Growing up on the periphery of Manchester gave me an introduction to football that I only came to appreciate later in life. In the 80s, the English game was much like the towns and cities which provided its backdrop; in need of a serious makeover.

In the years which preceded the formation of the Premier League, English football struggled with an identity crisis. Banned from European competition following the Heysel Stadium disaster and wrestling with an archaic governing body, a different strain of the much maligned English disease pervaded the boardrooms. Something had to change.

Heysel Stadium Disaster  - Adsum
Aftermath of the Heysel Stadium Disaster

As the hierarchy of the English game underwent a swift transformation, the 92 professional clubs also had some adjusting to do. The 20 Premier League clubs ended last season with 11 managers from outside the British Isles. Back in 1992 there were none.

With the influx of overseas coaches came new ideas, new personalities and a different type of supporter. It wasn't for me though. As a kid, the underdog was my only choice. The two big Manchester clubs were just 6 or 7 miles away from my house, but it didn't seem right for me to lend them my patronage when there was a pro club just 2 miles away which needed me more. Stockport County were founded in 1883, around the time the Brooklyn Bridge opened, but they're nowhere near as well known or iconic.

With footballing aristocracy looming over my club, mere existence was an achievement, and much of their first century was spent competing in a very dull game of snakes and ladders which only included the 3rd and 4th tiers of the game. High points were few and far between, with close cup defeats at Anfield and Old Trafford being seen as positive moments. My own support was cemented when I led the team out in front of 2,300 hardy souls in March 1986. As a 7 year old I was privileged to appear as match mascot and even then it all felt pretty apologetic. A dull 1-1 draw vs Torquay United played out but that insight behind the scenes had me hooked.

A couple of short years later however, the sun began to shine in Stockport and slowly but surely the shadows cast by the big brothers in the big city slowly began to lift. A change of ownership ushered in a new era in which County would somehow eventually spend a season one division higher than the illustrious Man City, beating them on an equal footing several times besides.

The iconic man who started the ball rolling in this year was a genuine pioneer. Having never before looked beyond the British Isles for a coach, the club made a bold move. A Uruguayan named Daniel Alberto Bergara was given the unenviable task of achieving success in Stockport, something only a couple of previous managers attained. 

With the best part of two decades bobbing around in the lower reaches of the fourth division, history suggested the last person to make it happen would be the man from Montevideo. He made his name as a player in the Spanish league, most notably with Sevilla. A persistent knee injury ended talk of a move to the mighty Real Madrid and Bergara saw out his career on the holiday islands of Mallorca and Tenerife, playing for both clubs in the Spanish top flight. It was while in a Mallorca he met an English travel rep who was to change the course of his life and eventually lead to an unlikely near sainthood in a town of 300,000 people in the North West of England.

Uruguay Youth Danny Bergara  - Adsum
Danny Bergara during his time on the Uruguayan youth squad.

Danny Bergara moved to England with his wife, first training at Luton town as a player, before work permit issues forced him into retirement. His experience was appreciated by many he came across though his grasp of English would leave just as strong an impression. Through his contacts, he would quietly become the first foreign coach in the English national setup, looking after the Under 20 side for a spell.

Eventually Danny settled in Sheffield, a tough Yorkshire city made famous for steel manufacture. A coaching job at Sheffield United put him on the radar of a local business man named Brendan Elwood, before a job as head coach at Rochdale gave Bergara his first opportunity to manage a pro team. His tenure at Rochdale was ended though when Elwood asked him to take over at Stockport, where he'd acquired the local club.

A debut season promised little and the fickle finger of football fandom meant some supporters demanded he be replaced. As one of the only foreign managers in the entire English game way before it became the norm, his nationality was seen as a negative. The following season though, the doubters had something to think about. County's best finish in 20 years led to an end of season play off. Though it ended in disappointment, the die was cast. Stockport were well on the way to becoming the envy of every perennial struggler and proof that every barren spell comes to an end eventually. An astute owner allied to a hugely charismatic manager, whose mix of South American technical coaching and a brand of English pragmatism, led to an 8 year spell which could hardly have gone better.

Rubbing shoulders with many clubs with more famous stature, County became something of a novelty in the media, with an eccentric Uruguayan pioneer at the helm, allied to the tallest player in English football scoring the goals.

Trading Card of Danny Bergara  - Adsum
A trading card from Bergara's times at Sevilla.

In 1993, Danny met his match in Brian Clough, himself a legend. A two legged league cup tie saw the two characters occupy opposing dugouts. Clough had his work cut out, with Stuart Pearce and Roy Keane competing with 6'7 Kevin Francis and largely coming off second best. Of course, the higher profile Nottingham Forest eventually triumphed but it was a moment in time which was etched in my memory, not least because I recorded the TV footage on a VHS recorder. I still own the tape now, the second leg has Jimmy Greaves commentating. Clough wore his signature green sweatshirt while diminutive Danny's baseball cap and cigarette presented a quite different proposition. He had proved himself even more eccentric than the king of eccentricity. His largely self-taught brand of English only added to his appeal. Famously when asked whether a problematic player under his wing was "a bit volatile" he replied "Oh yeah, really volatile, he'll play anywhere on the pitch for you, left back, right back, up front". That unintentionally funny grasp of English made him all the more endearing. The only aspect of the language he did manage to master was its expletives.

Success came via the club's first ever visit to the twin towers of Wembley. Defeat was disappointing, but not as disappointing as it was on the subsequent 3 further occasions, all inside a 3 year period. We were gutted but before Danny we'd only seen Wembley on TV. To visit once was an achievement but four times in 3 years was something else, despite the quartet of defeats.

Stockport County Danny Bergara  - Adsum
January 8, 1994 — Danny celebrates FA Cup victory over QPR with his players in the dressing room.

Eventually, like all things which are good, Bergara's time had to come to an end. An ongoing dispute with his employer came to a head during a club function and Danny was fired. The fact he later won an unfair dismissal case made his departure all the more sad. I was lost when I found out. Life would never be the same again, I thought. Who could possibly replace this jovial, one in a million character? I had spent my entire formative years obsessed by this football club, unknowingly witnessing their best spell since they were founded in Victorian times.

Fortunately, his replacement came from within and a few tweaks saw the club go from strength to strength, capitalising on the solid foundations Danny had laid. While it was hugely enjoyable, something wasn't quite the same. Danny continued in football for several years, never reaching the heights he had hit while in charge at Stockport.

12 years after he cleared his desk, Danny sadly passed away following a stroke. The depth of feeling at his spiritual home was remarkable. A memorial quickly built up and as fate would have it, the first game following his passing was a preseason friendly between a Stockport side managed by one of Bergara's longest serving players and a Cardiff team led by Danny's successor at County. As the public address system belted out his favourite song 'My Way' I'm not ashamed to admit, the 29 year old me regressed briefly to the 7 year old me. Memories of the club I love in those years before Danny seem monochrome, while the colourful character's arrival heralded the end of that drab existence. It's not hyperbole to cast him as our Cruyff, our Busby, our Shankly. Our Danny.

 As the minute's silence turned to spontaneous applause my eyes began to leak, quite a bit. I wasn't on my own. We were mourning not just a person but a time in our lives that we knew couldn't ever happen again. County went on to beat Cardiff 6-4 in a bizarre and exciting match. 9 months later, the Wembley hoodoo was finally broken when Stockport County beat Bergara's old club Rochdale in a play off final at the newly refurbished home of football. Nothing was ever more certain. Today, the club has returned to the doldrums, but with the supposedly volatile player Danny described at the helm things, will improve soon enough.

RIP Danny Bergara  - Adsum

Football nowadays is littered with soap opera style storylines, with 7-figure fees thrown around and the South American contingent noticeably bigger. None of them will make the same impression on me as that man from Montevideo though.

He was one of a kind, a true football eccentric.

Words by: Mark Smith