A Rochdale prospect possessing height, power and no lack of ability, Nyal Bell’s exit from Spotland cast a cold reality over his young career. Over two years on, the 21-year-old is at another North West outfit with a Football League name – his hometown team, in fact – and the Stockport County summer signing is out to make it a return to more prosperous levels for player and club alike.
Presently perched just outside the Vanarama National League North play-off places, Stockport’s opening 15 games have been a mixed bag of six wins, five draws and four defeats. The Hatters, however, are ten unbeaten in all, and doubly buoyant after putting Yeovil Town out of the FA Cup last Saturday in Somerset.
Despite the two-division gap, ‘giant-killing’ doesn’t seem nearly a fitting term to apply to the result, for a club that spent 106 years as a League side. Over seven years on from their relegation, and five from a further tumble into the sixth tier, last season hinted at a possible first step back for the Greater Manchester club to what is now the EFL.
Upon relegation to their current level in April 2013, vice-chairman at the time, Spencer Fearn, said the club’s move to part-time was ‘very much a temporary measure, which we will review when we win promotion.’ Last season was the closest County have come yet to that, with a six-game winning run the catalyst for achieving a play-off place (5th) for the first time since relegation. The qualifying round, and to Chorley, was where it ended, but hopes are high that Jim Gannon’s side can at the very least be there again when the business end presents itself in the coming months.
It was Jason Oswell leading the line in 2017/18, and he did so with distinction, plundering 29 goals (24 in the league) before moving to League Two Morecambe this summer. For the current man up top in County colours, his campaign was split between a loan at crisis-hit Chester FC, sparse match time at parent club Gateshead, and most promisingly, a prolific late-season stay at Alfreton Town.
When the summer arrived for Nyal Bell, Stockport had come calling, heralding a homecoming for the youngster.
“I was born in St. Mary’s Hospital, in Manchester, but I’ve lived round Stockport all my life,” the 6-foot-2-inch frontman explained. “Being around Stockport, seeing the fans, it’s not where it needs to be; it’s a Football League club.”
“There’s a really professional feel to the set-up and I really enjoy being in that environment. It reminds me of being at Rochdale, with that professional environment.
“There’s a great feel to the club.”
The phrase ‘to kick on’ is by now ingrained in the game, and many players will cite it, because it is a place where hope and that belief of better days being just around the corner both live. For Nyal, though, it seems to come now with a substantial degree of credence.
In a team picking up some impressive results – not least the Matty Warburton-inspired 3-0 at home to previous leaders Chorley – Nyal has been a penalty-area protagonist. The final piece in the 4-2-3-1 currently deployed, he claimed one of the three goals at Yeovil last weekend, taking him up to four for the campaign, with six assists for his fellow boys in blue.
Under the stewardship of Jim Gannon, a bona fide stalwart as a Hatters player and now in his third tenure as manager, Nyal feels Stockport can be the ones to benefit from what he learned but could not fully apply in time at Rochdale before his release.
“I feel like I’m a more rounded player than I was back then. Back then, I was even more raw than I am now.
“The manager here had a very long chat with me in the summer. He definitely cares about all his players.
“He sometimes talks to you and sometimes talks to the group as a collective.”
While very obviously different, there are some similarities to be drawn between Gannon and the gaffer Nyal had 19 miles away at Rochdale, Keith Hill. Neither are shy to state their case, and both briefly worked as high as the Championship (with Peterborough and Barnsley, respectively), before later returning to the clubs they are undoubtedly synonymous with.
Under Hill, Nyal was a Dale debutant at 17 against Coventry City in League One, though his manager admitted soon after that his young protégé had been heading off on ‘the wrong track’ not long before. Known as one of the lower leagues’ brightest managerial personalities, the former Blackburn Rovers defender is a character Nyal is glad to have met on his way in the game, realising now the ‘why’ to his way.
“He always believed in me, but it was a bit of a love-hate relationship. He gave me a lot of tough love but I think that’s put me in good stead for now at Stockport.
“It’s given me that hard work ethic and I know now what it takes to push up the leagues again. He said ‘always run in behind,’ and ‘keep getting your fitness up.’
“He’d always have a laugh with everyone, he’s always joking around, but he’s got a serious side. He’s a good manager.”
Another comment from Hill back then was that ‘Nyal Bell hasn’t even reached base camp’ in terms of realising his potential. Admittedly, it is still just three months into the season, though there is a sense of a penny having dropped.
Professional endeavour aside, mellow is generally the way with Nyal, whose lighter side (and perhaps his resolve) was called into action as a new signing at Stockport. He tackled his initiation song on the team bus like a seasoned centre-half spying a 50-50, with his ‘Three Little Birds’ (Bob Marley and the Wailers) effort getting an airing on the club’s Twitter after he was the most popular choice on a supporters’ vote.
A healthy dose of camaraderie and support has been paramount to the positive start he has enjoyed at Edgeley Park.
“Everyone gets on well. There’s quite a few older players who are good with you, like Paul Turnbull, Matty Warburton’s quite experienced, Ash Palmer, Ben Hinchcliffe.
“So there’s quite a few.”
The Hatters’ comeback FA Cup win at Yeovil sets up a second-round trip to National League Barnet or League One Bristol Rovers, as County get set to contest this stage of the competition for the first time since 2009/10, when they themselves were a third-tier club. Back in the qualifying rounds this season, it was Nyal who bagged the winner at South Shields in stoppage time, as he expertly dispatched a free-kick on the swivel to mark a happy return to Tyneside for the former Gateshead player.
His cracker from the edge of the box at home to Leamington and a precise finish in a crowded penalty area up at Darlington have offered further optimism for fans, players and coaching staff alike. Stockport are the seventh club he has represented, though only his third on a permanent basis, and each side he has worn the shirt for has presented something different, but equally beneficial.
“Gateshead was a really good experience. I moved away from home for the first time, so I had two years up there by myself.
“It was a really good experience, I’m really glad I went. Chester was difficult because they had so many managers when I was there.
“I wasn’t playing as much at Chester, but it’s still a really good club.”
Growing up a Manchester United fan, Nyal’s current club were a division above United’s rivals Man City in 1998/99, notably beating them in Division One the last time they met competitively, as John Hardiker’s well-remembered double sank Kevin Keegan’s title-bound team at Edgeley Park. Away from such lofty levels of League football, Nyal has had two spells on loan at Chester; one from Rochdale and one from Gateshead.
It was, however, the first loan of his young career when the uncertainty began to register, as he explains when reflecting on how he found having to leave his first club.
“When I was approaching the end of my career at Rochdale, I went on loan to Droylsden, and I was kind of thinking from there, ‘oh, where’s my career going?’ Luckily enough, Gateshead snapped me up.
“It was a bit of a hard period for me (leaving Rochdale), but luckily I’m at Stockport now, which is a great club. I just want to kick on and help them get back up the leagues.”
From Gateshead, Nyal also had a temporary stint at Altrincham. On loan at Alfreton, though, he showed particular promise playing under former Lincoln City boss Chris Moyses, impressing enough to have his loan extended until the end of last season.
He scored four times for the Reds and credits them as hugely significant in his career so far.
“During the times before Alfreton, I kind of felt like I was finding my feet. I went to Alfreton and did really well there, scored a few goals and played quite well, and then obviously from there Stockport signed me.
“I think Alfreton was like the change where I started to grow up. I felt like it was the point where I started to improve because I got lots of game time.
“That put me in really good stead for joining Stockport.”
Seasoned pros like Brian Barry-Murphy and Ian Henderson always had a word of advice to offer at Rochdale, and the hope is that the benefit of such tutelage will help bring to reality that player Keith Hill always suspected was in there. When Jim Gannon signed Nyal, he said how all the staff who had worked with him previously, as well as Stockport’s own scouts, saw unquestionable potential.
In the second tier as recently as 2002, County are the club on his doorstep he has grown up knowing all about, and he would love to be an instigator in a longed-for climb back for the 1997 League Cup semi-finalists. Appreciating the backing from supporters, he believes it is a case of right club, right time.
“I don’t see the fans that much when I’m out and about, but when I’m at the games they’re always saying ‘keep up the good work’ and stuff, so it’s really good to get that support. I feel like it’s just a matter of gelling as a team.
“I know it’s a bit into the season but we’ve got good quality players so we just need to keep improving as a team, I think. The manager’s always giving me stuff to improve on and he’s really helped develop my game and given me an identity.
“It’s a good relationship with him.”
It is Brackley Town next in the sights, the side four points ahead (having also played two games more) who are sitting in that final play-off spot. Some players can present quite the code for coaches to crack, with complex lives away from the sport as well, but generally with Nyal, there is nothing all that out of the ordinary about him he says.
“I like to go to the gym and stuff. I like to see some of my friends and just relax and chill out.
“I’ve got one sister; I get on really well with her. It’s quite a big family; I’ve got a lot of cousins.
“We’re all Manchester-based. Football’s my main talent really.
“I’ve not really got many hidden talents, to be fair!”
Interview/article by @chris_brookes