“I’ve always said, ‘It’s not like a speedboat that we turn around, it’s a huge tanker’.”
That was the message from Stockport County club chairman Steve Bellis as he addressed the Hatters faithful nine years ago after the club fell into the sixth tier of English football.
Fast forward to today, the outlook is very different for the club, which began to attract interest doing things the county way after local businessman Mark Stott completed the takeover of his hometown team in January 2020.
“Our supporters sometimes have to hold their noses that we have found an owner who is here for the right reasons,” says Bellis. “People look at him as some kind of demigod.”
He was a local guy who was selling advertising in the Stockport Express Advertiser, but he wanted to give something back. If you walked into the room, you would never know he owned it. He makes me travel for the games because he says, “I don’t wear a tie, Bellis, that’s your job”.
“He bought it because of the fanbase and what we’re doing in the community and he wants to do it with the bells and turbocharge it.”
There were questions to be asked on his arrival, the most important of which: “What if we just become a Club that has 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 an example, there was a meeting about goal music, which our fans hate because they have their own interpretation when we score, so I dove in and said no.
“It’s about preserving DNA and heritage. If I thought we were going to change our morals and our ethics, I would leave the next day.
After setting 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, that would be no small feat. He hatched a plan to bring the Club back into the Sky Bet Championship in seven years and two promotions in three seasons later, Stockport took a huge step forward.
“People were laughing, as they would, but now we find ourselves in the EFL,” smiled Bellis. “We have a great core team to which we don’t need to add much to be competitive. We have momentum and that matters a lot.
“The training ground and facilities we have are certainly to Championship standards. The first thing Mark did was invest in the stadium. He said: ‘Let’s take advantage of the fact that there’s no nobody here, so when the fans come back, they’re gonna come in and say ‘wow’.
“We believe that no business has the right to operate unless it invests in the community it serves. I’m a big believer that if you do good things, good things will come your way. We will do a lot more work off the pitch to integrate the Club into the area. Hopefully we will have more good karma.
Bellis’ 32-year-old association dates back to the 1989/90 campaign when then-chairman Brendan Elwood asked for his help in setting up a new membership scheme. He quickly came to the conclusion that Stockport – which played its matches on a Friday night so as not to clash with neighboring giants – was suffering from a “dying public”.
A pioneering community program allowed Bellis and the county to take first-team players to local elementary schools to educate them before inviting them to play in a game.
“We were ahead of the game – nobody was doing anything like that at the time and we won awards for it,” he explains.
“We went to four schools a week and did an hour-long presentation, using the players as role models, and they played a drama about the dangers of excessive alcohol, smoking, bullying , racism and other key topics. It was very interactive and not overbearing.
In 1996, Stockport boasted of having the youngest paying audience in professional football; over 40% of the county’s paying crowd were children.
The club – one of the first in the country to not need the police on a match day as the dynamics began to shift – reaped many benefits in terms of new sponsors.
As a result, Stockport were promoted to the First Division in 1997, having sat at the bottom of Division Four for most of the previous 20 years and Bellis can draw parallels to the present day, with the community program still paying dividends. here and there. now.
“We continued to break our own records in the National League North. We were drawing crowds that, frankly, we didn’t deserve,” he says. “It’s a testament to all the work we did in the 90s, because all those kids we brought in were now bringing their own kids.”
Stockport first dropped out of the EFL in 2010/11, finishing bottom of League Two, seven points clear of safety. But the Hatters found themselves in a “serious predicament” in 2014. After several high-profile figures left, Bellis returned to Stockport, now a National League North club.
“We played in Colwyn Bay, a place I used to go on vacation as a kid,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘there can’t be a football team in Colwyn Bay!’ I said ‘at least we’ll have three points’ – they beat us 3-0 All those people we met reminded us how special it is to be able to say we’re a League Club again .
“We set out to try and get the place back on the upward trajectory and put back what we had done in the 90s. We became sustainable and got the Club stable. Everyone said that it looked like County again.
They worked their way out of the division in 2019 and, after the heartbreak of last season’s Play-Offs, 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,” Bellis admits. “This year we had a change of direction; Dave Challinor came in – the man who knocked us out with Hartlepool. Sometimes someone comes to a club and it clicks from day one.
“We firmly believe that trophies have no place in boardrooms – they are won for the fans. We visited 20 pubs on Sunday and thousands of people got their hands on them. We also took him to the hospice to see a caregiver who is in end-of-life care and whose face lit up. The difference a piece of silverware can make is amazing.
“I tell everyone that there are only 72 clubs in the English Football League, and to be part of it is a huge honour. Right now we live it and love it.”
This feature originally appeared in the summer 2022 edition of EFL magazine.