Ironies occur as regularly in football as Stockport County change managers - Dave Jones is their 26th since the War, more than any other club - but the irony of County playing (and thrashing) Millwall last Saturday was more striking than most. "It's a big game, not easy," ventured Jones beforehand, which was obvious from the League placings of the two clubs: Millwall third, County sixth. What was not so obvious then but which certainly is after this week's goings-on is that football's scriptwriters appear to have a bit of a soft spot for the Hatters from Edgeley Park. Like everyone else, however, they don't seem to have much time for the Lions from the New Den.
Until now Millwall have not cared that no one likes them, but you can bet your bottom dollar they care now. Unfortunately the club don't have so much as a penny, never mind a dollar, to rub together, which is why the NatWest Bank called for trading in Millwall Holdings to be suspended on Tuesday and for administrators to intervene to give the club's stockbrokers time to raise the necessary pounds 6m to solve its dire financial predicament.
In 1989 Millwall were the second club in the country to be floated, with former chairman Reg Burr maintaining: "We're regarded as a small club but we're actually a big club that has fallen into almost terminal decline". However, the Lions have never been as financially attractive as the Manchester Uniteds and Tottenhams of this world, whose portfolios benefit from the prospect of pay-per-view TV and huge sponsorship deals; a lowly fifth in the Second Division and a pounds 20m all-seater ground which is seldom more than half full tells Millwalls' sorry story. The words ideas, above and station spring to mind.
Of course, the irony is that although Stockport too have ideas above their station - they have dumped two Premiership clubs out of the Coca- Cola Cup already, come within minutes of dispatching a third and are still in with a faint shout of reaching the semi-finals for the first time in their 114-year history - those ideas have come to fruition on the football field rather than in the finance markets.
So while there might be a cold wind blowing through London SE16, in Stockport they're not so much feeling the heat as basking in it. And on Wednesday night, while Millwall fans were worrying whether they'd have either a pitch or a team to play on it next season, all Stockport fans were worried about when Southampton came to town was that the lager was off.
In a week when money took centre stage again - at the New Den, at Ibrox, at Newcastle, at Bournemouth and Peterborough even - it's refreshing to find a club who, as Graeme Souness admitted on Wednesday, "attempt to play the game the correct way". Souness meant on the field, but the irony was sweet. Investors may be falling over themselves to sink money into the fats cats of the Premiership, but for smaller clubs such as County floating is an alien concept. Trying to avoid sinking is more like it.
But although the club is not exactly in clover, it's by no means a club in crisis, either. Wednesday's estimated gate receipts of pounds 40,000 went some way towards recouping this season's pounds 200,000 outlay on players; half of that was paid to Sunderland for Brett Angell, who with that surname was always going to be instrumental in bringing the Saints down to earth. And if money was a major problem, Angell's striking partner Alun Armstrong wouldn't have still been at the club, never mind on hand to score the equaliser. Armstrong's initials may be AA but he was anything but anonymous. "Super, Super A1," the fans sang as the scouts sharpened their claws.
But the 21-year-old is very much a part of County's plans. "If we had to sell to survive Alun wouldn't have signed a new contract," says club secretary Gary Glendenning, who admits that the First Division is County's prime target. Three years ago they failed at the final hurdle, beaten in the play-off final by Burnley. "We weren't ready then anyway, the gap was too big," Glendenning admits. "But I believe we've reached a stage whereby we can be profit-making every year. You wonder at Millwall, or Notts County and Burnley, who both struggled in the First, whether it's a case of mismanagement. Maybe their wage structure was too high. Well, the revenue here far exceeds the wage bill, and with the extra money we'd get in the First Division from TV and gate receipts, added to the quality of our squad and facilities, we could definitely hold our own."
On current form it would be hard to disagree. But it's not just County's Cup exploits that make impressive viewing; the feel-good atmosphere at Edgeley Park stands out as much as Armstrong's blond locks. The club may live in the shadows of more illustrious Manchester neighbours, but you wouldn't know it. County are currently the only club in the country still on for a domestic "quadruple" (League, Coca-Cola Cup, FA Cup - they play Birmingham today - and Auto Windscreens Shield); their own foreign legion, in the shape of the Portuguese winger Louis Cavaco, is so well integrated he even eats regularly at the local curry house which has named two dishes after County players ("Durkan" Dhansak being the hottest); ex-Evertonian Jones is so relaxed he mans the switchboard on occasions; and their vice- chairman is the Mike Yarwood.
But with just two defeats in their last 30 games, Stockport County don't just give the impression they're going places - they really are. And they don't need a Stock Market listing to prove it. As Glendenning says: "We wouldn't swap place with Millwall for the world." Thank goodness there are still some clubs around who have their sights set on silver rather than gold.
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