Vauxhall Motors, Southport, Morecambe, Tranmere Rovers. Few fans would be excited by a new signing with the above clubs on his CV. Hearts’ recruitment of Cole Stockton is therefore a step into the unknown.
The young striker has arrived at Tynecastle with an unfashionable background, prompting some to question how he will fare jumping from non-league English football to the Scottish Premiership. A chat with Micky Mellon would certainly put them at ease.
The Tranmere manager did everything possible to keep Stockton at Prenton Park for another tilt at gaining promotion from the National League. As a player, Mellon was a Hearts trainee and a colleague of Craig Levein’s before forging his career in England. He knows the appeal of Tynecastle and the lure of Edinburgh. When Levein, now Hearts’ director of football, called Mellon to say he was in talks with the 23-year-old striker, the battle to keep Stockton became a forlorn task for Tranmere.
Mellon outlined some of the attributes the 6ft 1ins forward will bring to Gorgie. “He’s a good size and he uses his physique very well. He knows how to use his frame and his strength,” explained Mellon. “He knows what he’s good at and he sticks to it, which is also one of his strengths.
“Cole is aware he’s a strong boy and he makes himself available for people to get the ball into his feet. He will get a hold of the ball and he’s got an unbelievable strike on him. He’s a good finisher and he’s always looking to get better. Overall, he’s a really good lad.
“When I was at Shrewsbury last year, we were watching him while he was on loan at Morecambe from Tranmere. We got to know him quite well. When I came to Tranmere [last October], I brought him straight back from his loan because we liked the qualities he had.
“He’s one of those players who, to get the best from him, you need to play to his strengths. If you start putting balls into channels, that’s not his game at all. He’s a big lad but you wouldn’t call him an old-fashioned target man. You can get the ball into his feet and he’ll keep hold of it. He’s a strong guy with a good shot on him, but he’s not going to run channels for you and things like that.
“The team needs to be set up to get the ball into a front man’s feet around the 18-yard box. Or you can get it up to him from deeper areas and he’ll bring people into play.”
Hearts handed Stockton a two-year contract believing he will prosper further. Tranmere had also tabled a deal, while the number of other suitors in England’s lower leagues had increased after the player’s spell on loan with League Two Morecambe.
“Yeah, we wanted to keep him,” admitted Mellon. “He’s young and I still thought there was a lot of work to be done with him. You get to know players and you think about the next stage of their development with you. We worked hard to get him going down here.
“You’re always disappointed when you lose a player but it’s part of modern-day football. It’s hard to develop players these days because they don’t really hang around for long. It’s the same with managers, really. It was a bit of a disappointment but you know people are going to move around. It’s just something you have to adjust to.
“We didn’t know he was definitely going to Hearts. To be fair to Craig Levein, he lifted the phone to tell us they were talking to Cole. I used to play at Hearts as a kid. I was an apprentice there when I was 16 or 17 and then I left to go to England. I know Craig from way back then.
“He was good enough to pick up the phone and tell us the situation. He said: ‘The boy is coming up to speak to us today.’ We knew if he went to Scotland we wouldn’t get any compensation, but Hearts were very good about it. As good as they could be, actually. We understood the situation but they gave us our place and told us what was happening. I’ve known Craig since I was 16 and he’s a good guy.”
Levein stated three weeks ago during an end-of season media conference that Hearts had begun using new recruitment methods to find players at all levels of the game based on their statistics. Stockton may be the first test of this system, coming from the fifth tier of English football as an unknown quantity.
History denotes that proper, astute scouting of non-league teams down south can unearth proverbial gems from time to time. Louis Moult joined Motherwell from National League Wrexham and has scored 30 goals in 69 appearances at Fir Park – leading to interest from Rangers amongst others.
Lyle Taylor played at the same level before joining Falkirk in 2012, where he scored 24 goals in 34 games to earn himself a lucrative move to Sheffield United just 12 months later.
Jamie Vardy is the most high-profile example of a potential superstar being plucked from relative obscurity. He joined Leicester City from non-league Fleetwood Town and is now a full England internationalist with a Premier League winner’s medal tucked away in his trophy cabinet at home.
Key to Stockton’s progress will be handling the step up. Away trips with Tranmere were to places like Dover Athletic and Dagenham & Redbridge. Now, those journeys will be to hostile cauldrons like Celtic Park and Ibrox to play in front of 50,000 and 60,000 crowds.
“That’ll be interesting,” said Mellon. “You’ve got to be careful where you put both leagues. There’s a lot of talent in the National League, as you see with the amount of players who move into the Football League and go higher.
“Scottish managers are trying to benchmark our leagues all the time, and we’re trying to benchmark your leagues. That’s to see where we believe both places sit for recruitment purposes. It will be interesting to see how Cole does and where he fits in.
“He’s young, he’s played a lot of football now so he’ll be able to adapt. He has a lot of the necessary tools to be able to do that. He’ll go into Hearts, I’m sure he’ll deal with whatever gets thrown at him and be a success.
“He’s still very young so he’s still very ambitious. He’ll want to go up there and do really well. He’s in a completely new footballing world now up in Scotland. Playing at Tynecastle, he’ll really enjoy it. That atmosphere can only get the best out of people.”
Mining for Cole deep in the lower reaches of English football may just prove to be a shrewd move by Hearts.