• Sam Byrne

Growing up at County, early retirement and struggling with depression - Greg Tansey opens up

As football fans go, Stockport County have taken more than their fair share of blows over the years. From record-low points totals to double relegations (and many more in the years surrounding those relegations) – although the fans themselves will be sick of being bashed over the head by the stats.

But one thing which may get overlooked amidst the trials and tribulations of following your club is the impact it can have on the players at the heart of the struggle on the pitch.

If not the players clearly out to make a quick buck before a customary show of thanks to the supporters on social media and a swift exit, then definitely the players who desperately want success for their club and feel every blow along with the fans surrounding them in the stands.

While fans of a struggling team may think that the latter are few and far between, one who certainly fits the bill is the recently-retired Greg Tansey – once a box-to-box, goalscoring youngster at Edgeley Park who rose through the ranks to take his place in a hugely promising, youthful County side.

But prior to suffering back-to-back demotions and a financial crisis with the club where Tansey grew up as a teenager, the Liverpudlian was part of a cup-winning youth side at Edgeley Park; a squad full of potential.

From Michael Raynes, Luca Havern and James Vincent, to Tansey and Tommy Rowe – a youth set-up led by the likes of Craig Madden, Alan Lord, Peter Ward and overseen by manager Jim Gannon helped Tansey cut his teeth as a professional.

Pressed on how that particular squad came to be so successful, Tansey is clear on those responsible.

“Coaching definitely had a massive effect for us. There’s an element of luck because we had a group of really good players, and we were touted at the club as being a group to look out for from the age of 14 or so.”

“When you combine that ability the group already had with the guidance of Alan Lord and Peter Ward at the time, it’s going to go well. They were fantastic for me personally, they set high standards - and if you didn’t meet them, they’d tell you!”

“I’m always grateful to them for that, and I think that coaching really drilled into us from a young age the mentality you’d need to get out there and reach those standards. We then went on to have Craig Madden, who really guided us into that set-up of being an apprentice and looking up towards the first team squad with an eye on making your debut.”

Image credit to Mike Petch.

Tansey’s stock continued to rise with a Man of the Match display in the Alliance Cup final – scoring two spectacular goals against Colchester in a resounding 6-2 win at Edgeley Park. The final itself captured the imagination of the town at the time, and with the club starting to succeed on the pitch under the guidance of Gannon, Tansey seized the opportunity in front of a big crowd.

With one coming via a pirouette and delicate chip, and the other a fierce free-kick into the top corner, the Cup final brace perfectly portrayed Tansey’s range at just 18 years old – with the teenager by then already well in the first-team mix.

“As a youngster, it’s a huge learning curve. I was loyal to the boys I’d grown up with at County, and for Craig Madden who I just wanted to run through brick walls for - we all did. But the reason we’re all there is we want to play in the first team. Being involved in the first team gave me confidence, and when I then played in the youth team again, I was always looking to make sure people watching knew I was a pro!”

Tansey made national news shortly after his introduction to the County fans, when European champions Liverpool came in for both he and winger Ryan Crowther. Whilst Crowther took the opportunity to move to Anfield, Tansey opted to stay at Edgeley Park.

At a time where many leading clubs were looking down the pyramid for the next big star, Tansey’s rejection of the Reds was a big talking point – and Tansey himself admits that the decision is one that still gives him food for thought to this day.

“You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, in terms of a move like that. If I’m looking back now, I’d probably say to myself to give it a go and really test myself. It’s a hugely difficult one even now because I was at Stockport from a really young age – but purely because I didn’t do it during my career, then I’d maybe give it a go and would like to think that with the coaching and development you’d have in place, that I’d have done well.”

“It’s one of those things where you’d like to think you could even get a loan move to a club slightly lower down the pyramid than Liverpool and show what you can do - but with the added development in place that you’d get at a club like that, who knows how things would pan out? I definitely don’t regret staying (at County).”

Following his breakthrough into the County squad, Tansey really started to find his feet after the club’s promotion into League One via the play-offs in 2008. Surrounded by a wealth of midfield talent at the time such as James Vincent, Gary Dicker, Dom Blizzard, Stephen Gleeson and Carl Baker, Tansey began to feature in a more prominent role in unfortunate circumstances.

The financial troubles at County began to squeeze the life out of a vibrant and potent first-team squad, with Tansey stepping up after fire-sales of players to raise funds became the norm at Edgeley Park.

Although Tansey’s later days at the club ended in on-field struggles, the former Altrincham loanee is clear on the positive effect Gannon and company had on his future career.

“Jim was very good for my career. He gave me my debut, which is something you really are always grateful for, and really helped me come along as a young player.”

“I think everyone’s circumstances are different– those who have had issues with him, you look at it and think that maybe their time at the club wasn’t successful. And there were probably deeper issues as to why they didn’t enjoy their time at the club or do well than just who the manager was.”

“But Jim’s coaching really stood me in good stead for the rest of my career. Jim has a very tactically-aware style, just a very good footballing coach – and he can also mix it up in terms of ‘having a go’ when it needs to be done, and also having a quiet word and encouraging you. It was a really good blend of coaching styles at the club with him and Peter Ward.”

Image credit to Mike Petch.

Tansey became a regular in the County line-up over the following two seasons – seasons in which County ultimately tumbled out of the Football League.

Although the attacking midfielder topped the Hatters’ scoring charts in the club’s final campaign in the Football League, Tansey admits the feat meant “very little”.

“When the financial troubles hit, I was only 20. I found it so tough, especially being so young and inexperienced, to just be thrown in at the deep end of a crisis, really. It was a huge baptism of fire for me.”

“I’d been there as a child, so it really was something where I just wanted to win us games and help us drag ourselves out of the trouble we ended up in on the pitch.”

Although the club dropped into non-league football in 2011, Tansey remembers the solitary season under former Everton defender Gary Ablett as a particularly difficult one a season prior.

Ablett took the reins with the club deep in trouble off the pitch, and a number of star players sold by club administrators as Gannon’s exciting side from the previous campaign was dismantled to boost the coffers.

“That was my toughest time at the club by absolute far. There were so many shenanigans going on at the club, you wouldn’t believe it. And on the pitch, we were obviously struggling as a combination of the club being in free-fall, having no money, and players leaving.”

“I remember at a young age during that period, a contract was put in front of me by those running the club, at a time when players were being sold quite regularly to boost the finances. We obviously get little goal bonuses and things like that, and it’s not a huge amount, but a little sweetener. We’ve all got families to provide for and bills to pay, and a contract was put in front of me with the promise of looking after me in terms of goal bonuses and things.”

“I signed it, and it turned out that the bonuses had been removed. There were things like that going on and a huge rift between the players and the Board at the time, added to all the other issues at the club - and Gary Ablett just did the best he could in a horrible situation.”

“Gary was really a good coach – he’d been there and done it as a footballer, he had great insight and a great way of coaching. But anyone who would have gone in would have struggled at that point. It’s so sad what happened down the line as well (Gary passed away in 2012 after a battle with lymphoma), and puts football into perspective a bit.”

Fast forward to County’s impending exit from the Football League in mid 2011, and Tansey was sitting at the top of the side’s goalscoring charts amidst a season of more struggles.

Hosting Northampton at Edgeley Park, County needed a result to give themselves a sniff of preserving their League Two status – stumbling only to a 2-2 draw.

Tansey, then a creative midfielder, almost ended the day as the hero, crashing in a stunning long-range strike late in the game to bring The Hatters back into the tie, before sending a last-gasp free-kick an inch wide of the far post.

That fateful last kick of the game sealed County’s fate, on a day of which Tansey holds some unhappy memories. One particular image which is often used to illustrate the club’s misfortune at the time is of Tansey in tears at full-time – something which the ex Inverness man says he “never wanted to hide away from”.

“That game sums up my whole time at Stockport. It was so up and down. I didn’t even think about the goal. The club was in such a bad state, and I put it on my shoulders to help us out of it. My main memory is regretting missing the free-kick at the end.”

“Our fate was sealed, and the goal meant little to me until a few years later when I could watch it back. I just wanted to keep the club up. Everything Stockport and the fans represent is a Football League club. I was just gutted and couldn’t hide my emotion, and to be honest, I didn’t want to hide it. I’ve never been one to shirk away from showing my feelings, and I think fans resonate with that. We’re just normal lads out on the pitch, we’re no different to the fans as people.”

That season came to an end in a bizarre 1-1 draw with Cheltenham at Edgeley Park, when the game was briefly halted amidst a pitch invasion by a group of County supporters.

Long-suffering fans took verbal aim at a number of parties, and at a number of gripes, from Sale Sharks’ continued presence at Edgeley Park, to the seemingly never-ending financial woes at the club and a pitiful slide into non-league. Play eventually resumed, where Tansey scored a late penalty to salvage a point.

“First and foremost, the fans were spot on. I totally agreed with what they did – I’m not saying to fans to run on the pitch if you’ve got a problem, but it had reached a point where the fans had to have their message heard. They had to let the people involved in that whole period of time know that what they were doing to their club wasn’t right.”

“The entire day was strange. I just wanted the game to be over. I remember the penalty – and I didn’t really want to score that day. I didn’t even want to show any emotion that might be construed as being happy to score a goal or to show some form of celebration as it wasn’t a happy time at all, and I respected that.”

Image credit to Mike Petch.

Following relegation, Tansey went onto enjoy a successful move into Scottish football with Inverness – even going on to feature in the club’s 2015 Scottish Cup Final win alongside former Hatters teammate James Vincent.

Moves to Aberdeen and St Mirren followed in 2018 and 2019, before a brief two-week stint with Warrington in late 2019 – although, by then, Tansey was wrestling with the heart-breaking prospect of early retirement due to injury, and the subsequent mental health issues which arose.

Upon retiring in September last year aged just 30, Tansey was only then able to discuss his issues with his long-term partner and accept that he had been suffering from depression for the past year.

The former Hatter has recently spoken out on mental health issues within the game, and what more the authorities can be doing to support their professional footballers. For Tansey personally, the “culture shock” of early retirement led to a miserable relationship with the game.

“Nine times out of ten, mental health issues are just a phase and come on out of nowhere. That’s my experience anyway – whether it be through going something shit in your personal life or as a player. It was incredibly tough having that weight on my shoulders at Stockport as a young player, and I think at that age you maybe don’t realise or appreciate that you’re struggling mentally.”

“When I first retired, it was on bad terms because of the handling of my injury. I was in shock as I hadn’t had bad injuries before – I never really had an injury in my whole time at Stockport. I just wanted nothing to do with the game for a good six months or so after retirement, I couldn’t watch it or talk about it.”

“My family live and breathe football, and I’d go and see my parents who are sat watching any live football that’s on, or Sky Sports News if not. I’d walk in to see that, or to hear them talking about football, and I’d just say, ‘I’m going home’.”

“You never prepare for it as a footballer. As a fan, the only way I can describe it is for you to be working in your absolute dream job for years and years, and for me to suddenly to say to you out of the blue, ‘you can’t do that anymore, starting right now’. A job you loved, you lived and breathed – it’s a tough one to take, very tough.”

“I know men in particular like to hide any issues they’ve got when it comes to this sort of thing. I only told my partner about six months ago that I’d been suffering for about a year with depression, and she didn’t know before that – but it feels like a huge weight being lifted when you talk about it. I’d definitely tell any footballer to just talk about it.”

“In turn, the PFA should then be looking at putting things in place so that players clearly know where to go and who to turn to professionally to talk about things, or to get ready for retirement. The whole structure just needs to improve, there needs to be so many more experts in place and a real support system in place – because when you retire, that’s it, and you’re left on your own.”

With Tansey now studying for coaching and scouting qualifications, the 31-year-old says he’s taking inspiration from a popular figure at Stockport over the years – former manager, Chief Scout and now Head of Youth Development, Alan Lord.

Tansey also reveals a particular goal in his future career that he’d “absolutely love” to achieve.

“I’m working on my coaching and scouting badges, aiming to have that boxed off within the next year. To be honest, I’ve always thought I’d like to be back at Stockport and be a part of coaching the young kids. I think it would be great for me personally after being a part of the club’s struggles to really help in passing on my experiences and my guidance to youngsters, to help the club fly back up the leagues.”

“I’d love to be a scout, too. Something like what Alan Lord has done is really what I’d love, in being able to combine the two. I think over the career of a footballer, if you’ve had the right coaching and the right support early on, you can really spot a player throughout your career, and I’d love to do that. I’m currently going through my badges for both, and I want to have them sorted within a year.”

“Alan Lord has had a huge impact on Stockport over the years, bringing players in from non-league for not much money and helping turn them into brilliant players, both for the club and elsewhere. I’d love to do something like that combined with coaching – I think coaching the Under 14 and Under 15 sort of age group is really important in terms of when you start to get your apprenticeship, and I’d love to focus on that.”

“I’ve lived and breathed football all my life, and I’m definitely feeling ready to get back into it now – and in terms of Stockport, who knows? Like I say, I’d love to be back one day.”