Out of the Darkness - Covid-19 and County

So, COVID-19 has pressed the pause button on many aspects of our lives, with other parts being changed and completely turned upside down. From the highest to the lowest, young and old, we have all had to make some kind of change and sacrifice. I sincerely hope everyone reading this is safe, healthy and adjusting well to this deviation from normal life. 

At times like this, in a state of emergency, football is reduced to its most basic form, a hobby, a job, 22 people chasing a ball around a field. To some it’s so much more, to some it’s literally their life, their one constant. Without trying to sound overly hyperbolic, football can mean life for some, and it has been taken away from us. Personally, I genuinely miss everything about County and football in general. Some people may say that I’m being a little blinkered or that there are far more important things in life than football, my reply would be that I care dearly about my club and County are meant to be a pleasant distraction from those things. Life without it seems a lot less joyful. 

Looking back, while actual football was still a thing, County were making steady progress. Unbeaten in six games since the January meltdown, new owner, Mark Stott, had sufficiently fed the transfer kitty to fund the signings of Richie Bennett, Liam Hogan. Lois Maynard, Danny Lloyd and to a lesser extent Liam McAlinden (who I hope and pray is offered a full time contract next season, whenever that is). Within a short space of time they have helped to bolster the experience and strength of the squad; two elements which are vitally important to building a County side capable of challenging for promotion. Favourable comparisons of County’s most recent form can be made to how well organised and how much more imposing teams like Boreham Wood, Solihull Moors and Sutton United, to name a few, were when County faced them this season. This type of team make-up is what Jim Gannon must try to emulate and you can guarantee that there will be some more new faces to help achieve this when the game is back up and running.  

So what next for football? There are better educated people who can debate the topic, but the short answer is that none of us truly know what will happen over the next month or so. We can all speculate on how the season will be resolved or how player’s contracts will be addressed, we can also ignore those who foolishly state live football with crowds is a thing of the past, but one trusts that the systems used to finalise the season are fair on everyone involved, that no one is harshly treated and mediocrity isn’t rewarded. 

We can only hope that every team comes through this unscathed and ready for business when we can finally resume (I’ll begrudgingly add Fylde to that sentiment too, only just though). Make no mistake though, County aren’t in a financial bubble here, sooner or later we will be financially affected by the league-wide cancellation of the season, particularly as it may well affect the start of next season and beyond. I don’t claim to be an accountant, but I will hazard a pretty well educated guess that Mark Stott isn’t a Fairy Godmother or Montgomery Brewster and he’ll have other business interests which will have also been affected by the virus, thus he will not be able to bail out County forever. As I argued over on Facebook recently (not a week goes by when that doesn’t happen), we will be on a firm footing for the next few months, but even County and Stott have to draw the line somewhere. Question is, where is that line? Three months? Six months? No doubt the decision to top up the club staff wages, the NHS donation and the club shop sales donation were made after careful financial consideration and to the outside world (or at least those who want to live outside the real world and believe we’re stinking rich) it appears we literally have money to give away. We don’t, and the longer this goes on, the more desperate the situation will become. We still have many outgoings, much like any other business, but with very little income this could turn into quite a tense time for the club. Some people however, prefer to bury their head in the sand and pretend we’re untouchable. These were also the same people who, a few months ago, were making ludicrous claims such as the cost of season tickets being reduced simply because our owner has a boat-load of cash. No, they won't, Stott is a businessman and he didn’t become rich by cutting the business’s main source of income. He will take every opportunity to make money and you can’t blame him for that. In the same vein Stott doesn’t have unlimited amounts of cash in reserve which he can use to help County. We must pray the club can start making money in some way soon before we’re forced down a road we may not come back from.

The future of County is something to examine when we have a better idea of how and when football will resume. As far as the here and now is concerned we might not have a team to support on the pitch, but off the pitch we can all congratulate County on their efforts to keep the fanbase engaged and interested; quizzes, player question and answer sessions, daily goals clips, classic games streamed ‘live’ every Saturday, not to mention two podcasts a week. County have done a magnificent job thus far, at a time when they haven’t got anything new to report and could realistically have just shut down for the next few months.  It is extremely refreshing to have the almost daily content and it just goes to show that good can materialise from something bad; like being undercharged for one of those volcanic pasties in the Cheadle End. Let’s hope the daily content continues when we’re back following the team again. 

We must also congratulate the club for the aforementioned, generous donations of £75,000 and the cash made from club shop sales to the local NHS Trust. I must also take the opportunity to congratulate the Supporter’s Co-Op for their own efforts to raise money for the NHS. Less publicised is the wonderfully selfless act of kindness from County President, Steve Bellis. In a message posted on Facebook he asked if anyone knew a County fan who may be struggling through the coronavirus upheaval and whether they would benefit from a phone call from him, just to chat about football and County. Sometimes it’s the little things which make a big difference and Bellis, who we know has County in his heart, has really reached out in the most sensitive and benevolent way. Again, the club have simply been doing the right thing recently, helping others when they need it most and this is the kind of kind-hearted community spirit which the club must build upon when they return to the pitch. 

Coronavirus: Stockport County owner Mark Stott gives NHS trust ...

As mentioned above, before the league was suspended County were in the embryonic stages of the Mark Stott revolution, most of us were delighted at the prospect of ground renovations, a new training complex and the like, but one of the most pleasing pledges under the new ownership was the promise to continue to be engaged in the community. Rumours of a fan zone-type area behind the Vernon Stand, with food and drink outlets and large screen TVs, have also been mentioned in some circles, a sound idea. Thinking logically, County lose a lot of pre and post-match cash to Castle Street and the town centre simply because the ‘matchday experience’ isn’t anywhere near what it should be, particularly for the prices charged (by the way, I hate those soulless, corporate buzzwords like ‘matchday experience’ just as much as you do, but these things are measured and do matter). 

The proposed/discussed/agreed upon Vernon Stand and Cheadle End developments are exactly what the club should be doing to encourage the casual fan to become a more dedicated fan, and even if only a small percentage of those actually do attend EP regularly then the developments can be deemed a success. The pessimists will highlight the hardcore support being diluted by casual fans, but this is how the fanbase grows and develops. The money from a ‘daytripper’ is as important, if not more so, than that of a 20-year season ticket holder. 

However, if the club is to make real strides in getting more bums on seats they have to also put greater effort into toning down the more distasteful element of our support. I am in no way suggesting the ground should be turned into a library, with a sanitised atmosphere, (this was one of the many things which turned me off County for a few years in the 2000s), however the number of times I have heard homophobic, rascist and sectarian language used is pretty disgraceful. Possibly the most disconcerting aspect of this type of behaviour is the fact that there are people like you and I, who love County and put a lot of time and effort into supporting the team, but are not afraid to actually hold and voice these views. 

Personally, I have mentioned this behaviour to the stewards, who other than walking up and down the steps of the Cheade End every 10 minutes, do very little else. This is something the club should by now be well aware of and they should be making a concerted effort to rid our support of this behaviour. 

With the highlighted efforts of the FA and Kick it Out to stamp out racist and homophobic chanting, comments and behaviour this should be near the top of the agenda for County as we’re a long way behind most clubs, besides it shouldn’t be too difficult to promote.

During our trip to Dagenham and Redbridge earlier this year they were promoting their ‘Diversity Day’. The event staged at the next home game was designated to promote and celebrate diversity within the community. Reduced ticket prices (as low as 50p) were used to give a chance for everyone who wanted to attend the game to be able to do so. A fantastic initiative and one which they had been embracing for 11 years. Again, this is something which County can very easily implement, it would generate some good publicity, and would sit nicely alongside the caring and generous atmosphere which the NHS donations have nurtured recently. Furthermore, and this is most important, a branch of the club, possibly run by the fans, dedicated to supporting local charities, initiatives and promoting the discussion of social issues should be allowed to develop and evolve. Whereas the Diversity Day-style event would be a one off, the ‘good causes supporting’ branch of County would be a year-round project.  

The more cynical of you and no doubt the brainless simpletons who purport the bigotry which this is trying to eradicate, will point out, is that these types of heart-warming initiatives are usually sneered at and seen as a way of pandering or wanting to be politically correct, but that is exactly the reason why Dagenham’s Diversity Day is vital in order to change the way people think and ultimately to make Edgeley Park a more welcoming and friendlier place. 

National League: Nathan Smith pleased Dagenham & Redbridge ...

County have already made some excellent inroads into community engagement and charity support; The Supporter’s Co-Op provides free tickets to many schools and football clubs, the Samaritans are the back-of-shirt sponsor on the third/alternate shirt, there are bucket collections for various local charities and projects and not forgetting the great work undertaken by the County Community Foundation; all worthwhile and vital elements of County’s community work. I am sure everyone who has benefitted from them is very grateful, but there is always more we can do. 

For example, County can promote, via social media, at home games and through the programme, a local food bank, ESOL courses, signposting to mental health, debt or benefits advice services, even something as simple as a list of contact numbers for local charities would be useful. Stockport Pride is usually held in July, at a time when club news is usually hard to come by County could easily get involved and promote it. 

The club has a very large audience, both online and in person, and helping local charities and projects which sometimes rely on the exposure from more high profile local businesses means everyone benefits from this. Again, the cynics may say this isn’t for County to become involved with and that it doesn’t relate to football. My response would ask those people to see County as a huge part of the local community, representing everyone, regardless of sexuality, skin colour or religion. As a former Housing Officer, I know a housing association is much more than just houses and collecting rent, and the same analogy can be used for a football club; County are much more than a football club, they are an intrinsic part of the community. From an individual's point of view, seeing these issues and good causes being promoted by the club they love so much could be the helping hand, no matter how small, that someone needs to change their life for the good. 

The Covid-19 crisis has really brought out the best in County, they have kept spirits up via social media and it isn’t too much of a stretch to say they may have even saved lives with their generous donations to the NHS. This goodwill and warm-heartedness, in the face of such adversity, must be harnessed and continued beyond these next few months, in fact, why wait until this is over? This ‘down time’ must be maximised and it really doesn’t take much to promote the more important issues in life. This time must be looked back upon as the moment when County truly became more than a football club, this is a golden opportunity to embrace diversity and become an all-inclusive foundation of the community. 

For further reading on how football clubs can use their extensive reach and high-profile status to bring about social change I recommend a peruse of my piece for Footy Analyst from October 2018 (for those who don’t know/couldn’t be bothered to read my tweet when I shared the link recently, this article was shared to his followers by Neville Southall.)



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