Simon Wilson on Stockport County’s ambition to reach the Championship
Stockport County’s FA Cup third-round tie with West Ham will stir memories for the club’s supporters. The League Cup replay between the sides in 1996 was just one of a number of magical moments in that season of seasons under David Jones. Glorious days and nights when Paul Jones, Chris Marsden and Brett Angell were among the Hatters’ heroes.
They went all the way to the semi-finals that year, winning promotion to the second tier too, where Stockport would stay for five seasons before beginning their slow decline.
There have been tough times since then.
Bought by the supporters’ trust in 2005, administration came in 2009 and they were out of the Football League by 2012, finding themselves in the sixth tier as recently as last year.
But optimism has returned to Edgeley Park.
After promotion back to the National League under club legend Jim Gannon, who played in that win over West Ham, new owner Mark Stott, a successful Stockport businessman, has not only cleared the debts but has grand plans for the future of the club.
The funding is in place and even in these most miserable of times, that sense of community remains. Stott has donated to local NHS services and provided money to help feed the children of the town during lockdown. There has been investment in a training ground and Edgeley Park itself, as well as talk of a seven-year plan to return to the Championship.
Simon Wilson, Stockport’s new director of football, is the man who has been tasked with helping to deliver on that ambition. “Can you take a team from the fifth division through to the Championship? That is our vision,” Wilson tells Sky Sports.
This is a man who spent a decade at Manchester City, helping to drive the club’s development into a super club at the vanguard of innovation off the field. He later did the same for the City Football Group with their projects in Melbourne and New York.
Now, he is looking to help Stockport. The very fact that Stott has turned to someone like Wilson is evidence of the seriousness of the project. “He wanted to do that classic group of guys thing – let’s buy a local football club and take it through the leagues,” says Wilson.
“But he was smart enough to not just do it through his mates. He lives in Alderley Edge next to a lot of football people. He could have easily done it that way. But in other areas of his business he gets proper advice and so through a mutual colleague we ended up speaking.
“If there was a club that could really grow then I was interested. You can see what the endgame looks like and the steps needed to be taken to get there. You can see that this guy can fund it and he wants to do it. This is a proper project.”
Stott is the one with roots in Stockport, Gannon is the former player, but Wilson too has a connection to that December evening in 1996 when Harry Redknapp’s West Ham came to town. Some of his early experiences in the industry were under him at Southampton, where Wilson became only the second full-time analyst working in British football.
Indeed, there is a famous anecdote, well-known in analytics circles, of the time that he delivered a pre-match briefing before a defeat to Luton. On the team coach back from the game, Redknapp, never too enamoured with the statistics, called out his young analyst.
“I’ll tell you what, next week, why don’t we get your computer to play against their computer and see who wins?” It became the go-to example of the challenges being faced by those hoping to spark a shift in thinking away from the accepted wisdom in football.
“At the time, I was finding it very hard with Harry but I look back and appreciate him for what he is,” says Wilson. “I was in my mid-twenties at the time and I probably did not have the maturity to see it that way. I was a bit all in. ‘This is my career, mate, if you are going to sabotage this then I am done!’ But I think I have learned to see that.”
The game has changed a lot since then and while Wilson is too modest to say it himself, he was among the analytics outriders who have helped to change it. A team-mate of Liverpool sporting director Michael Edwards at Peterborough, both men worked for Prozone before rising to become influential figures at the country’s biggest clubs.
Nobody is dismissing the data now.
“The owners have changed and the whole industry has massively professionalised really. That has demanded more accountability and data lends itself to that, doesn’t it, because it is more evidence based. It is great that data has a seat at the table now but analytics is just one part of it. The longer you go the more you realise it takes all sorts of skills.
“Half of my family come from the arts so I still love that creativity and that impulsive side too. I have never thought that it has to be data. This is a people-led industry, it is not widgets that we are making. Everything is not predictable and there is a lot of randomness in it, which means that creativity, motivation and all the psychological aspects are huge.
“The way I always describe it is if you have got the perfect boardroom then you have got a really logical and methodical guy and you have got a really creative person there too.”
If Wilson’s vast experience with City taught him plenty about best practice, his six months as chief football officer at Sunderland were less successful. “I am about the 150,000th guy who has gone in and tried to help sort it out and when I realised I couldn’t then I walked away.”
He admits to watching only parts of the subsequent Netflix documentary. He had left before the period on which it focused but does recall the initial discussions about it after the club was approached. This was a time before the football documentary had been redeemed and the infamous experiences of Graham Taylor, John Sitton and Brendan Rodgers loomed large.
“It was all just scars. You just thought, no chance, why would you do it? But what that documentary did capture was the passion, what the identity of the club meant to the city.”
Establishing that identity, building on it and developing a culture, requires time that was never likely to be forthcoming amid the malaise at Sunderland. This Stockport project has more parallels with his work as director of football services at City Football Group.
“The most exciting times for me, and when I think I was at my best, was when the club was really growing quickly. we started to talk about how we could take the lessons that we had learned in Manchester and take them to other countries. That was so exciting. Something brand new but also looking at clubs and cultures.”
Melbourne City was a turnaround, the club had just finished rock bottom of the A-League. New York City was a start-up. “They didn’t have a bag of balls. They didn’t have a name.”
Each time, Wilson and his colleagues were cast as interlopers. Many were quick to tell him that the success achieved in Manchester could never be repeated in Major League Soccer.
“I was told that we could not play the type of football that we wanted to play there because it just would not work. We were told that we were going to have to pay way more on full-backs than the salary cap allows and that we would not find those players in that market.”
Attempts to be mindful of the local knowledge backfired when New York City struggled during their first year. As a result, there was a change of thinking. “We soon thought that if we are going to lose then we might as well lose doing it our way.”
Patrick Vieira was appointed and they began recruiting players more aligned to the playing philosophy already established at Manchester City. It brought success. “It was not long before we were near the top of the league and playing a completely different football and gaining a competitive edge because we were doing it in a different way.
“That is why I am very suspicious when it comes to the National League and I hear that you cannot play football here and that you have to focus on battles and second balls.
“If you have your method and recruit in the right way then why can’t you play that way? I want to challenge assumptions about how National League clubs are run and operate.”
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There are already signs that Stockport will be looking to some of these principles with their recruitment of “pure footballers such as John Rooney” but it will be balanced. “We are not weak in the way some people have the assumption that teams who try to play football are.”
There is money available to spend and nobody is pretending that Stockport do not have an advantage in this respect. But the aim is for the investment to be structured, the principles holistic. It is why much of the change so far has been off the field.
In a nod to his analytics background, Stockport are utilising Wyscout, InStat and 21st Club data. Performance analyst Sean O’Callaghan is provided with the tracking tool Metrica. This is not necessarily innovative but it is almost unheard of at National League level.
“Our basic philosophy is why wait until you are a Championship team to operate like a Championship team? Surely, the difference between a National League team and a Championship team is the player quality, but it should not be the organisational quality.
“We have got things that we are just used to working with and what you would expect at a Championship club. We are not suddenly going to upgrade the way we operate just because the team gets promoted. We need to start that process straightaway so we have tried to set ourselves up as a Championship club from day one.
“We have got a very good training ground, we have got support practitioners in all the key areas – analysis, strength and conditioning, full-time chefs and so on.
“Arguably you get more of a benefit by doing it in reverse than you would the other way around. So if you organise yourself like a Championship club now, a lower level of player will be able to get a bigger amount of benefit from that than if you were to do it with a higher level of player because the opportunity for improvement is then smaller.
“In one way, you could read this and think we have just got a rich owner so we are buying all the toys. But the thinking behind it is about maximising the quality of the players by giving them the environment whereby winning becomes inevitable rather than an accident.”
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There is nothing inevitable about promotion to the Football League just yet, even if it is has been a promising start to the season. Torquay are well clear at the top, albeit having played more games, and there is only one automatic promotion place available.
“We have a strong budget for the team, we will recruit good players and pay well for this division but we won’t go too far on that because the risks of failure are pretty high. We don’t want to sabotage future seasons off the back of what we do this year.
“But if you look at permanent infrastructure the chances are that it gives you the best chance of that budget performing this year and if it does not work this year you still get the benefit of that in future years as well.
“My take on players, and this is probably true from the bottom of League One all the way through to the top of the National League, is that the range of player quality between best and worst is not that high. So it has got to be about putting the good players within that pool in the best environment. That is how you optimise it.”
The hope is that the presence of Gannon is helping to optimise Stockport’s chances too. Now in his third stint in charge, few would have been too shocked had the new ownership brought their own manager in but Wilson was quick to appreciate the work being done.
“If what they had been doing was wrong we would have changed them, definitely,” he acknowledges. “But because we knew it wasn’t wrong, that long-term affiliation with the club is just added value for us really. These guys knew what they were doing.
“Without being disrespectful to managers, a lot of them don’t have a real philosophy of coaching. They don’t write it down, they don’t research it. Jim does. He almost has his own football manual that he has written. That shows his depth of thinking about the game.
“In many ways Jim represents Stockport. His personality, fighting for the little man, it is who Stockport are. He helps us as new owners to understand the identity of who Stockport are.”
The plan is that he will help them to promotion too.
“We are going to hit bumps in the road. We might not get promoted this year, next year or the year after but we just boil it down to getting the right people doing the right things and if we do that over the longer term the odds will swing in our favour.”
Before all that there is an FA Cup tie to enjoy, albeit without the Stockport County supporters who would have helped to make this such a stirring occasion – for Stott, in particular.
“For a non-League club to draw a Premier League club in the third round of the FA Cup does not happen all the time,” says Wilson. “For it to happen in the year when you cannot have fans in is just really sad for him. It is not even the financial aspect, it is the memory.
“Being an owner, you are obviously prepared to lose some money but you do it for the experiences and he is going to have a weird experience that day.
“But what is great is that Stockport County are getting a national profile off the back of it. We are getting talked about again and that is great for our project. It will be a fun day.”
If all goes to plan, the revival will last rather longer than that.
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