• Sam Byrne

Oli Johnson on County, Norwich, injuries - and the 'myth' around the end of his time at Edgeley Park

Image credit to Mike Petch/Stockport County.

It can be a struggle for football supporters to understand the strain placed on young footballers; for example, former Hatter Greg Tansey spoke candidly recently about his own battle with depression having been forced into an early retirement from the game.

And, while Tansey’s former Edgeley Park teammate Oli Johnson may not have encountered problems as severe as that of the Liverpudlian midfielder, Johnson paints a picture of a footballer plagued by self-doubt, injury problems and a complete absence of confidence towards the end of his time with Stockport County.

Despite this, and an eventual move to Norwich City from The Hatters, Johnson looks back fondly on his time with County – a time which started out full of promise and potential.

Having dropped out of the Football League in his early teenage years, Johnson began his climb up the pyramid with Nostell Miners Welfare in the Northern Counties League and, following a successful outing against Jim Gannon’s County side in what the Wakefield-born man remembers as ‘unusual circumstances’ in late 2008, made the permanent move to Edgeley Park in October of that year.

“I was playing at Nostell and enjoying football with my mates, and to be honest didn’t have any aspirations at the time to go any higher at that time.”

“I knew I’d be capable of making a step up, and just by chance we played Stockport in a mid-season friendly. I remember finding it really weird that we had a mid-season friendly game!”

“I can’t remember why it was arranged, but I didn’t even start in the game because we had a league game the coming Saturday that the gaffer had wanted me to rest for.”

“I ended up coming on for twenty minutes or so, and I think that helped as I was quite relaxed and treated it as just a bit of a kick-about, and there was no pressure on anything.”

The inside forward will likely be remembered by most County supporters as a tricky, exciting prospect – especially in his first year with the club. This is something Johnson says stood him in good stead when it came to his impression made on future boss Gannon and company.

Following the friendly, Gannon and The Hatters approached Nostell about taking Johnson on a trial period, where he continued to impress Gannon, assistant Peter Ward, and Youth Coach Alan Lord.

“I actually did things in that game that I wouldn’t normally do in a league game. I remember Stockport scored, and from kick-off I had a run at the team through four or five players, and tried to have a go at getting on the front foot.”

“I had no real expectations of my trial when it came about, and I felt it was almost a free hit. We had a trial game against Preston for County, and I just took that rawness and the off-the-cuff way I played and stuck to that - as I thought that’s what had impressed the right people at Stockport.”

“I had no real game intelligence or anything like that. My first thought was always just to get the ball and make something happen. We had a succession of trial games every week from there, and I think just my willingness to take players on helped me out.”

“I suppose that’s something that a lot of non-league players have when they’re starting out, and often it can be coached out of you as you learn more about how to manage games and things like that. But I just stuck with it and scored a few goals throughout my trial.”

“For me, it worked in my favour and I made an impression on Alan Lord and Jim.”

Image credit to Mike Petch/Stockport County.

At the conclusion of a successful trial period, Gannon looked to ease Johnson into the senior set-up at Edgeley Park following the club’s recent promotion into League One the summer prior.

County were enjoying life at the higher level, threatening to burst into the play-off picture before eventually doing so by Christmas of 2008.

It came as somewhat of a surprise to Johnson, then, when the youngster found his way into the first team at the club – albeit with the spell of games in the New Year coming as a result of the club’s financial troubles of that era, with a fire-sale of some of the club’s best talent well underway by the time the January transfer window came around.

“I went from playing Sunday League football, to training with players who were good enough to be playing levels higher like James Vincent, Greg Tansey, Paul Turnbull, and being coached by people like Alan Lord who were just a step above in terms of how they think about the game and how they teach.”

“Then, training in the first team was even more surreal with people like Tommy Rowe, Anthony Pilkington, Carl Baker - they were all Championship-quality players.”

“It was a weird time, as I probably wouldn’t have made as many appearances as I did had that financial trouble not started, and had the likes of Pilks not been sold in the January.”

“As it was, I got a run of games and obviously managed to impress and score some goals. The stars aligned for me that season to break through and do well.”

Johnson scored his first senior goal for his new club in a 3-1 defeat to neighbours Oldham Athletic in January 2009 – before going on to score three in his next three starts, having proven a bright spark on an otherwise miserable day at Boundary Park.

The talented attacker became a hit with the Edgeley Park faithful in those early days, proving to be an unpredictable and exciting player to watch – and Johnson recognises the time as some of his best days in the game.

“That season is one of the best of my career. Everything came off, and I was doing things that I wouldn’t do even now as a player. It was totally spontaneous the way I played, and I was just really happy playing football and winning games.”

“I remember finding training more difficult than games that season. In a controlled environment in training, it was obviously very meticulous whereas in games I wouldn’t over-think things. It probably drove Jim mad at times!”

“I was still cutting my teeth in the game, and I was still naive as a footballer and probably as a person. That first season at Stockport opened my eyes and really helped me along, and I’ll always be grateful to the management and the club for that.”

Johnson speaks with obvious admiration for his first senior management team in the game at that time, with Gannon, Ward and Lord overseeing a period at Edgeley Park where a number of youngsters broke through into the first team squad reckoning.

Controversy soon followed at the club, with County entering administration just days after Johnson lit up Edgeley Park with a Friday evening match-winning performance in a 4-3 win over Crewe Alexandra – a game in which Johnson scored twice, including a delightful lob over former County ‘keeper John Ruddy at the Cheadle End.

The departure of Gannon due to those same monetary problems soon followed that summer; something Johnson says he felt “gutted” over, despite enjoying his time on the pitch.

“For me, Jim and the whole set-up were great. I know he can divide opinion, but I can only speak for myself. He was brilliant, and I don’t know if it’s something with non-league players or young players where he enjoys nurturing that talent which he’s clearly brilliant at.”

“Lordy was superb with me, too. Alan is the one who scouted me and recommended me, and he was a real influence on my career. I think they both saw something in me early on, and they both really cultivated that.”

“At the back end of my breakthrough season, I was just playing football and enjoying scoring goals, but we were all eventually made aware of the financial troubles. Jim had a chat with me and let me know he’d no longer be at the club, which I was just gutted about.”

“He and Lordy had given me a chance, and both of them leaving was a real blow because they were two tremendous coaches, and really good to me.”

The Hatters have recently turned to a popular member of that same squad to help oversee their next crop of youngsters at Edgeley Park – with former captain Michael Raynes appointed as a Youth Coach alongside Damian Allen to look after the Academy at the club.

Raynes himself played alongside Johnson during the Yorkshire winger’s up-and-down time at County – and Johnson is eager to point out the qualities which make the centre-half suitable for the role.

“In terms of players, I would have to say that Raynesy was absolutely one who was influential for me when I first signed.”

“He was the first to speak to me when I was on trial, and he was the one who went out of his way to ask me how things were on a personal level during a tough second season, as he knew something wasn’t right. He showed real leadership qualities at such a young age.”

Gannon and Lord left the club that summer, however – and Johnson was left in the strange situation of having impressed in his breakthrough season with the club, and feeling the pressure of being a potential match-winner in a squad destined to struggle at the wrong end of the League One table in the 2009/10 campaign.

Former Liverpool and Everton defender Gary Ablett was given the task of guiding County away from trouble the following season – one which seemed doomed from outset, as County slipped to relegation to League Two.

For Johnson personally, who also explains that the “lack of quality” across the depleted squad was always going to see The Hatters struggle, talk of the forward wanting out of Edgeley Park before a ball had been kicked in that season was wide of the mark.

“What a fantastic guy Gary was, god rest his soul. It was an incredibly tough job he had, the squad wasn’t up to that level in League One and I had my own struggles in terms of fitness and confidence, but he had a great relationship with everyone in the squad, and we were desperate to do well for him - but the quality just wasn’t there from us.”

“I came back to pre-season that year, and I was happy to be at the club. I don’t know if there’s a perception that I wanted out, but it absolutely wasn’t the case. I was disappointed personally that Jim, Lordy and the rest had left but that was never something that had made me want to leave the club.”

“I initially felt like I was somebody who could step up and be one of the players you look at to win games, but I just struggled that season to make the step up, and the confidence just drained out of me.”

“I don’t even know if it’s a thing, but it seemed to be like ‘second season syndrome’. I always seem to struggle with little innocuous injuries and had had a couple in pre-season, and I’m the same even to this day. Things weren’t coming off for me and I felt the confidence pouring out of my body game by game.”

“That second season, the reality hit home of being a professional footballer where I had to really look after myself. I was literally playing pub football before signing for Stockport, turning up on a Sunday morning hungover putting the nets up ourselves.”

“The more that season went on, the more things just caught up with me and I couldn’t turn it around.”

Image credit to Mike Petch/Stockport County.

Despite struggling for form, confidence and fitness, one-time County rival Paul Lambert came knocking to take Johnson to Carrow Road the following January.

By this point, the clearly struggling Johnson had added just two goals to his promising first season tally – and the 32 year-old says his first response to the potential move to Norwich was one of ‘embarrassment’.

“I knew of their interest in the November. I actually didn’t want to go at first. I was having a bad season; I wasn’t training well - not through a lack of effort but just struggling to adjust.”

“I thought ‘I can’t leave this club the way that I’m playing’, and thought that I hadn’t earned it. I was obviously still in Paul Lambert’s thoughts in the January, and I was a bit embarrassed to make the move at the time given my form.”

“In my head, it was just about trying to draw a line under what had gone before in terms of my own performances.”

“I remember coming on for my debut at Norwich and having a little run at goal and shooting just wide, and this little ripple of applause went around the ground. It felt very similar to how I had approached my early days at Stockport and that entire breakthrough season, and it settled me down from there.”

Promotion with Norwich soon followed, before Johnson ventured out for spells with Yeovil and Oxford – eventually dropping out of the Football League altogether.

In recent years, Johnson has found success and happiness with Guiseley and Bradford Park Avenue in the National League North, adjusting to life well as a part-time footballer.

The former York City man admits his ‘regret’ at not being able to enjoy a lengthier full-time career, but opens up on the problems he faced throughout a whirlwind time.

“I’d love to have had longer in a full-time career, but it wasn’t to be, and I have really enjoyed my time over the past few years in a bit more of a relaxed environment playing part-time.”

“I’d have to say that second season at Stockport is a big regret. I do regret the whole season in general. It was a bad time for the club, for me, for the fans. I regret how it ended, and I’d have loved to have given a little more back for everything the club did for me.”

“It’s hard to look back and say you’d change things. Good and bad times shape who you are, and I’ve been very lucky to have had the career I’ve had and play for the clubs I’ve played for.“

Johnson has actually been back to Edgeley Park since that rollercoaster of a spell with the club back in 2008-2010, scoring one and putting in a Man of the Match performance in a 3-0 win for Guiseley over The Hatters in 2014.

Despite the loss coming amidst some of County’s darkest days in the sixth tier, Johnson says he ‘likes to think’ that the performance – and muted celebrations – earned the forward some kudos back on his old stomping ground.

“I know I’ve had a bit of stick over the years at Stockport, and I’ve always been curious about what sort of reception I’d get at Edgeley Park. The Guiseley game was the second time I’d been back, and I just had one of those really good days. I know I’m capable of that, it’s just always been a case of staying fit enough to put it together in a run of games, and unfortunately that’s been a struggle for me.”

“But I scored that day; I didn’t want to celebrate in front of the Cheadle End and never would - I’ve got a lot of respect for the club and the fans.”

“I think Lordy was manager at the time as well, too. I’ve got a lot of affection for him, for the club and for the people for how they helped a young player make his way into the game.”

“I also remember Stockport coming to Norwich after I’d left and I got a few boos - which was to be expected!”

“The perception was that I wanted out and that I wasn’t bothered, or at least I felt that’s what it was. It wasn’t true. I was struggling, but I always put as much effort as possible in - but as a supporter, if you see someone not performing and then they start getting linked with moves elsewhere, you’ll obviously think that’s what’s happening.”

“That first season at Stockport was a really good, and really happy, time in my career. I was just enjoying life and enjoying football, and I was doing well.”

“That Crewe goal and game is a real standout for me, too. There’s a ten-minute highlights package on YouTube and I watched it a load of times during lockdown! It was obviously a weird time at the club; but I look back with real happy memories of that season and of that team.”

Johnson has been enjoying his time at Bradford Park Avenue most recently in the National League North, and still holds his fair share of links to Edgeley Park.

Like many who’ve been and gone before him, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bad word of the club from the lively attacker – who, now at 32 years old, says he is continuing to stay as fit as possible and keep enjoying playing the game.

“To this day, I always look out for County - I’m good mates with Frank Mulhern who obviously had a successful time at the club, and big mates with Ash Palmer so always look out for him. He never stops scoring!”

“I’m good friends with Luca Havern, too - I started out with him back at Nostell, through to Stockport and then Bradford Park Avenue. I think the joke is that he got me a career!”

“Even aside from the players I’m friendly with, there’s a lot of good people at the club and it’s a place I’ve got a lot of fondness for. People like Jim and Alan were the catalyst for me in football, and really changed my life – so I’ll always have a soft spot for Stockport County.”