• Sam Byrne

Stockport adjusting to life without Jim Gannon

For the third time in eleven years, Stockport County are adjusting to life without Jim Gannon at the helm.

‘Day one’ of this third time around came in the form of a 1-1 draw with a solid Boreham Wood side. It was a battling point which will neither make nor break County’s season and keeps an undoubtedly strong Hatters squad in and around the top of the National League.

With Dave Conlon in charge of the side, as he is for Tuesday’s scheduled trip to King’s Lynn, there were none of the traditional cliches of ‘a big reaction’ from the players, of a Hatters side ‘playing with freedom’ and other phrases you hear rolled out for the first game without a previous manager – just a good showing against a solid National League side, with some positives and some negatives on show as there has been all season.

With Conlon assisting Gannon at the club for over 250 games, and the decision to part ways with Gannon coming just two days before the fixture, there was never going to be a complete shift in performance, style and selection. Given that that side are nicely-placed in the league standings and have been so under Gannon all season, nor should there have been.

Macauley Southam-Hales received his first full ninety minutes whilst Connor Jennings and Ash Palmer returned to the starting line-up, but in a hectic season with changes made on a weekly basis to combat fitness, form and everything in between, these were hardly shocking moves.

As above, a 1-1 draw with a fellow strong National League outfit in late January is largely irrelevant to the bigger picture.

The reaction to Gannon’s departure has been as strong as you would expect when the manager in question has overseen 500 games in charge, as well as almost 500 as a player for the club, and hasn’t gone unnoticed around the club.

The day promised to be a strange one from the minute Gannon’s departure was announced, with disappointment to surprise to hope for a new chapter in the club’s history all on show from various people around the ground. But was also a feeling from the club’s hierarchy of genuine belief that every decision made by the new owners has been made based on what they believe will be best for the club.

Fans who’ve felt anger and shock at the decision naturally have looked for answers, and the simple fact is that it is just not always possible to get those in-depth, ‘tell all’ answers when it comes to a decision such as this.

As far as the naturally frenzied social media talk following a statement which didn’t delve too much, talk around the club is that there was certainly no one big incident or ‘bust-up’ following last Tuesday’s win at Dagenham, no ‘crisis meeting’ called in the days following and no player revolt following the away victory, but rather a series of smaller flashpoints across a disrupted campaign, and what was seen at times as a generally rather negative atmosphere for all parties which reportedly showed no signs of abating.

There has also been a notable misconception discussed amongst supporters online over the notice the players were given of the decision and impending announcement, but the squad were indeed notified prior to the club statement – with players then privately contacting Gannon with both parties wishing each other well for the future etcetera following Gannon's departure from Carrington on Thursday.

The truth is that only Gannon and the club will know the ins and outs of the decision and that no further details are likely to be revealed unless either party choose to do so well down the line. There is always the usual assumption lingering that often, new owners at a club have a certain direction in mind and that’s just how things work out.

That direction looks set to take shape with the rumoured appointment of Brighton U23 boss Simon Rusk on the horizon, but some also pointed to how this was not a case of an owner opting for their ‘own man’ from day one, but opting to instead extend Gannon’s contract during the first lockdown period.

The press and media who were in attendance noted also that there was no joyous or happy mood on Saturday on show about the decision to relieve Gannon of his duties. There were no high-fives about the departure of a legendary figure at the club, no laughing and joking about the decision and no dismissal of the supporters’ reaction. The feeling was that Mark Stott really did find the decision an incredibly tough one to make.

The chairman’s public silence on the decision has been seen by some as a refusal to provide fans with a further ‘explanation’ – yet this appears to be something that is simply in keeping with Stott’s nature, rather than an apparent attempt to keep fans in the dark.

There was a club interview conducted, along with an interview for the local press, both of which Stott took part in amidst his takeover of the club - and the only time Stott has spoken publicly since then has been in a ‘Food for Christmas’ video campaign raising funds for underprivileged families in the area. Stott also recently turned down the idea of making a statement to publicly mark his one year anniversary at Edgeley Park.

With thanks to Mike Petch Photography.

In the aftermath of Gannon’s exit, comparisons by some have been drawn between the current incumbents and those of previous eras. An owner/chairman largely shunning the limelight isn’t in keeping with a chief executive appearing in as many publications as possible as regularly as possible, or personally announcing the appointment of a new manager on their own social media page as has been seen at Edgeley Park in the not-too-distant past.

Stott’s work on renovating Edgeley Park, providing an increased playing budget and making a deal for a new training ground are actions that don’t seem to be keeping with previous failed owners and chairmen, who came in and provided tell-all interviews kitted out in County training gear, promising a lot and delivering none.

None of the above is to say that Stott will ultimately be judged on something like the aesthetics of Edgeley Park, a new crest or a new kit provider - but it’s fair to say comparisons to the above are harsh based on this one, admittedly huge, decision. On day one, Stott publicly promised “full-time football, a bigger playing budget and a new training ground”, and all three were in place by that summer just five months later – a track record which already comes out ahead of those previous failed investors, albeit even after this contentious decision.

Supporters point to the fact that Gannon has been the only manager since the turn of the century to bring the club any success, an accurate observation again acknowledged at the club. But there is hope around the club that given this fact, and given that the decision was made with the side sitting fourth in the National League and on the back of a fine away win, supporters may see that it has not been a hasty move on their part, or one that County ever relished making.

There was, and is, real optimism from the club about what is to come over the next week and beyond on Saturday. As noted during the Boreham Wood clash, County expect touted new boss Rusk to be in position for next weekend’s trip to Woking, with a potential place for Conlon at the club going forward providing that connection with the club and its fanbase as well as a coaching/backroom team over the coming weeks.

Conlon’s possible retention is viewed not just as a token gesture following Gannon’s departure, but of the desire to keep an assistant manager who is extremely highly-regarded at County by players, staff and supporters.

As at any football club, if County thrive then Gannon’s exit will be seen maybe even as a calculated risk - and ultimately a success, albeit allowing for the contentious nature of the decision. If County struggle, it will be condemned as a mistake. This is all acknowledged from within Edgeley Park alongside real belief that the rumoured new man will provide that success.

There has been a lot of talk about what the ‘real’ Stockport County is in the last few days following the decision to remove Gannon. The truth is that the ‘real’ Stockport County has not been prominent since day one of the Covid-19 pandemic, because the real County is its supporters being inside Edgeley Park. Regardless of anything else, the real County will only be back when the fans are back at EP – that is a train of thought which still appears to be echoed around the club, with real excitement still openly discussed by club officials on matchdays for the return of a packed Cheadle End, of the family feel of the Pop Side and of a big clash with a packed away end and crackling atmosphere.

Jim Gannon has been a huge part of that County for the best part of thirty years, and the Irishman unquestionably oversaw a massive evolution of the side since his latest return in 2016 which has been a huge part of the club moving into the position it finds itself in today - but County now find themselves once again entering a new Gannon-less era, and with the appointment of a new manager edging closer.

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