(Pictures: Mike Petch)
By Saj Sadiq
THERE’S a common misconception in the north-west it seems – and Jim Gannon is keen to put the record straight.
You only need to look back as far as 2002 to see Stockport County riding high in the second tier of English football – or five years further down the line when they were just 90 minutes from a Wembley final in the League Cup.
These days, the Hatters are a big fish in a smaller pond in National League North, yet still their reputation precedes them by rivals who have their sights set on heading in the opposite direction in the Pyramid.
Veteran of over 400 playing appearances for County in the higher reaches and currently in a third spell in charge as manager, Gannon is a man with experience at both ends of the spectrum.
But now locked in a fourth season in the sixth tier, it seems the club still can’t shake off its big reputation of old.
“Yes we are a big fish at this level but people keep coming up to me and saying you should be beating us as you are full-time and I have to remind them that we are actually a part-time club,” explained Gannon.
“We’ve lived with that expectation before and players do like to come to our place and play in front of 3,000 – 4,000 fans, but they also come here with a mentality to defend and not concede and that makes it difficult for us.
“This level is becoming more and more professional and we are seeing a real transformation, but it’s not caught anyone by surprise.
“I’m looking at the National League and there are hardly any teams there who are part-time. We’ve played York, Harrogate, Salford, Kidderminster, Telford and Nuneaton and they are all full-time and that definitely does give you an edge.
“Harrogate have gone down that route and they’ve realised why invest in quality part-time players when you can get more from full-time structures with the right players. This is something we are debating endlessly at the club and we are moving towards that.
“For some clubs, part-time football is a strait-jacket for future growth and I will even go to the point that I feel this year and the next few years we will only see full-time teams going up from this division and the weaker part-time teams coming down from the National League.
“To be successful at this level and to consolidate at the next level we need to go full-time, and that’s a journey that hopefully I can bring the club on.”
As it stands, however, Gannon is under no illusions where the Hatters stand in the grand scheme of things in National League North.
Yes, they may boast the division’s largest stadium in Edgeley Park and the biggest fan base in long-suffering but loyal Hatters, but according to the boss, the club’s 11th-place standing is probably a fair reflection of their current status.
“Looking at the full-time sides like Salford, Harrogate, Kidderminster and York and the money they are spending, they are going to be there or thereabouts this season,” he predicted. “We are there with the Brackleys and Chorleys and the Tamworths, all being competitive for the play-offs and hoping we can go up.
“The danger is though, if you go up as a part-time side statistically most teams who go up come back down and managers who are successful one season are shown the door next season.
“That is where we have to think not only about this season, if we get success and promotion what’s it going to look like next year as we have to keep pace with what is becoming a very competitive National League.”
But despite Gannon being content with fighting for a play-off place, the club still have a 2020 vision – and plan to see it through to the end.
In 2015, the club issued a document entitled ‘Moving Forward’ which sets out their aims and ambition for the title – including a Football League return by the year 2020.
So, with time running out and the club still operating on a part-time basis, is that wishful thinking or still reality?
“It can be done, but you have to trust in the management and in the coaching of young players and build a team rather than trying to buy a team,” Gannon added.
“The 2020 plan the club currently has is based around that, and although I believe in a vision document, I’m not sure it has all the information in it about the football side of things and the football structures and the type of players we need.
“I had a two-year deal at the start of the season and I wanted to have a two-year plan for promotion, but I was put under pressure to get promoted this season because the frustrations of the fans and the board are evident as they have been here for five years.
“I still feel as a part-time side at this level against the likes of Salford, York and Harrogate, we should be growing something and that’s where I feel we need to take a step back and decide which direction we want to go.
“We want to be positive and purposeful this season as a part-time team, but we need to grow into a full-time side over the course of this season. If I was putting together a plan for the club for 2020, we have to go full-time as soon as possible.
“We need facilities, we need the right staff to come in and we are already looking at the profile of the players. We’ve probably got half of our players who given the chance would go full-time, but we have to balance that with not wanting to lose the part-time players who are really good at this level.
“It’s very hard to flip them out of their jobs and pay them the equivalent of two salaries, which is what some clubs have done for players who have left this club.
“We have to know where we are at and put a plan in place to grow as a club, and I believe that should revolve around good staff and good full-time facilities and professionalise everything in terms of making an environment to get good young players and grow them into a Football League team.”
*This article originally featured in The @NonLeaguePaper, which is available every Sunday.