WITH the start of the 2016-17 National League North season fast approaching, Joe Canavan assesses Stockport County’s chances ahead of the new campaign…
It is fair to say Stockport County and their third attempt to win promotion from the National League North did not go according to plan.
Last summer the Hatters appointed Neil Young as their new manager, a man who had previously led his Chester side to the then named Conference North title accumulating a record breaking 107 points in the process.
He looked an excellent fit, but by January with pressure building from both the stands and the boardroom he stepped down from his role.
It started so well for Young’s team, who began the season with three consecutive victories, though as the months progressed the tide turned and a run of just one win in 12 games inevitably resulted in another managerial change at Edgeley Park.
In for a third spell as County boss was fans’ favourite James Gannon.
He managed to improve Stockport’s form, with the club eventually finishing in ninth position.
It has been a busy summer in SK3 with the squad radically re-shaped ahead of an yet another expected tilt at promotion.
First five games:
- Alfreton Town (H) – Saturday August 6
- Staybridge Celtic (A) – Tuesday August 9
- FC United of Manchester (A) – Saturday August 13
- FC Halifax Town (H) – Tuesday August 16
- Brackley Town (H) – Saturday August 20
Ben Hinchliffe (from AFC Fylde, free transfer): The goalkeeping position was a major problem for County for much of last season due to an injury to the experienced Danny Hurst. Highly-rated Hinchcliffe has made a division’s Team of the Season an impressive four times, and even has a Goal of the Season Award to his name. He should provide some much needed solidarity between the sticks.
Mark Ross (from Chorley, free transfer): A strong, quick, versatile and consistent performer brought in from National League North rivals Chorley. Equally comfortable at right-back or centre-back, Ross has worn the captain’s armband during pre-season. His former boss Matt Jansen was understandably “disappointed” to see him leave Victory Park.
Sam Minihan (from Worcester City, free transfer): An attack-minded right-back who returns to the North West having started his career at Rochdale. Minihan made 34 National League North appearances last season picking up Worcester’s Young Player of the Year and Players’ Player of the Year Awards.
Michael Clarke (from Northwich Victoria, free transfer): The 26-year-old centre-back has signed for his hometown club and re-joined his former manager in the process. Clarke was transformed from a striker into a defender by Gannon, and will no doubt be looking forward to working alongside him again.
Courtney Meppen-Walter (from Chorley, free transfer): Stockport fought off some stiff competition from clubs higher up the pyramid to sign the former Manchester City youth graduate. Capable of playing at centre-back, left-back and centre-midfield, Meppen-Walter will be a key part of the squad if he can stay fit and focused.
Scott Duxbury (from Northwich Victoria, free transfer): It came as no surprise when Scott Duxbury returned to Edgeley Park this summer after nine months away. The young left-back is another recruit from Northwich Victoria and he will be hoping to recreate the form he showed for County in his debut season which attracted interest from Blackburn Rovers and Norwich.
Gary Stopforth (from Salford City, free transfer): A key player in Salford City’s successive promotions, Stopforth looks like a shrewd signing. A whole-hearted central midfielder with a great engine – he will bring extra energy to the County team – unfortunately he will be only available until December, as he is set to emigrate to Australia.
Adam Thomas (from Hednesford Town, free transfer): The 22-year-old winger joins from Hednesford Town where he won five end-of-season awards. The former Stoke and Everton man can play on either side of midfield, and the Edgeley Park faithful will be hoping he can turn his potential into consistent performances.
Danny Lloyd (from AFC Fylde, free transfer): After three seasons and 61 goals for Fylde, the Hatters were delighted to secure the signing of Danny Lloyd. Capable of playing on either the left or the right, the pacy, hard-working winger was one of Gannon’s top targets, and it is easy to see why.
Josh Amis (From Northwich Victoria, free transfer): Another player returning to County and re-joining manager Gannon is Josh Amis. Despite not being a regular starter for Northwich, the powerful striker bagged an impressive 18 goals and had the best goals to games ratio at the club. It will be interesting to see whether Amis can adapt to the rigours of the National League North.
Danny Hurst (released): The experienced goalkeeper won the Stockport County Player of the Year Award for the 2014-15 season following his move from Southport, but last season wasn’t as successful. A shaky start followed by a long-term injury, meant that Hurst was unsurprisingly released. It remains to be seen if he will join a new club or retire.
Danny Morton (to Colne, free transfer): The promising, young full-back could possibly count himself a little unlucky to be released following some impressive performances last season, but Morton lacked consistency and made mistakes at times. He should do very well in the Evo-Stik First Division North.
Paul Connolly (released): Experienced defender, who had played all of his career in the Football League prior to joining County. Released in favour of bringing in younger blood but capable of doing a job in the National League North with someone else.
Sean O’Hanlon (released): The centre-back was brought into the club as Neil Young’s premiere summer signing and started the season extremely well, but as the months progressed he was often exposed for pace by the better attacking sides and unsurprisingly let go considering his likely high wage.
Gareth Roberts (to Clitheroe, free transfer): The 38-year-old defied his advancing years for the majority of the season, but another year in the National League North perhaps would have been too much. The left-back is now in a player-assistant manager role at Clitheroe.
Matthew Todd (released): The son of County legend Lee Todd, never kicked on from his promising performances under Alan Lord in the 2014-15 season.
Wade Joyce (released): The central midfielder never managed to nail down a regular place in the side under either Young or Gannon.
Joe Garvin (to Colne, free transfer): The attacking midfielder had a disrupted season due to injuries and never really fulfilled his potential. He will be looking to play every week back at his old club.
Charlie Russell (to Lancaster, free transfer): The diminutive midfielder never shirked away from a challenge and will probably be mostly remembered for being body slammed by the then Worcester City defender Shabir Khan. Needs game time – the move to Lancaster should suit him down to the ground.
Tom Field (to Bangor City, free transfer): The 30-year-old central midfielder was only signed in early March but was let go a couple of months later. After starting his County career reasonably brightly, a poor performance in a 4-0 defeat at home to Fylde resulted in Field not starting a game for the remainder of the season. Now back in the Welsh Premier League where he has prospered for much of his career.
Sam Grimshaw (released): The pacy left-sided player signed for Stockport in late March but failed to impress in his fleeting appearances.
Micah Evans (to AFC Telford, free transfer): The winger was used frequently under the previous manager, but he was loaned out to Chorley under Gannon, so no surprise he wasn’t offered a new contract.
Jamie Menagh (to Altrincham, free transfer): The former Chester wideman provided a number of assists towards the end of last season, but that still wasn’t enough to earn him an offer of a new contract. It will be interesting to see how he performs for divisional rivals Altrincham this season.
Kevin Holgrove (to Connah’s Quay Nomads, free transfer): The versatile forward spent the majority of last season either out on loan or playing for the reserves – no surprise he was let go.
Obi Anoruo (released): The striker was Gannon’s first signing on his return to Edgeley Park. He scored a number of goals coming off the bench, but perhaps didn’t have the overall game that his manager was looking for.
Richard Brodie (to York City, free transfer): The decision to release a player who had been a proven goalscorer in his career caused some debate between Stockport supporters, but a lack of discipline and mobility meant he wasn’t offered a new contract.
Lewis Montrose: A player who came to Stockport last season with lots of Football League experience, and it certainly showed. The former Wycombe, Gillingham and York man was at the heart of the midfield and was always picked when available by both Young and Gannon.
The team really struggled when Montrose wasn’t playing – he offered security for the defence and was often the player who began dangerous counter attacks. He unsurprisingly was chosen as County’s Player of the Year, and his potential partnership with new signing Courtney Meppen-Walter in the centre of the pitch could well be one of the best in the division.
John Marsden: While the Hatters have made a lot of impressive signings on paper this summer, the best piece of business was done back in April when deep-lying forward Marsden was tied down to a new contract for the upcoming campaign.
Despite only joining in January the ex-Celtic attacker managed to top both the club’s goals and assists charts, and towards the end of last season he began to form a very effective partnership with Kayode Odejayi. The supporters and the manager will be looking to him to be a key component in a promotion charge – a fit and firing Marsden could be the difference between success and failure.
Kayode Odejayi: With over 550 Football league appearances and a winning goal against Chelsea to his name, there was high expectations when Nigerian international forward Odejayi arrived at Edgeley Park last summer, and for the majority of last season they were not met. But the mid-season change in manager gradually helped to reshape the former Barnsley man’s fortunes as he went from a boo-boy to an appreciated regular starter.
It is no secret that the decision to re-sign Odejayi was one that County boss Jim Gannon took a lot of time to mull over, in fact if the club had not missed out on number one target Tom Denton then he probably would have left the club, but if “Big Kay” can add a few more goals to the powerful and robust presence that he provides up front then the Hatters can be a real force.
A fourth straight season in the National League North beckons for a club that was once considered a Football League staple. But will the Stockport faithful finally see a decent attempt at a promotion charge?
Well, the omens are looking good with the assembled squad appearing to be among the strongest on paper at least. There finally appears to be the right mix of youthfulness, experience, pace, power and height – a balance that previous managers didn’t strike.
The addition of highly-rated wingers Danny Lloyd and Adam Thomas is especially welcome as County have really struggled to find an end product from wide areas in recent years, but there still remains a question mark over whether there are enough goals in this side.
Many experts are saying the division is looking particularly strong this year and it is sure to be a hard-fought battle at the top, but tactically you won’t find a more well prepared manager than the one in the Edgeley Park dugout and he has put together a very adaptable group to work with.
With 10 new players arriving and a mammoth 16 departing, Gannon has had a major rebuild of his squad – if his new team can gel quickly, hit the ground running and gain some momentum then they will be very difficult to stop.
By Joe Canavan
NB: *All the information above is correct as of July 27*