They had waited a long time for this moment in Stockport and they wouldn’t wait a second longer than they needed to. With five minutes left of their 2021/22 season, hundreds of supporters lined the edge of the Edgeley Park pitch. It was time to start the party.
In the home team’s tech room, Dave Challinor looked like the calmest man inside. He shared hands with his staff in the back room, asked the fourth official if it was worth playing extra time and gave the fans who had gathered behind the dugout a thumbs up.
When referee Matthew Dicicco signaled his linesman to start the sprint to the tunnel, Challinor was swamped. Eleven years of pain, frustration and the question of whether this moment would ever come were over.
READ MORE: Inside Stockport County’s Rebirth
Stockport County fans flooded the playing field on three sides of Edgeley Park. Blue smoke filled the air and the players who had brought the club back to their rightful status were hoisted high on the shoulders.
After an 11-year absence, the Hatters are back in the Football League. The past decade has seen some dark times at Edgeley Park, including six years in the purgatory of the National League North, but the club is finally back where they belong.
This season revolved around the appointment of Challinor, who spent two years here as a player between 2002 and 2004. He took a risk by quitting a Football League job at Hartlepool United to return to Edgeley Park.
The 46-year-old will know better than anyone that this club is a sleeping giant, but they were ninth in the National League when he took over in early November.
He’s done a remarkable job and in a league that has had a bit of Hollywood stardust this season, he deserves to be the leading man. The acquisition of Wrexham by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney has brought extra attention to a league that was already highly competitive.
Wrexham has been the story for most of the country, but they are not the victors. Disney will have to settle for a story that ends with the playoffs, and who knows what might happen once that lottery kicks in. They can’t write their own ending this time.
Stockport had to take a back seat in this story, but as they approached the title and promotion, Edgeley Park rocked out with chants of ‘F*** you Wrexham, we’re gonna win the league’.
Mark Stott, the closest owner to Stockport’s local boy, has come to the bright lights of Los Angeles and once bought David Beckham’s Bentley. Now he can set up the navigation system for the Football League.
Stott doesn’t like the kind of publicity Reynolds and McElhenney take for granted, but he wore the beaming smile of a proud owner as he congratulated the Challinor and County players as they collected their medals and prepared to claim the National League trophy. lift.
‘We’re on our way, we’re on our way, we’re on our way to the Football League’ echoed through Edgeley Park after Paddy Madden’s goal in the 10th minute, the nerve impulse every County fan wanted.
When Will Collar knocked in a second early in the second half, the party could really begin. Just as the celebrations for that goal started to wane, news came that Wrexham had been left behind at Dagenham. A day that could have been despair had passed like a dream.
The streets around Edgeley Park were bustling from lunchtime, with Sunday roasts swapping out for Sunday pints, but the council did everything they could to hide their nerves from the club’s biggest game since dropping out of competition. They had never been so close.
Promotion seemed within County’s reach during a remarkable run under returning hero Challinor. He won 20 of his first 23 league games, but when the finish line came in sight, they began to stumble.
A comprehensive defeat at Wrexham a week ago was a fourth loss in six games and Wednesday’s 1-0 win against Torquay here was an evening that put the ‘edge’ at Edgeley Park.
That meant the final day comparison was easy, but Stockport’s stuttering form and a fourth-placed opponent in the National League, with the prospect of an easier play-off route if they could climb to third, only added to the tension.
What the more than 10,000 County fans on this pitch wanted was an early goal to calm their nerves and captain Madden had just the tonic. His low drive into the bottom corner from 20 yards was an exemplary finish, his 25th of the season in all competitions.
Madden retired from the Football League to join County and his keen shooting instincts reminded him that this is a club well placed to go again next season.
Teams graduating from this division have increasingly looked at home in League Two and the bottleneck at the top of the non-league pyramid has made this one of the toughest levels to escape. Once you’ve worked your way through the task, it can sometimes be a little easier to look back at the competition.
Whoever claimed the silverware in this division had imagined their chances of a good crack in League Two. The battle between two clubs who feel they belong in the Football League has been an exciting one, but on the final day it was County who wrote the script.