Taking the right Turn
Ben Collins talks to Stockport's longest-serving player Paul Turnbull as part of our League Two spotlight.
Last Updated: 21/12/10 5:20pm
It was too good to resist. While Stockport County's academy players tucked into lunch at the club's Manor Farm training ground, two car seats were spotted in the corner of the canteen. 'You start them young here eh?!'
Stockport County do indeed start them young, and few will have started younger than Paul Turnbull, who has been coming to Manor Farm to train with County's academy since the age of 11.
He made his youth-team debut in November 2004 and by the end of the season was handed his first-team bow. Aged 16 years and 97 days when he came off the bench against Wrexham in April 2005, Turnbull was still at school and he remains County's youngest-ever player.
The exploits of Turnbull and fellow academy product Harry Worley attracted interest from Chelsea and, although the Premier League giants managed to lure Worley to London in the summer of 2005 before he made a first-team appearance for County, Turnbull opted to stay put.
Initially a striker, Turnbull was moved to centre-midfield and had to overcome a broken leg before making his second first-team appearance in October 2007 under former County player Jim Gannon, who returned as manager in January 2006.
"I had a few injuries but when Jim Gannon came back he put me back into midfield and that's when I made my name really," Turnbull told skysports.com.
"I played a reserves game in midfield and Jim thought I did really well. I carried on playing in midfield until he gave me a chance in the first team and I did well enough for him to keep me in there."
Having made a successful return to the first team during the 2007/08 season, Turnbull helped County earn promotion from League Two.
He had a loan stint at non-league Altrincham late in the campaign but on his return went straight back into the team and was in the starting line-up as County beat Rochdale 3-2 to win the play-off final at Wembley.
The Hatters lasted two years in League One before being relegated back into the fourth tier last season. Turnbull renewed acquaintances with Worley in September as County won 1-0 at his new club Oxford, and the two have followed very different career paths since Worley left for Chelsea.
While Turnbull has gone on to become Stockport's skipper this season and made his 100th league appearance last month at just 21, Worley never played a first-team game for Chelsea, has been loaned out five times and made an unsuccessful permanent move to Leicester before joining Oxford this summer.
The County midfielder is therefore confident he made the right decision, saying: "Harry Worley went but I just wanted to play first-team football and I didn't think I'd have the chance to do that at Chelsea. It never got as far as me talking with Chelsea but I've no regrets.
"Harry's been round a few clubs and struggled to settle down anywhere but I've been at Stockport for 10 years now, I've got over 100 first- team games under my belt and hopefully there'll be many more to come.
"It was a great feeling to reach 100 games because not many players reach that landmark at my age. It was a great honour for me and the club."
Turnbull's lifestyle would be very different had he not shunned the bright lights of London. He could be training with the likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba right now, sampling the glitz and glamour of being with a Premier League club. But instead of hopping from one VIP area to another, last month he was invited to open a school toilet!
Having been appointed the new captain, Turnbull got the call when St Thomas' primary school in Heaton Chapel put an unusual request into the club. They had just refurbished their toilets, complete with tiles depicting famous footballers, and Turnbull was happy to make an appearance - especially when he saw what was in store.
"All I knew was that I was going to open a school toilet," he said.
"So, I turned up, cut the tape and went in, and there was my name on the wall next to Kaka, Tevez and Giggs! It was a bit weird really but it's good to do these things and I really enjoyed it."
Not many footballers at any level would be willing to make such an appearance, let alone any of those Chelsea stars, but that shows how Turnbull has kept his feet on the ground and remains down to earth.
Staying at Stockport and playing regular senior football at such a young age has allowed him to mature quicker both as a player and a person.
Manager Paul Simpson had little hesitation handing Turnbull the captain's armband after defender Danny Swailes suffered a cruciate knee ligament injury in October. But the Handforth-born midfielder was also a natural choice given that, despite being just 21, he is now the longest-serving player at Stockport.
Turnbull has already experienced promotion and relegation while the club spent 14 months in administration until June. Such has been the turnover in personnel that he is even the only survivor from County's play-off success just two years ago and Simpson is Turnbull's fourth manager after Chris Turner gave him his debut in 2005.
"I've been through a lot - administration, a few managers - the lot.
But you've just got to get on with it, do your job and do your best for the team," he said.
"Thankfully there's been a few older heads in the team who have helped us younger lads through it. Some of them have been through it before and told us just to take it on the chin and get on with it.
"I've seen lots of faces come and go, and I'm the only player still here from when we were at Wembley so that shows how much it's changed in terms of players and managers. But apart from people coming and going, not much has changed around the place over the last 10 years."
Turnbull is just one of a host of young players to come through the County academy in recent years but much of the player turnover has been enforced. The departure of top scorer Liam Dickinson after the promotion campaign of 2007/08 was inevitable and he was sold to Derby for £750,000 that summer.
The club's financial problems then began to set in, though, and the likes of Jim McNulty, Gary Dicker (both Brighton), Tommy Rowe
(Peterborough) and Anthony Pilkington (Huddersfield) all had to go during 2009 to balance the books.
Gannon managed to keep County up in 2008/09 but they went into administration in April 2009 and he was replaced by Gary Ablett, who conducted himself admirably during a dismal campaign.
With limited resources, the former Liverpool defender and reserves coach had to soldier on with a threadbare squad and although the Hatters were rock-bottom of League One for most of last season, Ablett urged his side to continue to play good football.
After several proposed takeovers had fallen through, County finally came out of administration in June. Given all the upheaval in recent years, many would have been happy merely for some stability at Edgeley Park this season - both on and off the pitch - but a bullish Turnbull feels County should be setting their sights higher.
"At the start of the season, the gaffer came in and said his main aim was to keep us in the Football League. But with some of the players we've got, I think we're well capable of finishing in the top half, maybe even the play-offs," he said.
"The way we've been playing, we've been going into some games as underdogs but we've managed to come away with a result so we know we can do it - we've just got to prove it every week. At Bury we played very well. We got an early goal and defended well. We even had a few more chances and hit the bar, so we know we're capable of doing it, we've just got to do it more often.
"It sometimes works like that, that when you play teams at the top end you seem to play better - and we played bottom of the league the other week (Hereford) and got beat 5-0 so that says it all!"Although Stockport's 1-0 win at high-flying Bury last month was only their fourth in the league, Turnbull has enjoyed better luck in front of goal this term.
Having scored just four goals in his career before this season, he scored both in a 2-2 draw against Aldershot in September before scoring another at Burton the following week.
"Last season I wanted to score a few more goals but it didn't quite happen," he said. "I had to play more defensively, but this season the gaffer's got us playing a 4-4-2 and I've got a chance to go forward. I've started pushing on a bit more and I've bagged three goals now.
"I've been playing in the middle with Greg Tansey and Ant Pulis, who's on loan from Southampton, and Greg's scored a few so it's been working well."
Stockport head into Christmas without a win in four league games since beating Bury and lie just two points above the relegation zone, but Turnbull is hoping they can freshen up the squad in the transfer window.
"It's been a tough year," he said. "With the budget the gaffer had, we've pretty much had to stick with what we've got.
"We got a few young lads in on loan and we managed to get some more experienced players, which always helps. But hopefully in January the club can find a bit of money and bring some fresh players in.
"We're on limited numbers at Stockport and there's lots of young lads, but hopefully the gaffer will get a few in and we can start winning a few more games.
"We're hoping for a bit of stability this season, to stay in the league. Not many players have got a contract for next season so I think the gaffer will shuffle things about in the summer. Hopefully he'll bring some fresh players in and we can aim for promotion next season."
Turnbull is one of those players out of contract in the summer and although he would like to extend his 10-year association with County, he accepts that nothing lasts forever.
"Hopefully we can agree a new deal, I'm a local lad and Stockport's a good club," he said. "But every player has to move on at some point and if I do, hopefully I'll move on to bigger and better things."