Stockport County embark on their fifth consecutive campaign in the Vanarama National League North – kicking off with a trip to County Durham to take on newly-promoted Spennymoor Town on Saturday, August 5.
Hopes are high among County supporters that 2017/18 will be the season that sees their club achieve promotion from non-league’s second tier, as it strives ultimately to regain the Football League place that was lost seven years ago.
County’s spell in the NLN has witnessed a modest, but steady, year-on-year improvement – culminating in last term’s eighth-place finish that left the Hatters just one goal and one point shy of reaching the play-offs on the final day.
Despite losing the services of leading goal-scorer Danny Lloyd to League One Peterborough United – as well as Player of the Season for 2016/17, Lewis Montrose, who has joined AFC Fylde one level above in the National League – manager Jim Gannon has retained no fewer than 13 members of the squad that went close this spring.
And the seven new arrivals at the club – representing a modest overall change, compared with the scales of close-season overhauls in recent years – have already shown themselves during the pre-season build-up to be valuable additions.
Swashbuckling defender Stephen O’Halloran is already well known to the County faithful – returning as he is for his second spell at the club following two years at Salford City. And the versatile Dan Cowan provides further defensive strength in depth, after transferring from Macclesfield Town.
Some other new arrivals will be familiar from their appearances against County during previous NLN campaigns.
Cultured midfielder Sam Walker is a second acquisition from Salford. Wingers Ben McKenna (most recently of Southport) and Darren Stephenson (joining from Tranmere Rovers) consistently gave impressive performances in opposition while plying their respective trades for Stalybridge Celtic and Chorley.
And Matty Warburton proved a thorn in County’s side last season as a number ten attacker for Curzon Ashton.
Another striker, Jason Oswell, was more of an unknown quantity – having been signed from Welsh League outfit Newtown AFC
But last year’s winner of that league’s Golden Boot has quickly demonstrated transferable skills on this side of the border with four goals for the Hatters in the July friendlies that included highly-creditable performances at Edgeley Park against strong visiting Championship squads from Bolton and Preston, as well as a 5-2 thumping of National League near-neighbours Macclesfield.
The Hatters’ title-odds for the coming season are around 12/1 with most bookmakers – behind the three full-time challengers from Kidderminster, Salford and relegated York City – the latter two of whom County will visit in the course of their first ten games.
This year’s Boxing Day and New Year’s Day double-header will see the Hatters take on Alfreton Town – while, over Easter weekend, they will make the trip across the Pennines to Bradford Park Avenue on Good Friday, before hosting Tamworth three days later.
Their campaign will end on April 28, as the previous four have, at home in SK3 – with the visitors on this occasion former Football League rivals Darlington.