsorship.
As a result, Stockport won promotion to the First Division in 1997, having sat bottom of Division Four for the most part of the previous 20 years and Bellis can draw parallels in the current day, with the community programme still paying dividends in the here and now.
“We kept breaking our own records in National League North. We were attracting crowds that, quite frankly, we didn’t deserve,” he says. “That’s testament to all that work we did in the 90s, because all those kids that we brought in were now bringing their own kids."
Stockport dropped out of the EFL for the first time in 2010/11, finishing rock bottom of League Two, seven points clear of safety. But the Hatters found themselves in a ‘serious predicament’ in 2014. Following the departures of several senior figures, Bellis returned to Stockport – now a National League North Club.
“We played Colwyn Bay, which was somewhere that I’d gone on holiday as a kid,” he recalls. “I was thinking, ‘there can’t be a football team in Colwyn Bay!’ I said, ‘at least we’ll get three points’ – they beat us 3-0. All those people we met remind us just how special it is to be able to say that we’re a League Club again.
“We set about trying to get the place back on the upward trajectory and put back in place those things we’d done in the 90s. We became sustainable and got the Club stable. Everybody said it felt like County again.”
They clawed their way out of the division in 2019 and, after last season’s Play-Off heartbreak, re-joined the EFL after an 11-year absence.
County were crowned National League champions on the final day of the season, beating Halifax Town to clinch the title and ascend in style.
“If we’re honest, we’re used to disappointment on the pitch, so it didn’t hurt us too much,” admits Bellis. “This year, we had a change of management; Dave Challinor came in – the man who had knocked us out with Hartlepool. Sometimes you get someone that comes to a Club and it just clicks from day one.
“We’re great believers that trophies don’t belong in boardrooms – they’re won for the fans. We visited 20 pubs on the Sunday and thousands of people got their hands on it. We also took it into the hospice to see a supporter who is on end-of-life care and his face lit up. The difference a piece of silverware can make is incredible.
“I tell everybody that there are only 72 English Football League Clubs, and to be part of that is a massive honour. At the minute, we’re just living it and loving it."
This feature originally appeared in the Summer 2022 edition of the EFL Magazine.