• Sam Byrne

Jim Gannon exclusive - Legendary boss on 500 County games, promotions, exits, returns and much more

Three managerial spells spanning exactly fifteen years, from a first competitive fixture on the 2nd January 2006 all the way through to a 500th on 2nd January 2021.

At 3pm on the second day of the New Year, Jim Gannon made yet more Stockport County history in an Edgeley Park career already filled with record-breaking moments and achievements for the Hatters’ boss, when the Irishman managed his 500th competitive fixture as County manager in a 2-2 draw with Altrincham in the National League.

It’s a feat that Gannon himself acknowledges will be “very difficult to surpass” – and one that the former Hatters defender admits he never thought would happen back when he stepped foot back through the doors of Edgeley Park as caretaker manager on the 27th December 2005.

The club had just parted ways with Chris Turner after a 6-0 mauling at the hands of neighbours Macclesfield Town on Boxing Day, and the supporter-owned Hatters swiftly turned to their former player to seek a route out of the relegation mire County found themselves stuck in at the foot of League Two.

“The Board asked me to sit in as caretaker manager, and I fully expected to perhaps be in charge for two or three games over an intense Christmas to New Year period. I thought the club would then look to bring in some experienced ‘Red Adair’ type of manager to try and keep the club in the league,” explains Gannon.

“I wasn’t thinking at that point that I was about to embark on a similar length of spell in terms of managing the club as I had as a player. It was a very proud moment the day I walked in as manager, and I’m still pinching myself now that fifteen years and five hundred games later, I’m still here – I must have done something right!”

“I’ve had some great people give me the opportunity, not just once but three times. I just hope I’m repaying that faith and that I continue to do a good job and move beyond that five hundred, as there’s still some great things to be achieved for this club.”

Prior to reaching that mammoth tally however, the story of how Gannon became undoubtedly the most iconic figure of the club’s modern era is far from a simple one.

Long before Gannon and County became synonymous with one another, Gannon himself was an English-born youngster growing up in Dublin – and despite “feeling comfortable” advancing through his teenage years back in Ireland, the Hatters boss reflects on the challenges of that period amidst a heated time in both countries.

“Because of the family connections, I felt comfortable being in Ireland. But it was a strange time in the 80’s - as a young teenager with an English accent, you’re made to feel uncomfortable in your day-to-day life, in what was a very political hotbed in Dublin.”

“As an Irishman in London, you were always fearful that you and your family would be looked at as terrorists. But then back in Ireland, you’d get so many shouts of ‘Brits Out’ or ‘go back to England’, so it was a really strange time.”

“But I made great friends there too. I moved up a few levels from playing football for my local team and ended up playing Eircom League football for Dundalk, who were really the ‘All Stars’ at the time. I felt very lucky to get an opportunity to go from playing for the B Team to the next minute be playing against Red Star Belgrade in the European Cup, playing against Stojković and Prosinečki.”

“It was an unbelievable experience for an 18-year-old, and one which I wouldn’t have had without that move back to Ireland.”

Although Gannon went on to enjoy a storied footballing career, the landscape of both his and The Hatters’ histories could well have been altered dramatically had the now 52-year-old opted for a very different career path available to him.

“In the 80’s in Dublin, I applied for the army. I had a strong interest in the culture of the army and the job itself, but I’d also regularly gone to work on building sites in London as a teenager as we still had strong family connections there. I really enjoyed that, it was really well paid, and I didn’t mind being away from home.”

“I came back after summer in England and Dundalk offered me a pro contract, but I’d signed up for the Army in the meantime. I was really into fitness, my uncle had a gym, and I did a lot of personal training myself - and working on the building site also added to that fitness.”

“I then had the six months of intense, daily army training. Every day after army training, I’d jump on the number 189 bus to go and train with Dundalk in the evening, and I became one of the fittest in the squad. I think that did make me stand out as I had almost ‘all-time’ fitness in a part-time league, and I went from strength to strength as my football career became the primary focus.”

Despite Gannon’s football career trumping his alternative career options, he unsurprisingly kept several irons in the fire as his professional career took him across borders, from Dundalk to Sheffield, and from Stockport back to his home country for a spell with Shelbourne.

Ask supporters of both County and their rivals down the ‘Gannon years’, and the verdict on the Hatters boss would be largely similar - ‘meticulous’, ‘forward-thinking’, ‘well-prepared’. And, whilst continuing to excel as a player with almost 500 appearances for County, Gannon paints a picture of how preparations were being made for a life after hanging up his boots.

“I worked hard and was lucky enough to play football throughout a full professional career, but you always know that that’s a relatively short one, so I was always preparing for a second career. I got my A-Levels and then my accountancy qualifications in my twenties, and started investigating coaching during my final playing contract. I found I enjoyed it, but never expected that I’d stay in the game after retiring from playing.”

“Back at Dundalk, I received the opportunity to manage after being player-manager for a while, and I really enjoyed that experience. I was probably the perfect fit at that stage as they were realigning themselves as a club, realigning their culture and trying to become a sustainable club, having a connection with the town and with younger players within the area to become a reasonable development club in line with the FAI’s policies.”

“By then, the Pro Licence was coming in and I got that. I left Dundalk in 2005 and decided to go back to England in the November of that year, finishing my Pro Licence and watching Stockport in my spare time - which all resulted with that call to come in as caretaker manager at the end of the year.”

Gannon’s meticulous nature has been evident throughout all of his spells at Edgeley Park as a manager, and even noted by teammates from his playing days.

A story regularly told around Edgeley Park, and highlighted in the club's matchday programme during Gannon's current spell, would involve a hotel roommate of Gannon's during the era of the hugely successful County side in the nineties awaking in the early hours prior to an away fixture, to be met by the sight of Gannon sat at the end of his own bed going over his own tactical preparation for that day’s game.

It is unsurprising that that level of thought, of passion for the craft and of careful planning would all make its way into Gannon’s mindset as a manager – and the man himself reflects on how “deep thinking” has played a big part in managerial success.

Mike Petch Photography.

“I’d like to think I’m fairly intelligent, but that doesn’t always count in football as it’s a game of different intelligence. I’ve always been a deep thinker; I would analyse myself and everything I did as a footballer and I do that as a manager now.”

“I was captain at County a few times as a player, but not much of an emotional one who’d stir the side and the fans up like Flynny would do so well - but more of a tactical thinker. I made a career not in ability, but athleticism, fitness, application and applying myself to be able to grow.”

Part of that growth and development Gannon refers to came amidst a tough spell as a player for The Hatters – but, as he says has happened in management, that ability to ‘self-analyse’ saw rapid improvement and a marked shift in opinions from his detractors.

“I was booed at County as a player early on – I played in a lot of different positions, but I was trying to change as a footballer and do what Danny (Bergara) wanted. I grew in confidence and experience, and even though we moved up a league I was then top league goalscorer and player of the year the season after. I think I figured out how to be successful, and that’s what I do now – understanding what works, what works for people around you and to guide them towards that.”

“Affect the scoreboard, ask yourself how to create opportunities, how to give yourselves the best chance to score goals, and they’re things that I’ve always had a keen eye for. Don’t get me wrong, you draw on a lot of personal football experiences, whether it be coaching, man management, education - you become a mixture of the person you are when you’re younger, but then you add the footballer traits, the experience you get as a manager, philosophies you’ve shaped that stay with you forever, and some that don’t.”

“Any advice for a young coach would be to have strong ideals of who you are as a person, but keep up with current trends, with what works, with how the game changes and keep growing. What might have worked for Danny Bergara or Gary Megson might not work for me – you have to adapt and keep up, but retain those principles and ideologies that make you who you are.”

One element of Gannon’s principles as a manager would undoubtedly be his detailed tactical work.

Upon growing a young team in his first spell as Hatters boss, Gannon favoured a system with a point attacker and two supporting ‘inside forwards’. This most notably worked wonders in the 2007/08 season, when striker Liam Dickinson scored twenty goals on the way to play-off success for County – ably supported by Anthony Pilkington and Tommy Rowe on either side.

Gannon recollects on one occasion a few years down the line at Peterborough Utd, when a national newspaper labelled him a “maverick” for opting for a 4-2-3-1 shape in a clash with champions Newcastle Utd – and also reflects on the “evolution” of football, with more clubs than ever before utilising graphics and animations on social media to portray a certain formation or shape.

“When you put a graphic up of a formation, it might look like 4-4-2 or whatever shape you’ve put up. But if you take a photograph in every single minute of the game, the 'shape' would be totally out of sync with the graphic and would often look like a random eleven numbers on a pitch.”

“When I played under Danny Bergara, I got called the ‘halfy-halfy man’ by Damon Searle. Danny used to say we’re going to play a shape of ‘four, three and a half, two and a half’. He’d say, ‘Jimmy you do the ‘halfy-halfy!’”

“It would effectively mean to for me to push up to the attackers but also to get back, and that was my first real experience of different shapes within shapes. I’d always wear number seven, but we would be playing more than the eleven ‘set’ positions because Danny would make positions up, trying to get an advantage.”

“As a manager, I thought 4-2-3-1 was a great tactic when I first came to Stockport - it gazumped 4-4-2 at the time for me for a short while, and then 4-1-2-3 and others came to the fore. Tactical challenges arise and you adapt and evolve to them with different shapes.”

“For fans and players, of course sometimes the complexities can be a lot to try and understand, but the fact is that footballers are not always playing one position. You play in different ways and different positions for different demands at any one time within a game.”

“Defenders are now expected to step up and be playmakers, wingers defend, the game has evolved a lot. The evolution of football suggests that if you’re stiff and pragmatic the opposition will undo you because they’ll be more fluid and flexible.”

Another key element of Gannon’s managerial makeup has been his work with young players over the years.

This was prominent even at Dundalk - where Gannon recalls how he was told by officials that playing both a brand of football and blooding youngsters would be “suicidal” - and has continued throughout the former Northwich boss’ tenure elsewhere.

That Gannon has played a large part in a number of former Hatters youngsters’ careers – with the likes of Anthony Pilkington, Tommy Rowe, Liam Dickinson, Welsh internationals Wayne Hennessey and Ashley Williams and more all highlighting Gannon’s influence – is not always used as a compliment of the County boss, however.

Mike Petch Photography.

Detractors, particularly stemming from contentious spells at clubs such as Port Vale, will lament that Gannon is 'unable’ to work with older players – an argument just as often dismissed by Hatters supporters and those around the club, and by Gannon himself who notes an “incredible” compliment from a perhaps unlikely source in response.

“You only have to look at some stories that come out of other clubs about me. There’s a lot of deflection that goes on from people who don’t even know me or how I operate. The question is not about your age as a footballer, but whether you want to be developed. I remember Kayode Odejayi sent me a message (after his spell at the club under Gannon in 2016/17) about how much he learned under me – that was an incredible compliment given how many games he played and what level he’s played at.”

“With young players, of course the change is always more dramatic as you’re shaping them, shaping their thought process and the fact that you’re willing to give them a chance sees them place more trust in you in return. That sort of thing is epitomised by Tommy Rowe, Oli Johnson, Anthony Pilkington who we worked with as youngsters. But we also picked up Michael Rose, Jimmy McNulty and others who were older players. We found what they were and helped them become the best player they could be, and all ended up playing higher level football.”

“I think the problem with footballers is that they get to their late twenties, and time is running out. I played five hundred plus games as a footballer, and I knew when I was going past my best that you have to use other skills to be competitive.”

“But any players we’ve had, even the current players, if you’re open-minded and willing to learn then they’ve shown that you can enjoy the challenge and enjoy adapting your game no matter your age.”

“Some players will always feel like they’re in a strait jacket as they want all freedom all of the time, and some want to be told what to do all of the time. You have to manage that, be conscious of everybody and develop everybody whether you’re younger or older.”

“When people get to know me, they realise it’s not about me being in control or me be being successful, I’m doing it because I want the team to be successful.”

“Once they realise that, they shift their mindset to ‘the gaffer just wants us to be the best’ and they buy into that. They may not always buy into me personally, but they buy into the fact that you want the best Stockport County possible, the best for them as individuals and most importantly collectively.”

So, what of Gannon’s five hundred games in the Edgeley Park hotseat?

After saving the club from relegation into non-league following that initial stint as caretaker manager in 2005/06, Gannon went on to take a vibrant young County side to within a goal of the League Two play-offs the season after. This came via a remarkable ‘nine in a row’ league record; nine league wins in a row without conceding a single goal – a Football League record which still stands to this day.

Promotion did follow the season after via the League Two play-offs, with County besting neighbours Rochdale 3-2 in a rainy Wembley final, before Gannon left a year later due to the club’s financial collapse in 2009.

Following spells at Motherwell, Peterborough and Port Vale, he returned to Edgeley Park in 2011 as the club did find themselves in non-league turmoil – although this time his role came as ‘Director of Football’, with Gannon once again controversially dismissed in January 2013 having kept the club in the National League the season prior, amidst a failed takeover by businessman Tony Evans.

Spencer Fearn came into the club in 2012, with CEO Ryan McKnight following soon after – and Gannon says he realised during this period at the club that the writing was on the wall.

“The first journey (2005-2009) was a blank canvas. I went down the route the first time of developing young players, and I thought we had a lot of time and little pressure. We had a successful half-season to stay up and if we replicated that then we’d be up there every season, which we were.”

“The second time, I remember saying to Fitzy (John Fitzpatrick, club ambassador and friend of Gannon’s) that it would be my last job in football. It was extremely difficult; an ever-decreasing situation with a difficult group. Didi Hamann had come in and spent a big budget which wasn’t fulfilled on, and the club was in a difficult situation - if we didn’t redress that, we knew there would be more hard times for the club.”

“I had to get a £800k invested budget down to a £330k sustainable budget - as Director of Football, I had to bring us away from an expensive training ground and big earners, to get down to a tight, well-run, young hungry team whilst keeping that full-time status.”

“We kept the club in the league that first season back (2011/12), but it was always going to be tough afterwards. I felt there was real growth in the group, but the Board at the time hadn’t learned from the Tony Evans situation, and more people came in who perhaps wanted to do more than just support the manager. When Ryan McKnight was appointed, my time was up.”

“They had a vision for what they wanted to club to be, and when I left that day (after a 1-3 home defeat to eventual champions Mansfield), I wasn’t so much sad for myself but so sad for County. It wasn’t what it meant for me, it was what it meant for the club because I felt that we were holding something together that would fall apart, and if the club trusted in people that didn’t have the knowledge or experience or emotion of the club, then there would be real danger not just of relegation, but of collapsing into becoming a regional part-time outfit for a long period.”

“That saddened me, to be out of Stockport County looking in and to see the club going only one way.”

After a brief period working out of the game following his second departure from Edgeley Park, Gannon returned with an “exciting” opportunity at Northwich Victoria. Initially a caretaker boss, Gannon again settled into the role just as in his first spell at Edgeley Park and soon built a successful side at Wincham Park.

The club were soon challenging the play-off places in the division with Gannon’s well-structured side which included County favourites Scott Duxbury, Michael Clarke, Jordan Williams and Richie Bennett – all of whom Gannon has worked with at Edgeley Park in his latest spell.

The club came within two minutes of the FA Cup third round as they led 2-0 at Northampton Town before a last-minute fightback by The Cobblers – and whilst Gannon’s impressive work wasn’t going unnoticed by County officials following their manager Neil Young’s departure in January 2016, it was this time Gannon himself who needed some convincing to return for a third time.

Mike Petch Photography.

“I’d left County under a cloud the first time as a player, after being charged £1k for a testimonial. I found it incredibly disheartening to have a price put on my loyalty to the club. I never would have come back if those people were involved with the club – I came back (in 2005/06) as manager because genuine County people were involved.”

“Norman Beverley was chairman at the time, he was a big supporter of my testimonial committee and a real genuine County person - I heard a few weeks ago that he’d passed, so my minute’s silence at a recent fixture was for him and others who were close to my history with the club, people who’ve affected me in a positive way.”

“Similarly, John Fitzpatrick portrayed a picture to me that the club were in dangerous ground the second time I came back, and convinced me to help. The third time was different – I think we all felt the club had made a great appointment with Neil Young, we all felt they would give it a go with a strong, experienced group who knew the league, but for some reason it didn’t click, and County had a difficult period that season.”

“But after the first two times of being burnt at County, I thought I’d never be back in the game. This was especially after having my reputation tarnished at Port Vale, when all I am is a man who wants football to be played the right way. I was working outside of football, but that time at Northwich really showed that even at that level you can coach, you can implement change and develop players. We had a great time there and I think I reminded people that I can coach, I know what I’m doing.”

“So I was happy to stay at Northwich, I was thankful to Jimmy Rush there for the opportunity, I was loving every minute of it. But once Neil (Young) left County, Richard Park and Gary Burton (County chairman/director at the time) didn’t really know me that well, but people like Alan Lord and Fitzy reminded them what kind pf person I am, what kind of manager I am, how I feel about the club - and they were clear there was only one man for the job.”

“They are two genuine guys who wanted the best for the club, and they supported me in making the club sustainable. Those two people trusted that I was good for the club and I trusted that they wouldn’t be like higher-ups I’d worked with at Stockport previously. Unlike my time at Port Vale, I felt I had good people around me from the day I came back - and if you have what I have had at County since 2016, you’d have every chance of being successful.”

Having guided County to National League North title success in 2019, the latest chapter of Gannon’s spell at the club came when local businessman Mark Stott purchased The Hatters in January 2020, with Gannon swiftly handed a new two-year full-time deal at Edgeley Park.

The Hatters are currently sitting in the play-off places of a stop-start National League due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with Stott’s ambitions clear. “We’re aiming for the Championship in seven years” came the statement of intent from Stott upon his arrival – and Gannon says he’s enjoying the challenge amidst “massive transformation” of the football club.

“I’m a realist – like every employee, if I’m doing a really good job then I’ll be here. I don’t look too far into the future. I’m very focussed on delivering now, we have a very strong ambition now to get into the Football League. I knew it was a step-by-step journey when I came back, and Mark coming in now has accelerated the potential of the club and of the journey.

"It’s a dichotomy as a manager, because that backing gives you tremendous support and resource but of course it adds pressure. But there’s the right balance of stability, support and pressure to succeed for me.”

Having made almost 500 appearances as a County player, Gannon is set to reach a total of a thousand at the club as a player and a manager at some stage this campaign – although he refused to be drawn on his own status as arguably the club’s greatest ever manager!

“I don’t look beyond success this season. if I have any ambitions for this season personally, it would be to reach that milestone of a thousand cumulative games as both player and manager here. It’s for County fans to decide their ‘greatest manager’ at the club, and I don’t want to be compared to others - just to be seen as a man who brings great value to our club, and as a man who is proud of our club.”

Somewhat poetically, Gannon’s 500th competitive fixture in charge ended in a 2-2 draw with neighbours Altrincham, exactly fifteen years to the day since his first competitive fixture ended in a 2-2 draw with Cheltenham at Edgeley Park.

Gannon reflects poignantly on the New Year having reached that remarkable tally alongside a win percentage just shy of 50% at the club – and ends with a message of hope to the ‘Blue & White Army’ of Edgeley Park.

“With a New Year comes reflection, and I’ve reflected about how lucky I am. I’m really proud of a year of success and growth for the club, but on a personal level we’ve lost many good people from the club.”

“Naturally you lose people along the way of any journey - and that’s the torture you go through at a football club. As you make progress, you do lose people, but I just hope that anyone who has been a part of this journey, at any stage, can take pride in the part they played in getting us to this point.”

“It’s obviously been a hugely demanding year for us all in all walks of life, but when you face these challenges it can bring out the best in people. I do think we will respect the simple things in life going forward; the opportunity to play football, to watch football, to go to work, to see your family and friends – and I’m hopeful that the catalyst of a new year will bring about the enjoyment of life again, and brings us all back together again as friends, family and as Stockport County Football Club.”

Mike Petch Photography.