As the final credits roll on Dave Challinor’s tenure as Hartlepool United boss, the opening scenes are just about to begin on his time with Stockport County, but is he the right man for the Hatters job?
By Amos Murphy
Change needed for stuttering Stockport
Defeat at home to bottom-half Barnet last week was one mis-placed step too much for Simon Rusk, who was let go as Stockport County manager exactly nine months on from the day he was appointed.
A man who arrived with plenty of promise, but not much experience, the County job proved to be too big of a job too soon for the former Brighton & Hove Albion U23s boss.
With each passing week, the optimistic smile that Rusk had walked through the door with quickly disappeared, and as the lights were switched off at Edgeley Park following last week’s defeat, so too was his spell as County manager.
Right man, wrong time? That question remains unanswered, yet his replacement doesn’t arrive without his doubts either.
Return to Edgeley Park for Challinor
A former player himself, Dave Challinor’s route into management came before the Chester-born defender had even hung up his boots, after being appointed player-manager of then-Northern Premier League Premier side Colwyn Bay.
Boasting an impressive CV as a player, Challinor plied his trade as a centre-back and once held the world record for the longest throw in football.
Amongst the sides Challinor played for throughout his 17-year playing career were Tranmere Rovers, Bury and of course, Stockport, where the now 46-year-old is now in charge.
Having rejected an approach for Challinor, Hartlepool were left helpless when their manager informed the board he wanted to leave the club, before signing for Stockport on Wednesday.
Challinor perfect fit for stacked Stockport
Challinor will become the eighth different manager tasked with taking County back to the Football League, where they had competed in continuously for 106 years before finishing bottom of the fourth tier in 2010/11.
Yet, unlike the seven who have come before him, Challinor does have experience of earning promotion from the fifth-tier, after winning last season’s National League playoffs with Hartlepool
A crucial factor for County in the Challinor appointment was his National League pedigree, and equally important to his Hartlepool triumph is also the less-successful 2018/19 final with AFC Fylde, where the Coasters were beaten by Salford City.
County now have a manager who has taken charge of a team in two of the last three National League playoff finals and given how their season has started, hopes of promotion my rest on earning promotion via the less favoured route.
New manager, new Edgeley Park era
Like a beached whale marooned on the shore, Stockport have always felt like a club out of place in non-league.
Whilst no side has any right to a place in any division, since dropping out of the Football League 10 years ago, County have felt like a Football League club stuck in non-league, yet they haven’t always operated like one.
The investment of local businessman Mark Stott has brought about a number of changes at Edgeley Park – both figuratively and literally - with the feeling around the club that they are prepared for a return to the Football League.
Edgeley Park has been given a facelift, there are new people in charge of operations behind the scenes.
Yet, the biggest shift has been the personnel in the dressing room itself, with getting the most out of a star-studded side no doubt Challinor’s first, and potentially biggest task.
Recruitment problems could provide headache for Challinor
Whilst Rusk undoubtedly struggled to find the balance within a side tipped to win the National League title, it would also be unfair to pin all the blame on him, given the often questionable recruitment policy County have operated with over the past year.
Somewhat of a ‘buy now, ask later’ style has been adopted, with Stockport at times happy to empty out the League One and League Two bargain buckets whenever a new man became available.
Antoni Sarcevic represented the latest addition to an already stacked County squad, and whilst there is no doubting the former-Bolton Wanderers captain’s quality, he is just one of many talents currently shoo-horned into the starting-11.
However, Challinor has shown in the past that he can find the balance in a squad full of big personalities, with perhaps his most notable alumni Danny Rowe.
A former-Stockport man himself, Rowe netted 27 times during Fylde’s ill-fated 2018/19 campaign, whilst he left the Lancashire club after a six-year spell with an impressive 155 goals in just 241 appearances.
County supporters will be hoping the Challinor-effect can rub off on the likes of Sarcevic, John Rooney and Paddy Madden amongst others, but finding a system to accommodate these players will provide a challenge in itself.
Three or Four first question for new man Challinor
One of the biggest frustrations Stockport fans had of ex-boss Rusk was his reluctance to divert away from a back-three, despite a run of indifferent results.
In his final interview before being sacked as County boss, Rusk told nonleaguedaily.com that his preference had always been to deploy a back-four, despite operating with a three for much of the campaign.
Challinor’s appointment doesn’t necessarily mean an immediate switch from a three to a four, as his sides have often fluctuated between the two depending on the opponent.
Yet, it does suggest a willingness to be flexible in a tactical approach and it is that exact pragmatism that has allowed Challinor to establish himself as one of the National League’s most effective managers over the last few seasons.
No quick-fix but Challinor the man
It’s safe to say Challinor’s arrival will not solve all of County’s problems just yet, with their languishing league position the first of many jobs on the new man’s to-do list.
But, with a near enough free-hit for a first game in charge away to Bolton in the FA Cup, Challinor will be afforded the time on the training ground to at least begin figuring out which jigsaw pieces go into which box, before re-starting his assault on the National League at home to Bromley in mid-November.
With his track record of bringing out the best in players and an exceptional five promotions throughout his glittering career, you wouldn’t bet against Challinor being the man to drag Stockport from underneath the ruins.