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The toughest job in football?

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Paul Fletcher | 17:12 UK time, Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Something unique happened to Stockport County manager Peter Ward last Saturday afternoon - he watched his team win.

Later in the evening, towards the end of the BBC's Football League Show, Ward watched the brief highlights of his team defeating local rivals Bury 2-1 at Edgeley Park with great satisfaction.

I spoke to Ward, who took over as temporary boss on 5 January, in the days before Saturday's match. It is difficult to exactly gauge the mood of someone you have never met before but I sensed the 46-year-old was in something of a dark place. He told me he was driven on by fear and was desperate to taste victory; to end the losing habit, to restore confidence, to give some self-belief, both to himself and his struggling team.

It is easy to understand his anxiety. The Hatters are in a desperate battle against relegation from the Football League. The Cheshire club have been dogged by financial problems over recent years and were relegated from League One last season after managing only five wins.

Stockport County caretaker manager Peter Ward.

Ward is determined to keep smiling through these stressful times. Photo: Stockport County FC

Stockport have managed six wins in 31 league fixtures so far this season and have a goal difference of minus 36, far worse than any other team fighting the drop. Ward has been desperately trying to bolster his defence but everything looked to be going against him for a while. He brought in defender Aaron Brown on loan from Leyton Orient only for the 27-year-old to score an own goal only 12 minutes into his debut.

Gary Ablett was in charge of Stockport last season, his first managerial role. The Hatters were in administration throughout that period, leaving the former Liverpool and Everton defender to cope with a crippling transfer embargo and the loss of key playing assets, sold off as the team finished the League One campaign 25 points adrift of safety.

A new consortium took over in the summer and Ablett was briskly despatched. The club came out of adminstration and Ward, a fans favourite who had served the club both as a player and assistant manager during happier times, was brought in to take the squad through pre-season training. In July, Paul Simpson was unveiled as manager but Ward stayed on as his assistant.

Simpson, formerly of Carlisle, Preston and Shrewsbury, was sacked on 4 January after less than six months in charge. At the time, Stockport were 21st in the League Two table.

Ward was at home when the call came telling him Simpson had left. When Ward went in the next day to take temporary charge, Simpson had already cleared his desk and the two men have not spoken since. No hard feelings, just business.

"It came as a big surprise," Ward told me. "But I really haven't had time to think about it."

He has been getting into work at 0730 GMT and often does not finish until midnight. In addition to planning the forthcoming week, taking training and dealing with paperwork, he has spent hour after hour driving to matches, checking out potential new faces.

It is Ward's first spell as a manager. Previously, he had been Jim Gannon's assistant at Stockport and Motherwell as well as working under Simpson. Gannon and Ward took over at the Hatters late in 2005 with the club 10 points adrift of safety in League Two. They secured survival on the last day of the campaign and won promotion at the end of the 2007/08 season. What happened then gives Ward hope now but he knows the current situation is different. Last time, homegrown youngsters such as Liam Dickinson and Anthony Elding played an important role. But there is no such talent coming through now, picked off by other clubs as Stockport tried to address their financial problems.

Ward had no assistant manager for his first month in charge, although development manager Alan Lord helped out whenever he could. The experienced Ray Mathias joined on 4 February as technical manager. A former assistant to Paul Ince at Macclesfield, MK Dons and Blackburn as well as manager of Wigan, Tranmere and Chester, Mathias's vast contacts book could help Ward acquire some fresh blood on loan.

The first time I called Ward he was halfway through his dinner. It was four in the afternoon but he did not have very long to chat as he was heading out to take in another match. I had called on a Thursday. He had already been to one match on Monday, another on Tuesday and two on Wednesday. He had another planned for Friday.

"This job is 24/7," said the 46-year-old. "Sometimes it is the fear that drives you on, it does worry me, it is a big responsibility."

The Hatters slipped to rock bottom during Ward's first month in charge. A loss to Torquay left them one point from safety, at first glance a very bridgeable gap. However, most of the teams around them had games in hand. In the case of fellow strugglers Burton, a staggering eight.

Furthermore, Ward has not been told by the board exactly how long he will remain at the helm. It is clearly bothering him.

"I have asked the board to quantify how long I will be in charge," he said. "It is time for someone to make a decision. Either I am the man for the job or I'm not."

Ward was signed as a player by Stockport in 1991 by Uruguayan Danny Bergara. A tough tackler, he won promotion in his first season and made four Wembley appearances for the Hatters. Even after he was sold to Wrexham by Dave Jones in 1995, he maintained his links with the club by training youth teams as part of the requirements of his coaching badges.

Bergara lived on the same road as Edgeley Park. Ward himself still lives in Stockport and has many friends in the town. When he looks into the stands from the dugout on matchday, he recognises many faces.

"This club means a lot to me and my family," he said. "A lot of fans here are personal friends, which makes it doubly hard for me, yet every week when results are not going well they still stick behind the club.

Edgeley Park - the home of Stockport County.

Stockport are desperate to play League football at Edgeley Park next season. Photo: Getty Images

"We owe it to them to try to save ourselves but we all know it is a big, big ask."

Ward is trying to clear his mind of all peripheral distractions but in the background there are rumours about changes at the club. New York businessman Mike Newton failed with a takeover bid at Port Vale last year but has now been linked with Stockport. The suggestion is that if he is successful he will bring in current Vale assistant boss Geoff Horsfield as the new permanent manager.

At least Ward has now chalked up his first win as a Football League manager. It came at the eighth attempt after two draws and six defeats. Ward could sense the relief around Edgeley Park at the final whistle on Saturday.

This weekend, the Hatters will attempt to win back-to-back games for the first time in 99 fixtures, a record that stretches back to February 2009. Given that Ward reckons his team need to win nine of their remaining 15 League Two fixtures if they are to avoid relegation, the winning habit needs to continue against Macclesfield.

A recent BBC Late Kick Off feature followed Stockport supporters as they travelled to watch the team at Rotherham. The Hatters were stuffed 4-0 and it was obvious many fans had already given up the ghost.

But there is a glimmer of hope after last week's win, a sliver of sunlight through dense, dark cloud. And then there is Peter Ward, a man with a massive challenge thrust upon him. He might not have asked for it but he sure isn't ducking it.

You can follow me throughout the season at



  • Comment number 1.

    It sounds like the type of job you get lumped with because nobody else will do it.

  • Comment number 2.

    Great article again Paul

  • Comment number 3.

    Paul: correction ahoy.

    Paragraph twelve: we weren't promoted the following season, we missed the play-offs on the last day despite winning 5-0 at Darlington. It was the following season (07/08) we went up.

  • Comment number 4.

    As a county fan, I recognise this article, but we've been here before in the 70's, in the 80's, in the 2000's, when 1500 was seen as a good gate, now 4000 is needed just to break even, when away games were had without enough substitues, Asa hartford etc, John Ward deserves better support, but so did Gary Ablett, what happened to him was a crime against football last year, he did the best with the tools available, kept us from being humiliated totally (I didnt expect a single win last year) and was sacked for his efforts, come on county, treat wardy right

  • Comment number 5.

    Such a shame that so many clubs in the lower echelons of the English football pyramid are suffering in part due to the greed and self interest of the Premier League.

  • Comment number 6.

    great article paul, i remember you doing an article on gary ablett last year and as you can see our fortunes haven't really improved since then!

    i really hope wardy is given the job until the end of the season at least, he has blue and white blood running through his veins and along with Alan Lord and the very experienced Ray Mathais, we may just have a chance of staying up.

  • Comment number 7.

    Paul, not a Football League follower as such, but another quality blog, always a good read.

    There are few other Bloggers on the BBC who could do with taking note of the content of some of the articles you produce, concentrating on some of the unsung heroes of the game rather than just those with cash to splash

  • Comment number 8.

    you can have clueless gannon back if you want me and 5,000 other vale fans want him out i will drive him to stockport for you if you want GANNON OUT NOW !!

  • Comment number 9.

    Well someone has to go down, sorry Stockport. I've no hard feelings towards them but I'd love to see The Hatters replace The Hatters.

  • Comment number 10.

    I thought Paul Simpson would succeed, he did a good job at Carlisle and had nouse in the transfer market, would be a shame to see Stockport go down.

  • Comment number 11.

    Now then - thanks for your thoughts so far.

    blueb1rd46 (post 4) - noted and sorted.

    So - who honestly thinks Stockport can stay up? If they can, then who will go down?

    And if the Hatters go down how much of a disaster will it be?

  • Comment number 12.

    Great article Paul, as a County fan I always look forward to your blogs as you seem to respect football at all levels, not just the top flight. If only there were a few more journos like you willing to look beyond the Premier League cash cow. Thanks mate!

  • Comment number 13.

    A lot of my family live in and around Stockport, and I've been to more than a few of their games down the years. I'd like to see them do well, but as has been noted, someone has to go down. I also remember seeing Oxford United play Man City in the First Division as was, which just goes to show quite how much things can change.

    Best of luck to a man doing a tough job in difficult circumstances.

  • Comment number 14.

    Re: our chances, it's a tough ask now. All I ask is that we give it our best shot from here, then who knows. As for the BSP, difficult to say really. We really need to push the Council regarding the development of Edgeley Park and subsequent equal ownership with SMBC/Cheshire Sport/County all sharing a piece of the pie. The success/failure of our campaign to achieve this will have a huge bearing on how we'd survive outside the FL IMO.

  • Comment number 15.

    hell boys, optimism, we're only 5 wins off the play-off places, we were deeper n darker before Jim (only county boss to win at wembley, still best footballing day of my life) Gannon took over, always be a county!!

  • Comment number 16.

    Heart says we can do it, head says we'll fall short. A great win against Bury shows we can beat the best in this division but our inconsistency needs to disappear fast so we can put a run together. If County can stay up i think it will be at the expense of our nearby neighbours Macclesfield, with Barnet also in the bottom two. The derby on saturday against Macc is massive, if we can win that then we'll have a fighting chance of escaping the drop.

  • Comment number 17.

    It seems as though the problem is the fact that managers are not given long enough to try and turn things round. Ward has asked how long he will be in charge but can't get an answer....probably until they can find another mug to replace him.

    Not a Stockport fan, but I can't think of anything worse than Stockport being replaced in the league by Luton, a club that I hope go down and down and down. Vile fans.

  • Comment number 18.

    It's refreshing to read these excellent articles about 'real' football. I would be amazed if County manage to stay up and Peter Ward undoubtedly has it incredibly tough. Too many people have taken advantage of County over the last few years and Ward is left topick up the pieces.

  • Comment number 19.

    15 cup finals coming up!

    In the past we've gone down with a whimper, last season being a prime example. If we don't manage to stay up this will definitely be the costliest relegation of them all, it seems to be in the balance whether we'll survive as a Conference club or not.

  • Comment number 20.

    I work with a guy who is convinced that Barnet will go down this year. I'm not so sure, they certainly have experience of scrambling up the lower reaches of the League Two table.

    As for Stockport - I think this weekend could be crucial for them. They obviously need to generate some momentum and back-to-back wins will help in that regard.

    It is going to be a desperate end to the season.

  • Comment number 21.

    County fan here. Things are pretty desperate but we are by no means doomed quite yet. There are plenty of clubs who could start to plummet down the table. We might even win more than one game every 2 months.

    And I am sorry to say that the dreaded 10/15/20 point deduction for going bust might catch some clubs. It might even catch us again, as we aren't well funded - however if it did, this time there would be no way back.

  • Comment number 22.

    I'm almost certain Barnet are going down this season. They have played a lot more games than those teams just above them and their remaining fixtures are not as favourable either.

    Dropping out of the football league isn't so bad, look at all the away days to beautiful cities in England that fans in the Conference get to enjoy.

  • Comment number 23.

    "Such a shame that so many clubs in the lower echelons of the English football pyramid are suffering in part due to the greed and self interest of the Premier League"
    Very little to do with the Premier League, more to do with paying out more than is coming in. Stockport beat my team, Rochdale, at Wembley to gain promotion. We had sold a couple of our best players that year to pay the bills and were outplayed by a team who hadn't, and who ended up in administration not long after. You do the maths.
    The sooner clubs learn to live within their means the better.
    However I hope Stockport stay up and wish them all the best for the rest of the season

  • Comment number 24.

    Good article Paul.
    Im a big county fan and there are some good points raised above regarding how crucial the next couple of games are and how the premier league has crippled lower league teams.

    I suggest and I know other football league fans do that there should be an affiliation between teams in the top two divisions and teams in the lower two.

    Its terrible when you look at the amount of spending city and Chelsea do and then you have teams like County, and in recent times Bournemouth,Luton,Southend,Plymouth,Palace the list is endless who are all struggling financially. You never would of thought the economy is the way it is based on premier league spending.

    Arguably lower league fans are more loyal and its sad to see us so close to relegation, when a couple of seasons ago we were on the way to a positive future.

    I think Barnet are gunna go down and its a close call for us, we have some very hard games remaining whereas macc face some easier opposition. It was a brill win against Bury and I just hope it boosts their confidence.

    Incidently, I think some of Simpson's signings wernt great but I dont think you can fully blaim him.

  • Comment number 25.

    Not sure what KHA is talking about. We sold Elding and Ashley Williams in our promotion season, two of our best players. And Liam Dickinson after we got promoted. It was the loan of 300,000 taken out to cover cash flow problems caused by the rugby club that was the undoing. Probably best not to make comments about things you know nothing about.

  • Comment number 26.

    very sad whats happening to Stockport,the days of League cup semi finals and mixing it with the big boys in the higher reaches of the championship seem like a long time ago

  • Comment number 27.

    Yes, sorry for not knowing the full details of County's transfer dealings, EP. However the facts still remain. You could not pay your bills, so at some point there must have been a lack of proper financial planning.

  • Comment number 28.

    Just looked up the fees County received. Dickinson -£750K, Williams, £400K, Elding - undisclosed but I'm guessing it wasn't for a small amount. Potentially up to £1.5M received and administration was caused by a bill of £300K? Surely there must have been more to it than that or was the £1.5M spent without an eye on the future?

  • Comment number 29.

    A sad state of affairs that Stockport find themselves in. However, they are still in a position to progress and one thing that annoys me in football is that managers and scouts look at players falling down through the professional system, rather than looking at potential non league bargains, who would cost less in terms of fees and wages.

    Swindon Town have managed this brilliantly in recent seasons, namely with the signing of Charlie Austin.

    However other clubs look at the latest batch released at Man Utd, or Liverpool and think they are getting the real deal.

    I'm afraid not, and the time between 16-21 spent rotting in the reserves does nothing for a player, it is best that they are plying their trade successfully in the adult game as a lot of non-league youngsters are doing.

    The north west is a hot bed of excellent amateur and semi-pro football, with players who fell out of the professional system at an earlier age (14-16) reasons for that will vary, but if the right players are given the right chance it can work out brilliantly.

    However, I wonder what scouts and coaches expect "To score 20 in this league he must be scoring 90 in non league" No, i'm afraid this doesn't translate, some players are just as good at any level they play at.

  • Comment number 30.

    Great blog. What's happened to us at County over the last few years is sadly reflective of what's happened to so much of the game. A combination of bad decisions on the part of those running the club, people taking advantage of the club for the assets (namely, Edgeley Park) and then the way in which the Premier League and Champions League has so warped the financials of the game to the detriment of the game as a whole.

    We could still stay up and I don't believe that relegation would be the end of Stockport County - the BSP certainly isn't the end of the world in footballing terms - but it is a nightmare to have to worry more about you have a club to support next season rather than simply worry which division they play in.


  • Comment number 31.

    It all looks poor for Stockport now but just look at Lincoln. Struggling with you half a season and now just 1 defeat in 8 including 6 wins and we're happily in midtable obscurity.So there is a chance for Stockport, although the Imps do have Tilson, probably one of the best in the bottom division, Stockports rookie manager may find it a little too much sadly.

  • Comment number 32.

    Interesting as ever, I enjoy reading about life outside the EPL.
    As a Bolton fan I remember some cracking games with Stockport a few years ago, was the big guy called Kevin Francis?
    Looks like a massive task and any momentum will help, good luck to them.
    Clearly clubs of this size are in increasing danger of going bang as football continues to slowly implode.

  • Comment number 33.

    ref to Scott John, Kev Francis is a RCMP (mounty) now, we built that big stand at the cheadle end with the money we got from him, with ref to the fees recieved for Liam, pilks etc, Jim Gannon, got a percentage of that, I think he ended up one of the highest paid managers outside the premiership

  • Comment number 34.

    forget it boys, 1-4 to macclesfield? non-league football here we come :(

  • Comment number 35.

    If Stockport can turn it around and be replaced by Burton in the bottom two come seasons end then that would be lovely....

  • Comment number 36.

    @35 - Why?

    Burton Albion - a club that lives within its means and generally does things on and off the pitch the right way. And a town with footballing pedigree (no pun intended)..
    Anyway, they won't be relegated. They are in a false position at present. So there.. get gnashing those teeth..

  • Comment number 37.

    What will relegate Stockport is the amount they concede, especially to those around them. We (Hereford) scored 8 against them, which obviously puts 16 between us in goal difference. Conceding 4 to Macclesfield, who hadn't won since November is another example. I've always liked county and was pleased when we got promoted together in 2008 but we've both had a mare ever since!

  • Comment number 38.

    Actually I think the hardest job in football was taking over Southend United in the summer. About a month before the season started we had about 7-8 players on our books and a number of those were looking to leave. We also had a transfer embargo in place. We now have a squad with only one regular first teamer from last season, and one or two others. We're now only one point off the play offs.

    The fact that Paul Sturrock has done such a good job is the only reason why it isn't considered the hardest job in football.

    Steve Tilson (ex Southend) also has a claim for taking over at Lincoln. Again, because he's doing a good job it doesn't get mentioned.

  • Comment number 39.

    Everybody thinks their club is hard done by (comment 38) but County went into admin for a debt of 300k,2 weeks wages for a prem player, then all our best players were sold off for a pittance, the rubbish was kept and put on a good contract, which meant we had to keep them or pay them off, fat chance, and then the league put a transfer embargo on us preventing us signing anyone. We could have loan players but they aren't really interested until it's payday, of course. On top of that, our Chairman at the time, when we were in the second tier,a few years ago, wanted his money back, so he also sold off our best players for £millions, then sold OUR ground to Sale Sharks, who now rent it back to us at a ridiculous fee. A recent gate of over 4000, after we paid rent, police and other expences, left £29 profit !! So we have no decent players, no money, no ground and relegation to non league is on the cards, you think you're hard done by.

  • Comment number 40.

    The toughest job in Football is John Coleman`s, who has for years done a brilliant job at Accrington Stanley, where gates are less than 40% of the average for League Two.

  • Comment number 41.

    39. Good for you. Southend couldn't sell their players and make any money because they hadn't been paid and were therefore legally entitled to walk, which they did. We didn't go into administration, we paid all our debts, but were left with nothing, including no players.

  • Comment number 42.

    Paul, I have to say I love your blog - it's great to read about real footie that's outside the Big 4!


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