Where's the money coming from? It's a question which has assailed both Stockport County and Manchester City in the past week, though in ways that illuminate how the paths of the two clubs, linked geographically by a short expanse of the M60 motorway, have diverged so dismally over the past few years.
At City, they're being asked if the Abu Dhabi royal family is using the Etihad national airline they own to pump more money into the club. It's the same question at County, though rather different characters. Fans' message boards have been alive with questions as to whether some or all of the club's promised new investment is actually coming from the pockets of Stephen Vaughan, the convicted fraudster and debarred football club owner whose demise effectively destroyed Chester City, but whom Stockport's new "lead" investor, fellow Liverpudlian Tony Evans, suggested two weeks ago was his friend and "a good guy".
A forensic look at the way Uefa's Fair Play rules work suggests that the organisation will wave through City's Etihad deal. But, as usual, there's rather less blue sky over Stockport. There is the promise of an estimated £1m coming over two years from a mysterious group of associates, and the 27-year-old Evans, a Liverpool fan, has hired the Anfield club's former Germany midfielder Dietmar Hamann as manager.
Evans, however, would not disclose to The Independent the identity of his co-investors, despite creating anger and suspicion among supporters when, having been asked if Vaughan was the source of the money, replied that he would welcome the input of the businessman, who was imprisoned last March for assaulting a police officer.
"I know Stephen well. Everyone needs a scapegoat to blame in football. He was that scapegoat at Chester, rightly or wrongly," Evans said two weeks ago. Evans' representative has now communicated to this newspaper that those comments were about Vaughan's son, Stephen Vaughan Jr, with whom he shares a business interest in boxing. Evans' representative now says his client has never met Vaughan Sr.
For some fans it doesn't matter who is putting the money in, so long as it comes in – and with that decision contingent on the conclusion of Evans' due diligence work at Edgeley Park, County's new life in the Blue Square Conference may be upon us before the investors put everyone out of their suspense. There were some positive signs this week: the signing of three new players, all Liverpudlians, was announced on Wednesday, and the production of new strips sponsored by GT Law, whom Evans works for, seems to have gone ahead. Whether or not that £1m comes in, GT Law appear to have committed to a two-year kit sponsorship deal. Evans, who has passed the Football Association's fit-and-proper-person test, is an adviser to the Essex-based legal firm.
And beyond that, it's a grind; a very hard grind. While Roberto Mancini's players progressed through their pre-season exertions on the sun-kissed west coast of the United States this week, their daily efforts recorded via a club website which – literally – employs more journalists than the Stockport Express, Hamann's fitness work with the squad he is hastily assembling involved the players hauling tractor tyres around and dragging metal weights across the car park.
The loss of Football League status has hit County's finances in myriad ways. When you're in the Football League, you're given 120 footballs a season, courtesy of the League's arrangement with Mitre. In the Blue Square Conference, where County begin their campaign at Forest Green Rovers on 13 August, there are 50.
Gone too are the League sponsors who provide bottled water and energy drinks. The club is trying to find a local supplier and even someone to lay on some free bottles. The BBC's tie-up with the Football League means they subsidise the costs of DVDs for every game, which clubs must supply to the opposition, the referee and the referees' assessor. Now County must meet those costs – £100 per game – of meeting their obligation of providing six DVDs.
The Football League's £16,000 contribution to the cost of Stockport's website has gone, too. It's just a mercy that so many of the Conference clubs happen to be local: some 15 away games entailed overnight accommodation in the year the club closed the door on 106 years in the League.
In a sense, though, County are pleased to have the chance to start all over again. As one of the very few clubs to remain in administration over the course of two seasons, they were under a three-year form of "special measures" in the Football League, with significant acquisitions in need of League approval. The Conference feels like a different place, the assumption being that clubs can run themselves – but with a three-strikes-and you're-out system if they begin to fail.
It is not surprising that the League felt the need to keep an eye on County. The last five years have been an unmitigated disaster. The Stockport Supporters' Trust signed a deal with Brian Kennedy when he decided to sell in 2005. It allowed them to continue sharing Edgeley Park with his Sale Sharks rugby union outfit, which left them with no match-day revenues bar turnstile cash. The Trust worked on the assumption that their place at the soul of the club would help the side to succeed and thus generate required revenue. Briefly, that notion seemed to be correct. County had been to Wembley four times and lost, but when they won the 2007-08 League Two play-off final against Rochdale the Trust were felt to have provided the Midas touch.
On 28 December 2008, when Leeds arrived in town, County were a lofty fifth in League One. They lost that day – and the club's financial weakness began revealing itself. The Trust had taken out a £300,000 loan, which they were to begin repaying using money raised by relinquishing the sell-on clause when they sold Ashley Williams to Swansea City. The clause money went on players instead and their lender pulled the plug.
There has since been a succession of prospective saviours, with the former Leicester City and Manchester City player Jim Melrose seemingly that individual for his year in control of the club, during which a string of investors he found did not pass muster. In desperation, last year the activist fan Dave Schofield brought together the "2015 consortium", whose name made it seem they had a five-year plan. They didn't. A journalist, who had got wind of a takeover, called up a consortium member to ask its name. The recipient of the call glanced at the digital clock in his kitchen. It was 8.15.
All of which explains why the current ownership mystery is so unsettling, though Hamann's appointment has certainly created a huge stir and new players are welcome. Evans and Hamann's Liverpool contacts have lined County up with the Huyton-born former Everton reserve John Nolan – recommended by David Moyes' England Under-20 star James Wallace, who was on loan at the club last season – plus Ryan Fraughan from Tranmere Rovers' youth system and the Liverpool-born John Miles, from Fleetwood.
When The Independent put it to Evans during Hamann's presentation that Luton Town, Crawley Town and Fleetwood Town demonstrate that Conference promotion entails big money, he replied: "You can put that on any league in the world. You look at Real Madrid – they buy every player under the sun, pay them ridiculous wages, but it doesn't guarantee them success. Fleetwood Town had a League One budget but it didn't guarantee them success."
Hamann and his newly appointed assistant, Willie McStay, may feel like settling for survival in a challenging Conference, though that carries its risks. "The Conference has been described as an A & E ward for failing clubs, a repair shop," said Kevin Rye of Supporters Direct. "But it's not a place for clubs in turmoil. Some use the relegation to start cutting back but it can be the beginning of a downward spiral once the parachute money has gone."
Evans said at Hamann's introductory press conference that a new board reflecting the new ownership consortium was expected to be formed on 15 July – yesterday. On Thursday, Evans told this paper that the due diligence process had taken longer than expected and that the re-constitution on the board was delayed. Stockport continued their pre-season programme at New Mills AFC in Derbyshire last night; City play the Mexican side Club America in San Francisco tonight.
Stockport v Man City
Final League position 2010-11
Stockport County: 24th in League Two
Manchester City: 3rd in Premier League
Average attendance last season
Stockport County, Edgeley Park: 4,163
Man City, Eastlands: 45,923
Current first-team squad size
Stockport County: 10
Man City: 35
Club record signing
Stockport: Ian Moore (from Nottingham Forest for £800,000).
Man City: Robinho (from Real Madrid for £32.5 million)
Most expensive seat
Stockport County: £1,750 plus VAT (box)
Man City: £39,000 plus VAT (box)