Danny Bergara - The Godfather of Modern-day County
25th July 2007, I was shirking off work about 100 yards from my office, in Alexandra Park, Moss Side, just sat on a bench, watching the world go by in the afternoon sunshine when a text message came through to my phone. It was from my mate telling me the sad news that Danny Bergara had passed away. Naturally, I was shocked and for some reason, upset. I tried to work out why. I didn’t know him, I only met him a couple of times when the team returned from Wembley and did their appearance in the Main Stand. He hadn’t been County’s manager for over 12 years and even his successor had moved on by then. So why was I upset? Simply, Danny was the reason I call myself a County fan, he was responsible for so many great adolescent memories, he was responsible for giving Stockport County back their pride and purpose and now part of that illustrious era had now gone.
Danny’s early story is well known, he had a decent playing career in Spain for Real Mallorca, Sevilla and Tenerife. Then when he moved to England he coached the youth teams at Luton Town and Sheffield United in the mid-1970s and early 80s respectively. In between those roles he also coached the England under-18s and helped them to a fourth place finish at the Under-20 World Cup.
Given his CV one could have assumed that managerial positions would have opened up for him, but Bergara was already aware of the blinkered and borderline prejudiced nature of the English game. He had been warned about the attitude towards foreign-born coaches in England by his former Sevilla manager, Vic Buckingham and Danny had found out first-hand the underlying disdain for flair, technique and skill which was imbued throughout England. One only has to look at the way successive England managers criminally underused flair players like Tony Currie and Glenn Hoddle to see that the qualities they possessed were often sneered at and seen as a foreign, feminine trait.
Unfortunately for Danny, he saw first-hand that strength and physicality were at the core of the English game at the expense of ability and technique and as a result he never got the managerial break in the 1980s which his methods and footballing brain deserved, but in hindsight, the league’s loss was County’s gain and maybe it was for the best, at least from County’s perspective. If Bergara had been given a chance higher up the league then County’s history from 1989 onwards would have been far different.
In the decade up to 1989/90 County’s average league position was 17th in the Fourth Division, hardly inspiring or much room for optimism. County fans could also be forgiven for thinking that Bergara was just another in a long line of managers after he recorded just 11 wins in eight months as manager of Rochdale. However, Danny was appointed as County’s new manager in April 1989 after Asa Hartford was sacked. Straddling the 1988/89 and 1989/90 seasons County managed just one win in the 14 games under Danny’s leadership, hardly a whirlwind start and a world away from where we would end up in just a few years' time. But the pieces of the jigsaw were already fitting together, David Frain and Chris Beaumont were just two of the players Bergara had coached in the recent past and were both brought in from Rochdale in 1989, both intelligent and creative players, they would optimise Bergara’s ‘skill over strength’ ethos. His numerous connections from coaching roles at Sheffield United and Rochdale produced some of County’s finest players of the era. Jim Gannon, Sean Connelly and Peter Ward were also signed by Bergara in his first couple of seasons and they all had the Sheffield or Rochdale connection.
Bergara’s rocky start to life as County manager soon settled and County went top of the Division in October 1989 after a 1-0 home victory over promotion rivals, Southend United. “Top of the division”, “promotion rivals”, this team had never seen such praise for nearly two decades, it was merely the beginning, but County fans could finally see their team challenging at the right end of the division. In a short space of time Bergara had helped turn players such as Brett Angell, previously next to useless under Hartford, into the Division’s top goalscorer and scorer of four in one game as County thrashed Hartlepool United, 6-0 in September. He simply played to Angell’s strengths by providing him with the service from wide and midfield which he thrived upon. Bergara’s technical values were key to the success of the strikers, previously average players such as Beaumont, Keith Edwards and Ian McInerney stood out in Bergara’s County side. The style of Danny’s County started to take shape too; a target man (Angell), two skilful wingers (Beaumont and Cooke), two intelligent central midfielders (Frain and Payne) and strong set-piece takers (Dave Logan and Payne). It was simple, but at times it was devastatingly effective. This was the blueprint for the next half-decade, a priority of technical ability and intelligence, forged from his time in Spain as a player, and as a coach, cutting his teeth in the managerial world at Luton and Sheffield United.
Despite some stretches of games without a win after Christmas (four games, twice, and six games), some glorious attacking football over the final month saw County win four in succession to set up a nervy last game of the season away at Halifax Town and needing to better the result of Southend to win automatic promotion.
Those, like me, old enough to remember ‘Halifax 90’ will remember the stiflingly hot weather, the 3000+ County following and the automatic promotion that never was. Rumours circulated in those pre-internet days, that Southend were losing and when goals from Beaumont and McInerney gave County victory, the pitch invading County faithful celebrated an emotional and joyous promotion, the players likewise celebrated in the away dressing room. However, Southend hadn’t lost, they had won 2-1 away at Peterborough United and County were resigned to just a play off place. The journey home, warm and uncomfortable, seemed to take forever.
The hangover of Halifax permeated through the County side and it wasn’t too surprising to see County defeated in the play offs by Chesterfield, the 6-0 aggregate score was the kick in the teeth that Bergara’s side didn’t deserve though, but the team would return mentally stronger for the following season having finished 16 places higher than they did in 1988/89 and had been within 90 minutes of automatic promotion.
Danny and County wouldn’t look back, for the next four seasons they would average a fourth place finish, more importantly, if we were to trace the origins of modern-day County, we should look no further than 1989/90. In just one full season Bergara had permanently altered the course of County’s history; no longer looking down, scrapping around the lower reaches of the Football League in front of 2000 or so fans, now we were looking up and aiming higher.
1990/91 saw a resurgent County side challenge consistently for promotion, in fact, they only lost three league games between the start of the season and Christmas. Edwards, Cooke and Angell had all departed, but Paul A. Williams, Neil Matthews and Andy Kilner all came in and were an intrinsic part of the team, further back, Jim Gannon and Mark Payne played essential roles in the midfield, while veterans Andy Thorpe and Bill Williams, provided strength, experience and in the case of Williams, who had become a more polished ball-playing centre half under Bergara, his ability to bring the ball into midfield was a key link to Danny’s approach. The team’s style evolved further with the introduction of attacking full backs as Lee Todd and Paul R. Williams made the positions their own; the Todd/Connelly full back pairing, born under Bergara, was one which achieved legendary status just a few seasons later.
Paul A. Williams and Matthews were the ‘target man and number ten’ partnership which was another symbol of Bergara’s teams. Kilner, a fleet-footed, powerful wide player, would also contribute the goal of the season at home to Torquay United. He and Beaumont provided much of County’s attacking threat from the wings as Bergara’s style of skilful football, which sought to produce goals with the wingers making four up front at times, proved to be too much for Division Four to handle as County scored 84 goals and averaged over two goals per game at home. County were quickly gaining a reputation of being an entertaining, dynamic and aggressively attacking football team and all this after only managing that total of 84 goals in two seasons during a turgid end to the 1980s.
Some patchy form in the first few months of 1991 didn’t greatly damage the promotion challenge, although in a shock move Paul A. Williams was sold to West Bromwich Albion in March and his replacement, Kevin Francis, bought from Derby County, hardly seemed to be the most competent of footballers. County, however, won seven of their final eight games, with Matthews scoring in six successive games, to set up a simple equation for the final game at home to Scunthorpe United; avoid defeat and we were promoted.
The style and unforgiving nature of County’s 5-0 win were typical of the side which Danny had built, Matthews and Francis, who was settling in at EP very well, scored twice, but in fairness, the game was over within ten minutes and the rapturous crowd in attendance celebrated the end of 20 years in the fourth tier. To simply pigeon-hole this as a promotion would be to diminish the colossal achievement by Bergara, his staff and players; remember this was a team who had finished in the top half just five times in that 20 year period, in the space of just two seasons the club had been turned on its head. Next season would be laden with more defining moments in County’s history, again with Danny Bergara at the heart of it. We were starting to forge an identity, people were taking notice, but now we would be facing some real established second and third tier heavyweights such as West Brom, Huddersfield Town, Birmingham City, Preston North End, Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City.
Pre-season of 1991/92 saw the squad improve with more quality and another couple of momentous moments, Peter Ward was brought in from Rochdale, while Andy Preece joined in October and ultimately replaced Neil Matthews in the starting line-up. We also witnessed the emergence of Jim Gannon as a true goalscoring midfielder. Like Beaumont and Kilner the season before, Gannon thrived under the instruction of Bergara to join the attack when the situation called for it. Gannon developed immeasurably during the 1991/92 season, much like Tony Dinning did in the late-90s, with a striker’s instinct, a determination and bravery nearly unmatched in the County squad, he became as much a focal point as Francis, Frain or Ward. Bergara demonstrated the willingness and fortitude to do things differently and about two decades ahead of the rest he had the versatile Gannon play an almost modern-day number 10 role.
County’s first few months in the third tier were bumpy and the opening day 5-0 hammering of Swansea City was something of a one-off as County managed nine wins before the new year, but it was a steady return from a promoted side. However, there was something else brewing, a 4-0 defeat away to Carlisle United in the Autoglass Trophy was about as much a cunning disguise for County’s new heights as one could imagine, but three successive victories (and three successive hat tricks - Francis, twice and Gannon), put County in the area semi-final, just three games from a first ever visit to Wembley.
The confidence and the wins were building up and Bergara’s County, buoyed by the manager’s desire, played with such spirit and enthusiasm it seemed nothing was out of the question. Goals from Ward and Paul Wheeler helped dispatch Crewe Alexandra at Gresty Road in the Autoglass Trophy semi-final, now County were just a two-legged tie away from the twin towers, while the improved league form culminated in a very impressive 3-0 rout of West Brom at Edgeley Park.
That two-legged tie was against Burnley, a team who would grow to become County’s main rivals, and although the teams were a division apart, Burnley were on the verge of promotion to Division Three. County need not fear though, one of Bergara’s qualities was the ability to get the very best out of his players, his capability of teaching self-belief was unrivalled. It is little wonder that County reached Wembley with a 3-1 aggregate victory. A new milestone for County was achieved that night at Edgeley Park, a team who hadn’t even been close to Wembley just three seasons previous were now going to proudly step out there in the mid-May sunshine. For Danny, it was also another landmark, but not one that should have been unexpected, as he would become the first foreign-born manager to lead out an English side at Wembley.
County secured a magnificent 5th place and a play off place with a final day victory over Birmingham City. The unbelievable notion that County could now be playing at Wembley twice within the space of eight days was a real possibility. It is also a testament to Danny’s focus on attacking football that County scored 75 goals and had the second-best home record in the division.
Favourable comparisons of that 1991/92 team can be made with Jim Gannon’s 2019/20 side, as Bergara’s men became an extremely competitive side over the course of their first season in the division above and they deserved their top-six place. There are also comparisons to be drawn about just how well organised and prepared County were for life in a higher division as, like Chorley in 2019/20, County’s promotion rivals in 1990/91, Darlington, were relegated back to the Fourth Division after just one season.
County had only finished a point behind their play off opponents, Stoke City, and had also gained two creditable draws against them during the season. Despite Stoke’s reputation of being one of the bigger teams in the Third Division, County secured a 1-0 home victory in the first leg thanks to Ward’s delightful free-kick. The return leg at the Victoria Ground saw County take the lead within two minutes, Beaumont the scorer. Stoke pulled a goal back with ten minutes remaining, however, County held on to seal a miraculous second Wembley visit.
Saturday 16th May 1992, a landmark day in the history of County. We may have been the underdog (despite the play off victory), we may have been outnumbered in the stands and we may have been second-best on the day, but it didn’t matter in the slightest. County were playing at arguably the most famous stadium in the world. After years of downtrodden, stagnant football, Danny Bergara had helped to put County on the map. It was an emotional, fervid and memorable occasion with a slight quirk of history as Mark Stein, one of Danny’s pupils from his Luton Town youth team days, scored the only goal of the game.
With the Autoglass Trophy now behind us the prospect of back to back promotions was a real possibility, such an assertion three or four years earlier would have been laughable. Again County toiled in the May sunshine, but they were very unfortunate not to at least get to extra time and arguably should have won in 90 minutes. The sheer mayhem among the County faithful when Francis equalised with two minutes left was a feeling those present will never forget. We all know Peterborough’s first goal didn’t go over the line (“all the ball over all of the line”) and Francis wasn’t offside for our equaliser, but in a VAR-less world, these decisions will remain debatable. Again like the Autoglass Trophy Final, the very fact County were competing in a final, at Wembley, was a huge accomplishment and thousands of proud Stopfordians were there to witness it.
A lesser team with an inferior manager may have struggled to reproduce the level of performance which had catapulted them to Wembley twice in a season, however, such was Bergara’s prowess in being a master at the psychological aspect of the game County fired into the new season with a run which saw them lose just one of the first ten games.
This season County were much more ruthless, especially at home where they scored four and five goals on three occasions each. Previously teams who were bigger in stature would often seem an intimidating opponent, but again the morale-boosting talent which Danny possessed helped to give County an edge. No longer were we inferior, we had earned the right to be considered as contenders alongside Stoke City, Port Vale, West Brom and Bolton. Bergara’s squad cornerstones; Frain, Ward, Beaumont, Gannon, Francis and Todd were once again vital to County’s success. Beaumont’s drive and zest was a particular highlight. While Francis, who became County’s record post-war goalscorer, had been shaped by Bergara into a lethal striker who now possessed more skill and agility than he was given credit for. The arrival, however, of Mike Flynn from Preston in March 1993 added a real element of strength, desire and passion. The signing by Bergara, one which would produce County’s future captain and Hall of Fame inductee, was at the time quite a fee, but the £125,000 paid to Preston was repaid by Flynn hundreds of times over in blood, sweat and commitment. Added to his defending expertise he also boasted a very dangerous long throw which helped Danny emphasise his philosophy that County would always play to their strengths and when you have a tall striker and someone with a decent long throw you’re virtually guaranteed goals.
County may have achieved higher than their final sixth place had they won more than just one of their last nine league games, and recorded less than the 11 draws at home, but their third play off berth in four seasons was a fine reward for such an exhilarating and upbeat season.
Of course, there was the small matter of the Autoglass Trophy and once again County stormed through the early rounds with three successive victories without conceding a goal. Bradford City and Chesterfield were beaten in the quarter-final and semi-final respectively and Wigan Athletic, who held a 2-0 lead at one point in the tie, were overcome over two legs, 3-2 in the Northern Final.
A twist of fate saw County play Port Vale in both the Autoglass final and the play offs, three games in six days which could give this County team immortal status among the fans. Again though, promotion and a Trophy Final win were just beyond County’s reach as they narrowly lost both the Final and the play off semi-final by the same 2-1 scoreline. Like the Peterborough game, the frantic, non-stop, raucous singing from the County support followed by the sheer havoc in the stands following Kevin Francis’ goal were memories which will be forever etched into minds of those who were there.
By now County and the fans were used to these types of high-pressure games and although we had lost our third successive Wembley game both Danny and the team had given us another proud moment to remember and both were gaining some real credibility and recognition. A world away from the pits of the Fourth Division.
1993/94 represented something of a make-or-break season for Bergara and County. He had undoubtedly built a side worthy of contending for promotion to the second tier, a side packed with vigour, passion and a dash of panache, plus he had the backing of the County faithful, but promotion almost had to happen this season, because, with the increased spotlight on County the reward for their Wembley visits, the vultures of the top two tiers were circling. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see Francis, Preece, Ward, Beaumont, Flynn, Todd, Connelly or even Bergara, be tempted away from Edgeley Park in the not too distant future if the promised land wasn’t reached in 1994.
Again though, like the previous year, County started the season with a sublime run of form as they powered to just two defeats in their opening 16 league games. Such was Bergara’s positive influence on the side that the confidence and belief they held reached its peak either side of Christmas 1993. It had arguably gotten to the point around October where being held at half time at home wasn’t a worry because we would simply score two or three in the second half. The consummate and at times, exquisite, performances culminated in the FA Cup Third Round victory over a talented Queen’s Park Rangers side at Edgeley Park. A fully deserved win, sealed with a stunning volley by Preece which brought County the attention of the Match of the Day watching public. Surely nothing could go wrong now?
County only lost three of their last 18 league games, but much of the autumn and winter zeal and ruthlessness had gone. The pitch, battered by the pitch invasion after the QPR victory, was responsible for multiple postponements and lethargic performances. Two games a week and four in the last week of April mercilessly tested both mind and body and a two-goal lead let slip at home to relegation-threatened Cardiff City was the Hyde to the early season’s Jekyll.
Nevertheless, Bergara’s side ground out the points, as they always did, and arrived at the final day needing to better the result of Port Vale and hope for a few goals against Hull City to secure automatic promotion. Scenes at EP reminiscent of those at Halifax in 1990 unfolded as rumours of Vale’s defeat circulated but in fact they had, like Southend, won. County, for their part, managed a goalless draw.
So, County’s now annual appearance in the play offs, their fourth in five years to be precise, and a semi-final tie against York City. To even flippantly declare that County were annual play off participants was recognition of just how high Bergara had helped set the benchmark for County. A rain-soaked goalless draw at Bootham Crescent saw County take the home advantage in the second leg and Chris Beaumont, a Bergara player from the start of the journey, sealed a nervous win with the only goal just five minutes from time at EP. Another Wembley visit beckoned.
County had finished just three points off automatic promotion and a huge 12 points ahead of play off final opponents, Burnley. County, hardened by the previous Wembley defeats were now mentally, as well as technically, well-equipped to recapture the form of the mid-season and finally make the push into the second tier.
What transpired at Wembley on 29th May 1994 was a County side by now well used to the pressure and tension, galvanised by Bergara into a serious promotion contender, simply capitulate and easily fall for the grotesque gamesmanship displayed by Burnley (I tried with all my might to put that in the cleanest way possible!). County took an early lead through man of the moment, Beaumont, but that was as good as it got for County. Burnley’s John Francis should have been red-carded for a late challenge on County goalkeeper, John Keeley, and it merely snowballed from there. Mike Wallace and goalscorer, Beaumont, made unwanted history as the only two players on the same side to be sent off in the same game at Wembley. Either side of this were Burnley’s goals and a deflated County succumbed to a fourth successive defeat at Wembley.
We shouldn’t be too hard on County or Danny when the dust had settled on the Burnley fiasco and one stood back and reflected on the sheer magnitude of the success Danny had brought County in five short seasons one couldn’t fail to be impressed, but we had floundered at the final hurdle once more and as unthinkable as it seems there were more than a few murmurings of whether County now needed a change.
1994/95, the beginning of the end, and by April two of County’s most monumental and talismanic figures would be gone. Rumours of Wimbledon making a transfer offer for Francis refused to disappear and Andy Preece left to join Crystal Palace in the Premier League in June 1994. Signed in his place to play Bergara’s ‘number 10’, was Alun Armstrong. He joined the club alongside fellow Newcastle United youth player, Tony Dinning.
The season started much like the previous two as County won four of the first seven, but inconsistency, arguably fuelled by the hangover of Wembley just months earlier, had started to creep into County’s play, seven defeats (including four in a row) in 12 games in the autumn saw a flat County side stumble in to mid-table. Francis’ last goal for County was a consolation header at the Railway End in a 2-1 defeat to Bradford City on New Year’s Eve. He was sold days later to Birmingham City for £800,000. To say Kevin Francis was a special player would merely gloss over the impact he had at County, it wasn’t just the goals, he was a real star player at a time when County didn’t have one and hadn’t had one in years. He was absolutely the right player at the right time for County and optimised what early-90s County were about. A rough diamond formed into a genuinely quality player by Bergara’s keen eye for player development. Much like County, he had a brazen and cavalier style to the untrained eye, but looking deeper he and County were an imperious combination, County needed him and he needed County. However, in the end, he deserved his chance higher up the league at a bigger club, his hometown club.
Just 12 days later, after another succession of defeats, on the terraces at Spotland in the now named, Auto Windscreens Shield, I first heard chants of “Danny out”. It had become too much for some; Burnley, Francis, the sudden downturn in form. Another poor run, four wins in 16 games, in the spring of 1995, pretty much confirmed County wouldn’t be taking their annual place in the play offs. And so it came to be that on 28th March 1995 at Home Park, Plymouth would be the last ever game at which Danny Bergara would be County manager, ironically County won 2-0. I won’t go into the details of Danny’s departure, they’re out there if you wish to find them, but just like that, he was gone. No goodbyes or farewells, a sad end to the reign of the most influential manager in County’s history.
I recently said Jim Gannon was County's greatest ever servant and I stand by that, however, County’s greatest manager, barring a major trophy win or promotion to the Premier League (and even in that event it will still be close) will always be Danny Bergara.
Danny gave us glory, guile and guts, he made supporting County an honour, not some trivial pastime. He gave us an identity, for the first time in decades, that of a brash, cocky, underdog with the spirit to match, but to say they were the only traits of his County team would do Danny an enormous disservice. He brought flair, intelligence and technical ability. He brought a gung-ho approach which didn’t care for reputations, but with a determined calmness which got the best out of his side. Danny didn’t care what had happened in the past, he was strong-willed enough to believe he was the one who could change County for the better.
He based his sides on technical ability, at odds with the rather industrial nature of the English game of the era and one could say he was ahead of his time. Had he been managing now, now that the game is awash with influences from the continental game, he would have flourished and found it easier to play the technical style he wanted, back in the 1990s, decades before gegenpress, he used his abundant determination to play exactly the way he had been taught as a player. Make no mistake though, County were not Brazil, they could very easily mix it up when the situation called for it and to the myopic eye, County were a physical, long-ball team. Myopia, however, seemed to affect a lot of those who couldn’t understand that Bergara simply played to County’s strengths and sought to get the ball forward to play in the opponent’s half. Bergara’s preference of technique of brawn is only half the story though as players like Frain, Ward and Beaumont flourished under Bergara. He made Kevin Francis a feared lower league striker, he harnessed Jim Gannon’s goalscoring ability as he became County’s top goalscorer in 1991/92. Those are the highlights, but there are tens of players who will count Bergara as their number one influence. Of course one cannot compare Darren Ryan, Beaumont, Payne, Ward and Preece to the best in the Premier League, but Danny saw the talent within, he saw the potential and it was a gift only a few have.
For County fans, the seismic influence which Danny had on them and the club can never be understated. He, along with the investment, time and energy of Brendan Elwood, fundamentally changed the course of County’s future, he gave us pride and respect, he made us believe in our club.
Danny’s legacy is also that of the mature and professional way in that Jim Gannon played his final years at EP and then grew into the legendary manager we know today. It is also that of the glorious 1996/97 season, one cannot imagine such a season would have been possible without Danny’s influence. One of his assistants, Dave Jones, oversaw what is still arguably County’s best-ever season and even though Danny wasn’t in the home dugout at EP his team was at the heart of it; Connelly, Todd, Flynn, Gannon, Ware, Dinning, Armstrong and Angell. I previously described Jones’ side as a lower-league Atlético Madrid and it was easy to tell just who had been his mentor as Jones’ County side was eerily similar to that of Danny’s; a fusion of technique, power and cunning.
Danny’s ultimate legacy though, is how he shaped modern-day County, it’s true we didn’t actually win anything during his reign, but what he gave us is worth so much more than material objects. He took us from the pit of the fourth tier to the verge of the second and in the process, he turned us from a directionless, ghost of a club into one which was well-respected and progressive. That’s what it was all about, self-respect, and Danny gave it back to us by the bucket-load.
In 1995 never got to say goodbye or express our sincere gratitude for the mammoth job he did while at County, but we made up for that after his passing in 2007. A moving and memory-filled afternoon started with a poignant pre-game ceremony and ended with a 10-goal thriller against Jones' Cardiff City team.
Deep down 1990s County were a lot like their manager; determined, genial, gregarious and eccentric. Who else fell in love with County because of Danny Bergara? I know I did.