Ludek Miklosko, Marc Rieper, Mark Bowen, Slaven Bilic, Julian Dicks, Michael Hughes, John Moncur, Ilie Dumitrescu, Ian Bishop, Hugo Porfírio, and Iain Dowie: the West Ham team packed with internationals that was knocked out of the League Cup by third-tier Stockport County a quarter of a century ago.
Following that memorable night at Edgeley Park, County’s fortunes were to plummet. In 2009 they entered administration and two years later, a stay of more than a century in the Football League came to an end. Between 2013-19, County competed in the National League North, finishing a record low of 14th in their opening season.
Now there is renewed hope. Jim Gannon, after returning for a third spell in charge in 2016, guided County to promotion two seasons ago; last summer they were bought by Mark Stott, a local businessman who is revamping the club; and on Monday West Ham are again the visitors, for an FA Cup third-round tie.
Gannon, who first joined County as a centre-half in 1990, was in Dave Jones’s Hatters side that beat the Hammers in a fourth-round replay on the cold, wet evening of 18 December 1996. “To get that result [a 1-1 draw] at Upton Park and take them back to Edgeley and beat them was incredible,” he says.
Tom Bennett, who lined up in midfield, says: “We’d had a couple of wins in the competition before – Sheffield United, Blackburn at Ewood Park – but nobody expected us to go through.
“I remember after Blackburn thinking: ‘We’ve already beaten a Premier League side so there’s nobody other than the top boys that we’re really going to fear, because we were a good team.’
“In the first game at Upton Park, Luís [Cavaco] scored so we ended up drawing and for the return at Edgeley we genuinely thought we had a chance of winning it. A proper chance, not just a puncher’s chance.”
Mike Flynn, who was County’s captain, describes the 1996-97 campaign as “the most enjoyable season in the club’s history” for fans, with the cup run extending to the semi-finals along with promotion from what is now League One.
He says: “We were in the players’ lounge at Upton Park and the draw came out for the next round. It was Southampton, away. I was with Tony Dinning [a midfielder] and said: ‘What a draw that is.’ Ian Bishop was stood close to us. He said: ‘Hey boys, don’t get carried away. You only get one crack at the big boys. You’ve had your chance.’ And I thought: ‘Right, yeah, whatever.’”
For the replay 9,834 fans packed into Edgeley Park. What they witnessed was Harry Redknapp’s side having to battle the elements as well as a confident County. Bennett says: “It was cold. And if you look at any images, it doesn’t look as if it’s a great pitch because it was pouring down with rain all day and night but the pitch was brilliant [for us].
“It wasn’t a bowling green but we were a passing side so it wasn’t a leveller for us to have a bad pitch. They came out looking at it, going: ‘It’s a quagmire here.’ You know – rain and nobody really wants to be here. I genuinely think it was one of those occasions where you’ve got your Premier League players who want to play on a bigger stage and it’s actually a midweek night in Stockport. And it’s: ‘Do you want that?’”
The initial answer was yes: Dicks opened the scoring via a corner after 22 minutes. County were level just 60 seconds later courtesy of a bizarre Dowie own goal. Flynn takes up the story. “I took a long throw-in from the right into the box, it was headed straight back towards me. With me being probably better with my head than my feet, I decided to head it straight back into the box. For some unknown reason Dowie is in the middle of the area and jumps up and puts a storming header in the top corner to equalise.
“We were on cloud nine – we just couldn’t believe it. We were rubbing shoulders with the elite yet we were matching them.”
Stockport had West Ham reeling and four minutes after Dowie’s aberration they landed what would prove the decisive blow, Brett Angell the hero.
“I put the cross in for Brett’s goal,” Bennett says. “The big man got a great flick-on to it and from then on you’re winning 2-1, you’ve got something to hang on to. And the fans, the noise that they made was fantastic.”
County did, indeed, dig in. “We had more than an hour to hold on against a top team,” Flynn says. “We rode our luck, we had chances, they had chances, but probably over the two games we edged it, which was quite remarkable really.”
At the final whistle joy broke out. “It was unreal, fantastic,” Flynn says. “It was Southampton and Matthew Le Tissier in the next round, then Middlesbrough and [Fabrizio] Ravanelli in the semi-finals. Then, the last week of the season we had to win three out of four games for promotion,” he says. “We played Saturday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. We won our first three – the third was Chesterfield away and we won 1-0. It was quite bizarre really, what little old Stockport actually achieved.”
Gannon and his 2021 vintage hope to do something similar on Monday. “We are building memories for younger fans,” the manager says. “Beating West Ham would outshine anything done before.”