With Leicester City sitting pretty at the top of the Barclay’s Premier League and Stockport County languishing in the middle of the Conference National North table, it made me think back to a game played between the two sides in 2009 which would, unknowingly at the time, prove to be a watershed moment in the history and fortunes of both clubs.
The date was the 3rd of March 2009. The venue was the ‘Walkers Stadium’, or what you all know today as the ‘King Power Stadium’, and the opposition facing Leicester that night was a fresh faced, newly promoted Stockport County side in which I was a starter. For highlights of the game and to refresh memories of the occasion then just follow this link: https://youtu.be/iD6bD4z2d0w . However, the highlights and result are, to a certain extent, immaterial. Undoubtedly, not many people will remember that game or hold it in high regard, but they should, particularly Leicester City fans and certainly Stockport County fans. For this was a game that, you could argue, defined the rise of one club and the decline of another.
Going into the game, Leicester City, under the guidance of Nigel Pearson, were flying high at the top of League One. They were nine points clear of second placed Peterborough United and had the additional benefit of a game in hand. Further to this, they were unbeaten in 21 games and seemingly coasting towards promotion. Nevertheless, it was this apparent coasting which was unnerving Leicester City supporters. Undeniably, previous years of continued failure were the root cause of this strange sense of angst amongst ‘Foxes supporters’, and on the night of that Stockport clash, those feelings provided a very apprehensive atmosphere.
In contrast to the Leicester City juggernaut, Stockport County went in to this game in 8th position. We found ourselves three points off the play offs only a mere eight months after gaining promotion from League 2. The reason I say ‘in contrast’ is that, we, as a club, had just gone through a January jumble sale to stave off administration and the general consensus was that the team’s performance and play off push would be adversely affected. However, two months after the club saw it’s most saleable playing assets stripped, we were still managing to continue our grapple with the League One big boys. The off-field financial troubles seemed to galvanise both fans and players and in spite of the uncertain future, everyone was enjoying the ride.
Going into that game, I distinctly remember our tactical brief, outlined by our manager Jim Gannon, which was to simply “out football” them. For him, it was clear the score was immaterial. What he wanted, on a stage like ‘the Walker’s Stadium’, against the league leaders in front of 17,000 bellyaching home supporters, was to prove his side played the better football and showcase our ability as players and his ability as a coach. And boy did he get his wish. The teams for that night were as follows, I’m sure you’ll recognise a few names
As the highlights show, we went behind as early as the first minute to a somewhat fortuitous goal. The stadium relaxed. You could sense the relief, an almost collective sigh signalling a “we should stuff these now” mentality which reverberated around the ground. But, that’s as good as it got for the home side. From that point on they were out played in every department. We equalised within five minutes through a superbly taken goal by Leicester City old boy Chris O’Grady and with that, we just relaxed into the role of underdog. Nothing to lose but a lot to gain. The crowd grew in frustration and this transferred itself onto the players. Who were this shower, and how dare they, with their team of nobodies come down here and give us a game.
We went about executing Gannon’s instructions with great confidence and composure, and should really have taken all three points. The two styles contrasted greatly that night. Leicester’s tactic of long punting the ball up to Steve Howard didn’t sit well in the stands, especially when the lesser known opponents were playing out from the back, switching play and interchanging positions akin to some sort of footballing red arrows. In the end, we had to settle for a draw and on the whole, the result bore little significance in the promotion race. However, what happened at the end of that 90 minute showcase proved very significant indeed. As we went to applaud our away fans in the corner section of the ground, we were applauded by all sections of the stadium. As the home side trudged off to unsatisfied grumblings, the vast majority of the crowd that night stayed to clap us off the pitch and down the tunnel. It truly was a surreal moment. It was a real moment of footballing appreciation and having been released by Leicester City six years previous without kicking a first team ball, made it all the sweeter for me.
In the dressing room after the game, the manager gushed in his pride of his team’s performance. We spoke about sticking together and continuing to try and achieve the seemingly impossible. We were a team full of belief in our own ability and in how our manager wanted us to play. The arrogance of youth you may say, to go and take on a League One super power at playing football in the right way, but that’s exactly what we did. If you take our elder statesman at the time, Matty McNeil, out of the equation, then the average age of that Stockport County match day squad was a shade over 21 years of age. The future looked bright. Everything about that tie was David versus Goliath, and to use a boxing comparison, although the result may have said 1-1, we certainly won on points.
The aftermath of that game however, couldn’t have been more different to the performance on the field and the feelings of hope and confidence it instilled. Leicester City went on to win the division and gain promotion to the championship. In 2014, they gained promotion to the premiership, again under Nigel Pearson, and are now top of the pile under Claudio Ranieri with 9 games to go. As for Stockport County, well, you can’t help but think what might have been. After that March night, we lost 8 of our next 11 games and went into administration before the last game of that 2008-2009 season, just avoiding relegation despite a ten point deduction. However, the following season, after a significant turnover of players and management, the club were relegated from League One with a record low points total and in the following 2010-2011 season, finished bottom of League Two and were relegated out of the Football League.
Those of you that know football, will look at the above team sheet from March 2009 and recognise a lot of familiar names from that Leicester City side. I’ll draw your attention to one in particular, Andy King. From that night in 2009, he remains the only survivor of Leicester’s rise from the ashes. Forget your Vardys’, Kantes’ or your Mahrez’, how fitting would it be for English football for King to lift the Premier League trophy. A wonderful story of loyalty and development where a one club man rose through the ranks and the divisions, winning the most coveted crown in English football. We can only but wait and see.
I’m guessing, apart from the fans of the clubs us County boys played for, not many of our names will register the same level of familiarity to those of our Leicester counterparts. But on that night in 2009, like Leicester City are doing right now in the Premier League, the underdog outperformed it’s superior and was revered for doing so by those who witnessed the audacity of it. Unlike Stockport County, let’s hope Leicester City can give their underdog story a fairytale finish and like the Leicester fans did that night in 2009, the rest of us will stand and applaud.
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