• Sam Byrne

Gareth Owen exclusive - Hatters Wembley-winning captain on his County career, leaving the club, more

Fans of Stockport County won’t need reminding about the club’s rollercoaster days of the 1990’s – a superb number of teams led by the likes of Danny Bergara and Dave Jones, promotions, near-misses, cup runs, and a remarkable four trips to Wembley in two years.

Unfortunately, all four Wembley visits ended in defeat - with two of those coming against Stoke and Port Vale in equally fiery contests.

It wasn’t until 2008, then, that The Hatters finally broke their capital city curse, besting neighbours Rochdale 3-2 in the League Two play-off final. And, with the cliché of football being a ‘funny old game’ springing to mind, the man who captained Jim Gannon’s County side to Wembley success is one who came through the ranks at Stoke - and ended his playing career at Port Vale.

Gareth Owen is actually the current Academy Director at Stoke City, having taken up a coaching career at his boyhood club following his retirement from playing in January 2013.

Owen was born and raised in Cheadle on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent (funnily enough, not to be confused with Cheadle in Stockport!), going on to spend four professional years at Stoke City before departure for Oldham Athletic in 2005.

An up-and-down time followed at Boundary Park, before Owen’s career began to really kick on via an initial loan move to Edgeley Park under boss Jim Gannon in 2006.

Image credit to Stockport County FC.

The no-nonsense centre-back joined for the full season in the summer of 2006, following Gannon’s ‘Great Escape’ act, keeping County in the Football League on the final day of the 2005/06 campaign – a move which Owen admits may have initially “raised some eyebrows”.

“County was somewhere I thought I could really set my stall out for the next few years of my career. I needed an exit route from Oldham as things weren’t working out, and to go to such a progressive club at the time who were really challenging was a good move for me.”

“The season before, County obviously struggled so there were maybe a few eyebrows raised when I did move! But after speaking to Jim and doing my homework, you could see that the next few years would be exciting, and I was proven right.”

“I really wanted an opportunity to play every week, and I vividly remember driving to sign for the club and just being so excited. I knew about the club from their battles with Port Vale and Stoke City in the 90’s, the history and heritage of County was always there, and it was an exciting time to join a club that was looking upwards.”

These days, Owen oversees the Academy set-up at the Bet 365 Stadium – a move which the former Wales international says, while he didn’t expect to be one he would pursue upon retirement, is one which he’s more than thriving in.

“I know many clubs will have different roles and responsibilities when it comes to the Academy staff, but for me it’s difficult to narrow it down to one specific duty or role within my position!”

“It’s a case of liaising with above, from the CEO to the board, on the Academy operations, any star players, ensuring that we’re running to budget – and then also liaising with those within my team. That entails working with around 45 full-time staff, from sports scientists to heads of departments, to look after around 200 players.”

“It is difficult to narrow down the role, you just have to wear a lot of hats – but it all comes back to having people skills, and dealing with people. Whether it be in a Boardroom or in a management meeting, or even speaking with players or parents, you have to understand and empathise and ensure that what’s happening is best for the football club, best for the players and best for the staff.”

Last week, we spoke to former Hatter Greg Tansey on how footballers can often be left ‘on the scrap heap’ upon retirement from their playing careers. This is something Owen was clearly more than aware of, graduating with a Journalism degree whilst winding down his playing days, amongst a number of other options.

“I wouldn’t say this is a role I had in mind (at Stoke), but I was always keen to keep as many days open for my future career as possible. I was always conscious that a playing career could last one year, ten years, anything in between, or more.”

“I went to University while I was still playing to obtain a first-class degree in Journalism, and kept as many avenues open in that area as possible – radio shows, broadcasting and writing. Likewise, I love coaching and always have done. I started coaching when I was 18, looking after my local pub side!”

“I just never wanted to be in a position of retiring from playing, and being sat wondering and worrying about what the future would hold. When the time came at Port Vale for me to call it a day, I had a few contacts at Stoke after coming through the ranks as a player there.”

“Over the next few years, I just continued to build up as many skillsets as possible to enable me to then get this current role. I just though ‘what a great club to build my new career’, and continued to work as hard as I could to find new skills. I worked on business management, financial planning, journalism, coaching, and working with the scouting team.”

“When the previous Academy Director left, I felt that I was in a position where it would be a really good fit for me – and three or four interviews later, including being sat in front of the owners at Bet 365 and the Board, I managed to get the role, and it’s one which I’m loving.”

But years prior to Owen’s successful foray into off-field ventures, the now 37-year-old arrived at Edgeley Park ahead of his season-long loan at what he describes as an “exciting period” in the club’s history.

Image credit to Mike Petch/Stockport County.

Although The Hatters struggled to gel early on in the new season, Jim Gannon’s young side eventually kicked on around Christmas 2006 – a time in which Owen says the players felt they could “beat anybody we played”.

Despite an agonising near-miss on the League Two play-off places, with County missing out on the final day despite a 5-0 win at Darlington, fans look back on the 2006/07 season as one in which Gannon and company started to turn the tide.

“It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why we clicked so well. The first half of the season, Jim was probably trying to get his best first team in his head and get his ideas across to us. A first team started to settle and do well on the pitch.”

“It’s also on the players to make that work – you can’t just train and go out onto the pitch and expect it to all fall into place. You have to spend time together, get to know each other and really bond as a unit, and it took some time for that to really click into gear.”

“There were quite a few new players in the summer, from myself to Michael Rose and Tony Dinning, then players also coming in throughout the season itself. We all had to find our feet, and it took a little bit of time but we then did kick on from Christmas onwards and beat everyone in front of us.”

“I look back and do think that if the season had been just a week or two longer, we’d have gone up through the play-offs.”

Amidst the Covid outbreak, The Hatters have been helping guide supporters through the current lockdown period with a number of classic match highlights. One particular sequence of results the club have been reminiscing on recently is the ‘nine in a row’ side.

Midway into the 2006/07 campaign, a County side captained by Owen, at that point still just a loanee, kicked off a record-breaking run of nine consecutive wins without conceding a single goal.

The record is one which stands to this day, with only the Man Utd side of 2008 equalling the record since (although staunch County supporters are quick to point out that United’s run came with a number of cup games in between, in which Sir Alex Ferguson’s men conceded four goals!)

“It wasn’t really until the last couple of games that we started to take notice of the record. Obviously around game five or six, the media got involved and there was a spotlight on us.”

“The thing with the ‘nine in a row’ team is that clearly you’re reliant on the clean sheet for the record, but we just wanted to win the game. In the dressing room, there was never a talk around ‘let’s go out there and keep a clean sheet’. It was always just, ‘right, we’ve won this one – who’s next?’”

“I look back on it now and do realise it’s a great achievement. You look at the best teams in the country now and wonder if they could achieve it – and when you think that only one side has really come close since, it shows how amazing it was, and something that I’m still very proud to be a part of.”

After sealing their place in the record books with a crushing 3-0 win over high-flying Swindon Town at Edgeley Park, County’s run was halted in a trip to Barnet the following week.

Despite Tes Bramble heading The Hatters into a 1-0 lead at Underhill, three goals against brought County back down to earth – and although Owen acknowledges the element of misfortune, he says that luck is something which both hindered and halted the side.

“I think luck was an element of both the record and of the winning run ending. We went to Barnet, and all three goals against came via big deflections. On another day, and maybe on a day within those nine games, those shots would have deflected wide.”

“Similarly, within the run, everything fell for us. That luck sort of turned after the record, and whether we subconsciously switched off after getting the record as well, I’m not sure.”

“We didn’t do anything differently at any point after winning the record, we were still training hard, we were still being well-coached by Jim. But maybe it does have an effect when you finally break that record. I suppose it would be difficult for it not to have an effect on any person.”

Despite the gut-wrenching end to the season, Owen’s loan move was inevitably made permanent over the summer. The centre-half had won the club’s Player of the Season award following the end to the 2006/07 campaign, and all attention switched towards “going one better” in 2007/08.

But again, it wasn’t until New Year in 2008 that County really took control of their season. A stunning run of wins followed in the final months of the campaign, seeing The Hatters rise to 4th in the League Two table and narrowly missing out on automatic promotion.

For Owen, fond memories of an eventually successful campaign include another example of Gannon’s meticulous approach.

“The personnel changed over that summer again, and again it took a while to settle as a team. Even when we did have a settled team, or at least a settled spine to the team, Jim still liked to refresh the side when he could because it’s often a long season when you fight for promotion.”

“We generally had a set formation and style of playing, but I remember he would like to change the wide players and attackers if possible, just to keep everyone fresh.”

“Jim led a chat before the opening game of ‘let’s go one better than last time’, and I remember in pre-season leading up to the Dagenham game, he broke down the entire 2006/07 season with us! We went over every game and looked at where we could improve, and things we did well on.”

“One of those elements he worked on was professionalising the travel. If you had a long trip quite close to another game, there would be proper travel and a hotel sorted which was something that really had a positive impact. He analysed every single game from the season before and provided targets for us on where we could improve. It clearly paid off!”

With a shot at automatic promotion over, County proceeded to take their place in the League Two play-offs – besting Paul Lambert’s Wycombe in a somewhat bad-tempered two-legged semi-final, before Owen lifted the trophy in the thrilling win over Rochdale at Wembley.

Similarly to the nine in a row highlights, County also looked back on their play-off success in recent weeks – something which Owen himself is thankful for after a “blurry” day in London!

“Nothing will ever come close to the Wembley win. It’s obviously a massive highlight.”

“Bizarrely, I never felt any nerves. I would get a few nerves before most games but at Wembley I didn’t feel a thing.”

“I actually went into the game with a triple fracture of my eye socket, nose and cheekbone, hence the mask! I also required surgery on my groin, which I got after the final. It was touch-and-go whether I played, and the club physio Rodger Wylde had to get me a specialist appointment before the final.”

“I remember the days leading up to the final even now. I drove up to Alderley Edge for the specialist appointment – my ears were ringing; my eye socket and cheekbone were bulging. When he said that I needed a scan to see if I could play, my heart dropped.”

“To go from the euphoria of the second leg to the worry of not playing in the final, it was a big deal in the week or so before Wembley. When it came down to it, nothing was going to stop me playing, so we sorted a mask and I got on with it. As long as I could run and could see out of one good eye, I was playing!”

“So whether it was the occasion itself or the injuries, huge chunks of the final are a blur. I watched the club’s highlights recently during lockdown and enjoyed seeing bits of the day and bits of the game that slip from your memory over the years.”

“I was confident throughout the final that we’d win, and watching the video recently backs that up. Rochdale had been on a good run, but we were just too good. The players were too good not to win, and I had every confidence that on a slick surface, we were going to win. Even going a goal down, at no point did I think we were in danger.”

Image credit to Stockport County.

The resulting step-up followed for Owen’s final months at the club in 2008/09, with Gannon again looking to take the club higher and higher.

County adapted to life in League One well, rising into the play-off positions in the first half of the campaign before well-documented financial troubles took hold at Edgeley Park.

For Owen, his County career came to an end in a 2-2 draw at Cheltenham in September 2008. After being replaced following Cheltenham’s second goal, Owen exited the pitch without shaking Gannon’s hand, something the Hatters boss has made a habit of doing with all players throughout his managerial career.

At the time, Gannon explained that he was “waiting for an explanation” from Owen, and referred the matter to the club’s hierarchy when no explanation came.

For Owen, he admits that while both men may feel they would “do things differently”, that the situation was one he wishes never happened.

“Of course I didn’t want to leave. As many lads have done, I came to have a real soft spot for County, from the people at the club to the fans, and to the ground. Every single time I ran out in front of the Cheadle End, or ran out at an away game to see more County fans than home fans – or certainly sounding like it – was an honour.”

“I openly admit I never wanted to leave. Looking back, there are things that I would do differently and maybe the same goes for Jim. Ultimately, (the situation) led to me walking out the door of Edgeley Park which is something that I’m not proud of. I don’t look back with any regret, as I believe every experience is one to learn from, but if I could go back and do some things differently, then I would. County holds a prominent place in my heart to this day.”

Moving forward, however, Owen has only positive words for Gannon and company. Now happy in his career at Stoke, the Wembley-winning skipper also reveals that he still does his part to assist County from afar.

“I look back on my time at the club, from the nine in a row to the Wembley win, I improved no end as a player. I’ll always be thankful to Jim for how he coached me and the lessons he taught and how he improved me as a footballer. There are certain things that I’ve taken on board to this day, such as how to structure a coaching session, which I’ll always be grateful for being able to learn.”

“One of our Loan Managers at Stoke speaks to Jim regularly about players, and I always say that I can think of no better club, or better coach, for our lads to go and learn and improve under. I know that players will always be looked after at Edgeley Park.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see the club back in the Football League as early as next year. It’s got to happen, everyone at the club deserves to be back there.”

“I can see only good things happening for County in the next few years and beyond, and I’ll be delighted when it happens.”