It's a full decade since Stockport County and League football went from 'it's complicated' to not even 'staying together for the kids'. Even in the relative wilderness of non-league, the backing for the Edgeley Park side has been obvious. When a club are languishing some way below their 'level', knowing their support outstrips most around them can end up being the only real source of comfort for members of that fan base. If you have been keeping even half an eye on the Hatters in recent seasons, though, you will have noticed a club reinvigorated; promoted under Jim Gannon in 2019, accelerated further by last January's takeover, and now looking to finally clamber out of non-league altogether.
Offering only one automatic promotion place, the National League is anything but welcoming to the aspirations of many teams bidding to make that jump back. The phrase 'it's nice for a visit, but you don't want to live here' couldn't be more fitting. For County, last season was as close as they've been in the past ten years to 'FREEEDOM!' (picture Mel Gibson in the Cheadle End...), with 3rd place and a play-off semi-final.
Sam Byrne's beginnings in football media have coincided with the Hatters' non-league years, and like Dave Powell (Chester) who featured on here earlier this year, he's among the band of reporters to know just what it's like to cover 'their' club. The current Manchester Evening News writer joins us here for an extended Q&A...
Firstly Sam, tell me about your background into reporting on County. Are you from Stockport? How did covering the club at all first start?
I’m from Stockport, I’ve lived in the town my whole life. I studied Sport Journalism at the University of Huddersfield, and it was mandatory that we get a placement out in the industry during our final year of studies. At that time, the previous Stockport Express reporter, Gavin Browne, who did an excellent job covering the club home and away, had just moved on and there appeared to be a vacancy. The timing worked out well and I apparently did well enough that the Manchester Evening News and Stockport Express were happy for me to take on the role after graduation.
How does your work tend to take shape from one week to the next? A typical week perhaps during the season?
Funnily enough, I and a few other media people around the club (radio commentators, cameraman etc.) all have full-time jobs to balance alongside this job. I’d love for it to be my full-time role, but unfortunately, it’s not quite panned out that way as yet, probably given the level that County had dropped to in the National League North days, and the lack of interest from even local media at that time. Doing two jobs, both of which are effectively full-time, definitely makes you appreciate the sheer volume of volunteers all across non-league clubs who devote all their time to their club. But in terms of a standard week, the local paper goes to print on Tuesday afternoons for publishing on Wednesday. That will usually mean a piece for the back page with reaction to the most recent fixture etc. and then a few separate pieces for the inside pages; match reports, any other news from the week. From there, it’ll just be keeping an eye on any stories to run on social media, then providing live coverage of home and away fixtures through Twitter and on-the-whistle match reports. Naturally, match days are the busiest!
What are your earliest memories/experiences of Edgeley Park?
I vividly remember my first game back on Boxing Day in 1999. We were 2-1 down against Wolves, and my absolute favourite player when I was a child, Ian Moore, came on at half-time to score two goals - including a last-minute winner. A rumour at the time was that he got stuck in traffic and didn’t get to the ground until half-time. Not sure whether that was ever true, but I always remember that one!
In terms of away journeys covering the club, have there been any particular favourites, and why?
The local ones have always been best; a big County following, a short journey, and usually a lot of interest from the home fans. Altrincham has always been a good one, particularly in the 2019 National League North title-winning season, probably helped most by playing them four times that season and winning all four! We also travelled to Wrexham in the August that we first came up from the National League North and won 2-1 in front of a load of County fans, which was a memorable day.
The pandemic really highlighted how much of a miss the fans are, especially when County are on the road and can usually rely on a big away attendance no matter whereabouts we’re playing. To contrast the above, we won 3-0 at Wrexham during lockdown in an empty stadium, and you couldn’t help but think about how good days like that would have been with the fans in. Thankfully, we seem to be getting slowly back on track in that regard.
What about trips where perhaps the lack of glamour is really illustrated! Broken-down car, not-so-five-star accommodation (if you stayed over), needing to send a match report in less than ideal surroundings, whatever it may be...
There’s been plenty of broken-down vehicles down the years! County lost 2-1 at Harrogate on the August Bank Holiday in 2019, and a couple of us got stuck on the side of the motorway coming back through Yorkshire. Standing on the hard shoulder in sweltering heat waiting for a recovery vehicle after a 94th-minute defeat definitely isn’t one I’d like to ever revisit! In terms of filing reports, Boston on a midweek night, or winter evening, was always a difficult one. A proper old-fashioned ground, which is great, but you’d always end up trying to type in a pitch-black press box, barely able to see the keys on the keyboard right in front of you!
How have you found the dynamic of being connected to the fanbase, but also needing to be, to some extent at least, separated from it as someone covering the club? Is any aspect of it ever difficult, with such an engaged and substantial fan base?
It’s tough. I’m a County fan, as are the vast majority of media around the club, so I’d like to think that even in tough times, such as with Jim Gannon leaving last season, that the fans can see that we’re just fans too and that we’re just doing a job, even in times where things around the club get a bit tense or the fan base is generally unhappy with something. Whenever we lose games, it’s tough to strike that balance of calling it as it is, but also realising that you’re not ‘just’ a regular fan who can, for example, go online and completely bash the side without being constructive and objective. It’s tough to get that balance right and to criticise the side for a defeat without going overboard, as fans can.
On the flip side, you can’t just gloss over it and dress things up, but you also have to maintain that relationship with players, managers etc. in order to keep getting stories and content. Generally, I think fans will understand that, and as long as I don’t jump online and gush about how amazing things are after a 3-0 defeat, I’d like to think the majority understand that I do have to find that balance. But privately, I’ll always be a County fan, so of course I’ll always have my own thoughts on performances, results, certain players etc.
Without naming names of clubs (one or two are obvious, let’s say...), how helpful/accommodating have you found clubs across non-league (or higher) from a working point of view? What kind of things need to be better in certain areas?
It’s a mixed bag. You’ve referred to a few clubs who are probably well-known at being less than helpful, but even then, generally you arrive at these clubs and the actual staff around the ground on the match day are really helpful. You find that the clubs with strange rules about who can and can’t attend generally have those rules coming from higher-ups who don’t attend games, or don’t get involved with the media when you arrive, so it’s not really the fault of the lads and girls working in the media team who actually go out of their way to help you. There are a high number of clubs who are nothing but helpful and polite to deal with, and as I mentioned earlier, you really have to respect the volunteers, in most cases, who handle all that stuff without taking a penny.
In terms of what could be improved, the National League’s regulations/guidelines on media attendees aren’t the best. I believe the rule is something along the lines of home sides only have to accommodate one or two media visitors on match days, and anything else is at their discretion. Of course, clubs who are that way inclined will seek to make things difficult for local reporters/visiting cameramen etc. if the guidance from the league allows them to do so. I understand that the rules are probably catered more towards the clubs with smaller grounds, so that media can’t just turn up en masse, but at the same time, you’d like to think there could be a balance struck that allows those who need to attend to cover the game to do so. At the end of the day, the National League will only benefit from increasing numbers allowed when that coverage of National League clubs ends up spreading further and wider.
With the takeover and all the positives happening at County in recent times, has that changed/enhanced your experience at all, and in what ways?
To be honest, the takeover hasn’t really changed much in terms of the matchday media experience, and that’s probably the way you’d want it to be, as a reporter. Edgeley Park itself is obviously looking a lot slicker thanks to the work from Mark Stott, and that can only be a good thing in terms of the aesthetic of the place, but my match days haven’t really changed at all, and nor should it.
The takeover happened to go through just before lockdown, so of course that changed things in terms of the matchday experience for media, but that would have been the case even without the takeover. We’re only just now getting to the stage of fans coming back into Edgeley Park without restrictions, and I think fans would agree that the ‘matchday experience’ as a supporter has definitely improved in terms of catering and, as I say, the actual aesthetic of Edgeley Park, thanks to a lot of work done on the ground during lockdown.
Are there any moments that stick in your mind over these non-league years that epitomise the club and the support? Whether that's seeing the away end in full force on a midweek night very far from the North West, or anything else that comes to mind.
Obviously, it’s hard not to go back to the title-winning season of 2019. That’s the obvious answer, given that it’s our only season of actual success in terms of trophies and promotions since we dropped into non-league.
You’d go to somewhere like Chester or Fylde and see a few thousand County fans. You’d be impressed but also appreciate that it’s a fairly local away day, but then you’d arrive at somewhere like Boston on a Tuesday night and still be met by hundreds of County fans. Like I say, with lockdowns ending, we’ve started to see that sort of thing crop back up already, when you head to Southend on a Saturday evening for a televised game and still find a few hundred supporting the side. The fans are the club, at the end of the day.
Finally, what is your favourite County song/chant you’ve heard, past or present?
It probably has to be The Anthem - ‘The Scarf My Father Wore’. Nothing beats a packed Cheadle End belting it out, and it’s just that one song that will continue on at the club forever. We have had a really original song list down the years, and definitely as I was growing up, had a lot of creative fans who can come up with something on the spot.
With one last mention of that title-winning campaign, the County fans came up with a chant revolving around our impressive away record, to the tune of ‘The Lion Sleeps Tonight’. It’s one which has since made its way into the higher leagues in this country (and yes, we did it first!) and gets rave reviews even from home fans when County are away from home. It got an outing after the 1-0 win at Southend in August, so here’s hoping it continues to be heard for the remainder of the campaign!
Interview by @chris_brookes
You can follow Sam on Twitter: @_SByrne