• Sam Byrne

Hatters gearing up for success at Carrington

County’s pre-season began with a 2-0 defeat to League One promotion-chasers Fleetwood Town at Carrington last Saturday, as Jim Gannon’s side ushered in a new era under owner Mark Stott.

First-half goals by Josh Morris and Paddy Madden were enough to give Joey Barton’s side a comfortable win in a friendly hosted at County’s new training base in Carrington –but the focus of the day was largely on the start of a new chapter for The Hatters.

Local businessman Stott, who officially took control of the club following a takeover in January prior to the national lockdown, was in attendance for County’s first fixture since the pandemic.

As has been the norm since Stott’s purchase of the club, the Vita Group owner looked content to observe the game in the background; watching on with family as The Hatters kickstarted their 2020/21 campaign amidst searing heat in Manchester.

Indeed, since the takeover at the start of the year, Stott’s introductory interview with the Stockport Express (and of course with the club itself) remain his only public comments thus far – an owner “incredibly proud and excited” to be at the helm, but choosing to quietly get to work putting his plans into place rather than endlessly discussing them.

And, just six months down the line from the takeover, Stott and company have done just that. Manager Jim Gannon was promised “full-time football, a bigger budget and a training ground” back in January – with Gannon and his backroom staff penning full-time deals last week as County began life at their new Carrington base, where the club have signed a lease to remain for the next three years.

The budget, perhaps the most pertinent of the three to supporters, has also been delivered throughout Stott’s tenure so far, with Gannon and Director of Football Simon Wilson adding no fewer than seven summer signings to date – with the Hatters boss revealing in Saturday’s post-match interview that he hopes for five more to follow this pre-season.

Aside from those football-based promises, Stott and his team have been rapidly earning the praise of supporters throughout the year through a number of other ventures, with the new regime struggling to put a foot wrong. At the beginning of the lockdown period, County found national media limelight via a £75,000 donation to the NHS from Stott himself on behalf of the football club.

This proved the beginning of a relationship filled with goodwill between the two, with County donating sleeve sponsorship of their new kit - as well as a percentage of club shop income - to the NHS.

The kit itself came to the fore in a now typically slick promotional video – a new link with sportswear giants Puma the basis of a short clip showing the Hatters’ first-team squad donning teamwear in a studio photoshoot.

The Hatters are confident of securing a ‘bespoke’ strip in the future, with kit sales of County’s three new strips (two of which don the almost elegantly simple Vita Group logo) already a major success at Edgeley Park.

In truth, the club’s new crest - an iteration of the previous badge redesigned into a new circular crest – remains the only move to be met with some resistance by some Hatters supporters, yet even this seems to be growing on any remaining detractors.

Any of those detractors appear in agreement that any issue with the crest is a very minor gripe amidst a few months of unprecedented excellent PR at Edgeley Park.

On the pitch, a string of eye-catching signings have been supplemented by the retention of several fan favourites from County’s journey back into the National League under Gannon.

In the club’s first promotional video last month, Stopfordian actress Michelle Keegan narrated that “there are no new owners, only new custodians”, adding that the club “are building for the future, while preserving heroes of the past”.

For County supporters, there seemed something almost reassuring about the sight of the likes of Ben Hinchliffe, Sam Minihan and Ash Palmer running out to action on Saturday – all popular title-winning members of Gannon’s most successful sides over the last few years in amongst the new guard of County’s squad.

From Gannon and Director of Football Wilson’s perspective, there’s no hint of sentimentality about any of the retained members of the squad. Ben Hinchliffe seems set to hold onto the number one shirt for the fifth season in a row, with belief as strong as ever around Edgeley Park that the former Fylde man is one of the best goalkeepers in non-league.

Sam Minihan started alongside Palmer in County’s first-half eleven; a suggestion in itself that Gannon sees the duo as integral members of perhaps his ‘strongest’ side.

Minihan’s typical work-rate drew admiration from some of the new behind-the-scenes staff at the club during Saturday’s defeat, with Stott and company exchanging grins as the right wing-back made another burst down the flank. The Hatters' 'old guard' appear very much part of an exciting future.

New owners at any club seem to almost always bring with them the natural possibility for supporters of a change in management – but Stott and company also moved quickly to secure Gannon’s future at the club, extending the Irishman’s contract until the summer of 2022 along with his backroom staff.

Assistant manager Dave Conlon, a reserved figure who tends to fly under the radar at Edgeley Park, spoke on Saturday about his “delight” at moving into a full-time role at the club, whilst physio Luke Smith, goalkeeping coach Karlos Leneghan and conditioning coach Nick Donnelly have all signed on similar terms.

At Carrington, the club’s new training base for the next three years before an eventual move to a new Stockport-based ‘community complex’, the Hatters’ squad are prepped for success.

The Championship-grade facilities are already being refurbished, with plans discussed on Saturday including players’ lounge boasting numerous games consoles, a restaurant with a full-time chef on-site, media and analysis suites (where the club's new analyst Sean O'Callaghan, signed from Peterborough Utd, will get to work) and staff offices - with a large gym and medical room already in use.

The club hold an option to extend the lease at Carrington if necessary, although sights are firmly set on securing a training and community hub in Stockport for the long-term.

In terms of Edgeley Park itself, whilst the club – like all others around the country at present – are unsure of final plans for a reduced capacity on matchdays as yet, work has been underway on improving the experience of the matchday.

Matchday catering will be brought back ‘in house’, whilst renovations around the ground will continue over the coming months.

On the field, there always seemed a feeling amongst supporters prior to Stott’s arrival that Jim Gannon was succeeding at County despite the off-field situation, not necessarily because of it.

Gannon always appeared content that County’s previous owners supported him as much as possible and was happy to state as much, but the owners themselves were the first to admit that the funds just were not in place to enable Gannon to have a sustained push at promotion back into the Football League and beyond.

That Gannon had the club flirting with the National League play-off places before the takeover in January spoke more about the manager’s obvious ability than any 'financial firepower' available to him – but the feeling at the club is now that everything being done is with the overall aim of helping Gannon and his team to succeed.

Carrington was full of hustle and bustle prior to kick-off on Saturday; staff erecting two giant gazebos (emblazoned with the Hatters’ new crest) to allow both sides some relief from the sun to prepare for the game and arrange tactics.

A makeshift gantry was placed pitch-side for the club’s media team to film proceedings from on high, with benches arranged for both ‘dugouts’, with everything handled on the day - given that this was The Hatters' first taste of action in almost six months - with the same slickness that fans have become accustomed to under Stott’s regime.

In keeping with the club’s reservation of everything good about the previous tenure, the familiar tones of club commentator Jon Keighren narrated proceedings over a YouTube stream produced to enable supporters to watch the behind-closed-doors fixture.

There was talk at the training ground around how the club have moved quickly to achieve a lot of what has been achieved in a short window of time since Stott’s arrival, and while club officials are clearly happy with the work done so far, there appears no sign of complacency or of a job already being done.

There is a keen awareness around the training base that, whilst positive strides have been made over the summer, these are simply building blocks prior to the big National League kick-off on the 3rd October.

Despite the hive of activity before kick-off, once the players made their way onto the pitch, all eyes were on the football. Gannon and his backroom staff find themselves in a position, after years of hard work at Edgeley Park, whereby they can focus solely on leading the players.

‘Culture’ is the buzzword amongst supporters at the moment, with County undergoing a big change in their own culture under new custodians.

Gannon has always been a real clubman at County, involved in all elements behind the scenes at a club he's been involved with for three decades. One particularly damp afternoon during The Hatters’ National League North title-winning season in 2019 had threatened to see a big game called off, only for members of the press to turn up hours before kick-off and find Gannon heaving pitch-rollers across the surface with the ground-staff.

For a man so passionate about his club, it seemed almost normal to witness. Under Mark Stott, whilst Gannon will be more passionate than ever to succeed, it already appears obvious that Gannon’s sights will be able to firmly set on the football.

Having been rewarded with a new deal for his four years of success during this spell at the club, the feeling is now very much that Gannon can focus on what he’s best at; managing his new-look side to success on the pitch.

Gannon himself has spoken of being aware of the pressure on him to succeed this season, explaining that “no pressure is bigger than the pressure I put on myself”. The former Northwich boss added that Mark Stott had ‘definitely’ lived up to the promises made back in January – with Gannon being given all the tools required for a real push at promotion.

There has been a lot of talk of ‘the new normal’ during the pandemic, but for County, the ‘new normal’ is now life under Mark Stott. Slick, efficient, professional – and gearing up more and more each day for success at Edgeley Park.