• Sam Byrne

Stockport to Scotland - James Vincent on County's youth set-up, Inverness, silverware, more

Image credit to Mike Petch/Stockport County.

On the face of it, a club predominantly struggling at the wrong end of the table for large parts of the early 21st century may not seem a breeding ground for young footballing prospects – but Stockport County can boast a wealth of new talent since the New Millennium.

One of many to find their feet in the game at Edgeley Park was James Vincent, once a highly-rated member of the Puma Youth Alliance Cup winning side, and most recently a Scottish Cup winner with Inverness Caledonian Thistle.

The Glossop-born midfielder first joined The Hatters at just 8 years old, one of several youngsters to rise through the ranks of a much-acclaimed Centre of Excellence and, eventually, a County youth squad run by a host of coaches widely regarded as some of the best nurturing coaches across the North West - including Mick Wiblin, Craig Madden, Peter Ward, Alan Lord and Jim Gannon.

Vincent’s Scottish Cup-winning teammate Greg Tansey, who also burst into the Hatters first team along with the box-to-box midfielder, recently credited much of the young County side’s successes to the likes of Youth Coach Madden, as well as Ward and Lord – and Vincent is quick to back up his former midfield partner.

“To be honest, there was a bit of everything at Stockport in terms of the talent we had. We were in an era where all the better youth players would be taken by the likes of Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea and so on.”

“I think more recently, the bigger clubs have invested a lot in scouting and recruitment so maybe bring more of their own youngsters through, and don’t necessarily go to the lower league clubs as often.”

“But I was at the Centre of Excellence at Stockport from about the age of 10, having played for Glossop Juniors before. When you go through the age brackets, there was real talent at each age. Above me was Greg Tansey’s group, so there was him, Ryan Crowther who went to Liverpool, Chris Coward, Paul Turnbull – who was a striker at the time!”

“At the time, Peter Ward was the Under 16’s Coach, so he was the last coach before you got your Youth Team contract - which was such a blessing, as he would really bring the best out of a lot of the boys. There were really good people running the entire set-up.”

So, having enjoyed a hugely successful stint in the club’s youth set-up, including a 6-2 win over Colchester Utd in the final of the Puma Youth Alliance Cup, Vincent was one of seven Hatters youngsters to be included by manager Gannon in County’s 1-0 win over Brentford on the final day of the regular League Two season back in 2008.

Gannon’s Hatters would begin their victorious play-off campaign the week following the final day win over the Bees, with County’s position in those play-offs already cemented prior to the game.

Fellow youth prospect Luca Havern scored the winner at the Cheadle End that day, with Vincent a late substitute for his debut – whilst Paul Turnbull, Michael Raynes, Amari Morgan-Smith, James Tunnicliffe and Tansey himself were all involved.

By that point, the likes of Turnbull and Tunnicliffe had gained experience in the County first-team squad, with Turnbull going on to put in a Man of the Match performance in the club’s 3-2 play-off final win over Rochdale at Wembley.

And for Vincent, whilst he explains that the prospect of a debut in front of 6,000 County supporters was less daunting than you’d first think, the former Kidderminster man also adds that the relaxed nature of the youngsters around the dressing room that day in May 2008 was something which was bred amongst the entire unit.

“There’s always a little bit of pressure making your debut, but Jim was very good at managing the boys and knowing when to bring them in. I was still in the youth team at the time of that Brentford game, but I’d been brought through the youth set-up by Craig Madden who was just excellent for us, and he definitely played a massive part as to why so many boys got an opportunity in the first team.”

“So the fact that we were already in the play-offs, we were able to go and enjoy ourselves – but the culture set up at the club by Jim, Peter Ward, Craig Madden and the others was that you should go out and enjoy yourselves anyway. That would have been the same message for the lads who played in the play-off games even after the Brentford game.”

Jim Gannon with then-assistant Peter Ward - Image credit to Mike Petch/Stockport County.

Promotion to League One followed for Gannon and company, with Vincent ‘graduating’ into the senior squad over the summer as the entire club made the step up.

The Hatters continued to seek opportunities to ease youngsters into their first team as the club adapted to life in League One well prior to their financial troubles of 2009 onwards.

County sat in the play-off positions by Christmas 2008, with Vincent forcing his way into the starting eleven for a more extended run of games.

“Within the squad we had at the time, we felt that we were ready to make that step up, and were probably already performing at that level anyway. Like I mentioned, even after promotion there wasn’t any big pressure from the management on us to make the step up.”

“For me personally, it was my first full year as a professional, so it was just about bedding into the first team. I had trained with the first team a lot anyway with some really good players, especially in midfield, so I was just testing myself after making the step up to see if I could cope with that – but I keep going back to that, with so many good people around me and all the young lads at Stockport, we were in a fortunate position to really give it a good go and succeed.”

A fire-sale of some of County’s best senior talent began in January 2009 as the club’s troubles really exploded, and although the New Year began to open the door on the full extent of the financial crisis at Edgeley Park with a long period of tribulations to follow, a silver lining for Gannon looked to be the excellent youth talent the Irishman could turn to – with Tansey and Vincent enjoying spells in the side, along with new talent such as Matty Mainwaring and Oli Johnson, who thrived in the second half of the 2008/09 campaign.

Vincent in action along with Greg Tansey (far right) - image credit to Mike Petch/Stockport County

Following a scorching first goal for the club for Vincent a 2-1 win over Hartlepool Utd in March 2009, Gannon spoke post-match about a “truly excellent midfield” of Vincent, Tansey and Mainwaring – and Vincent says his former Hatters boss more than played his own part in the trio bursting onto the Edgeley Park scene.

“Sometimes, managers just need to believe in youth, and Jim really did. He gave a lot of the boys a chance and was proven right in doing so – I think he’s someone who doesn’t just say they believe in youth, but he really does and his faith in young players over the years at Stockport has proven that.”

“Some managers maybe don’t know the best way to get the best out of a certain player, but he seemed to know what would work with each different player, and when to talk about their weaknesses or when to praise their strengths.”

Despite Gannon’s controversial departure in the summer of 2009 owing to County’s monetary struggles, Vincent continued on in the Hatters first-team throughout the next two seasons – seasons which were ultimately embroiled in on-field struggle, with relegation from League One and then from the Football League altogether coming back-to-back.

Vincent himself was eventually let go in the summer of 2011, when he was contacted by the club to confirm that they could not afford to offer the Glossop-born midfielder new terms at Edgeley Park – but, having gone on to enjoy life in Scotland, Vincent certainly holds no grudges.

“It wasn’t a nice time. Stockport was all I knew as a footballer since about 10 years old, and a club that I absolutely loved. There’s a special bond with County that will never go away, so to see the way the club was going wasn’t good.”

“It was a tough one for me personally as I understood the decision based on the club’s troubles, but it’s obviously not nice as a footballer to get that letter that we’d be let go.”

“But you take it on the chin, I had to look at the next stage of my career still only being quite young, and in the end it worked out well – but you’d still never want your time at a club, especially one like Stockport, to end like that.”

Vincent actually went on to score the winning goal in Inverness’ 2-1 Scottish Cup Final win in 2015, bursting from midfield to slot home an 86th minute winner and lift the trophy alongside former Hatter Tansey.

The 30-year-old is now, like many, awaiting news of how and when ‘Caley Thistle’s’ next season will begin following the Covid pandemic – but, while football may be on hold for the moment with the Scottish campaign cancelled earlier this year, Vincent is able to reflect on a “hugely enjoyable” time at his current club.

Image credit to Mike Petch/Stockport County.

“I would say that playing in Scotland has been one of the happiest times of my career. I’ve been fortunate enough to win things, too - prior to that, I just had the Puma Youth Alliance Cup at Stockport which was brilliant, and we had a really good go in the FA Youth Cup too, and only got narrowly beaten by a Southampton squad which had Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott and others.”

“But in Scotland, I’ve been able to win things, I’ve started a family here and I’ve generally enjoyed my football – sometimes, you have to take the positives from the negatives in your life and I think I’ve done that. Leaving Stockport wasn’t nice, but I think I was able to take the positive of a move to Scotland and really enjoy it.”

“I’ve played with Greg for a few years, we won the Scottish Cup together in the same team – I’ve known Tansey for years so it’s nice to have had someone along on the same journey as me!”

Looking back closer to his former home, Vincent says he was “delighted” by County’s promotion to the National League as National League North champions last year, and despite his success north of the border, adds that he’ll always have a soft spot for his first senior football club.

“I’m still good friends with Danny Pilkington, Paul Ennis, Alex Elliott, all the boys in the youth team. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the group of us being really good friends also coincided with us being a successful youth team at Edgeley Park, and a few of us also breaking into the first team.”

“That culture was created where we’d do all the chores around the ground together, and we’d bond and become really good mates just from working around the training ground and the stadium together!”

“Like I say, I’ll always have that bond with Stockport as my first club in football. I’ve been lucky to have a good career in Scotland, play for some fantastic clubs, win trophies and be able to settle with my family here – and I’ll always remember where it started for me, and always look for Stockport’s results on a weekend.”

“It’s a place that gave a lot of those young players at the time some great memories and a great upbringing into the game, and it’s club that can be really proud of it helped develop a lot of youngsters who went on to have successful playing careers.”