UTD Unscripted: A version of a dream
I’ve had some near misses in my career, but that’s football. You walk through a door and it could be into a dark room. You might walk in another door and it’s filled with bright lights. That’s just how football is.
I don’t worry myself by looking back and wondering what might have been. When I look back on what I’ve done in my football career, I just reflect on what an absolute privilege it was for me, having grown up as a Red in Moss Side, to be on the books at Manchester United between the ages of eight and 21. All my schooling, all my development was done at United from being a kid to an adult and I couldn’t have asked for a better education.
I went to a primary school in Moss Side called Holy Name, where the caretaker, Dermot Clarke, was a part-time scout for United. I stood out in our school team and I was also playing for West End Boys, a local team in Droylsden, and I was doing well for them too. You know that level at that age where you’re scoring nine goals a game? That was me, week in, week out. No-one really knows this but Man City came in for me when they saw me playing for West End. I went there for two weeks but because I was young, the professional environment didn’t really sit with me. I just wanted to play with my friends at school, on the street, in the park, you know? I told my parents I didn’t want to go to City anymore, and to be fair to them they didn’t try to force me even though it was a great opportunity at that age.
So, not long afterwards, Dermot mentioned me to United, who were apparently already aware of me, and they decided to come in.
This time around, Mum and Dad were like: “You’re not blowing this opportunity!”
So I joined United. It didn’t really register with me at first, but when I got to 11 I actually started to realise what was going on. I’m a Manc, not from the best area of the city – not from one of the best areas in the UK, actually! – but here I am playing for a massive club.
This is quality.
I stayed grounded. Coming from a humble background, I wasn’t one to think: I play for United, I can do what I want. I think that’s how I got respect from coaches and players. They could see I had the world at my feet, but I was also quite humble and grounded. You have to be. The moment you start thinking you’re it, as a young player, you’re out the door. That separates United from some other clubs. If they can sense a kid being big time, they’re quick to shut it down and make sure the player keeps his head on his shoulders.
I was quite fortunate to be at United for as long as I was and be in the youth teams right through to the Reserves. I was a regular for each age group, sometimes I’d go up and play with the older age groups. It was great. There was quite a bit of buzz about me as I was coming up through the ranks, but I didn’t let anything get to my head.
Even when Barcelona tried to sign me.
I think I was 14 at the time. Maybe 15. We had a tournament in Barcelona with loads of big guns: Real Madrid, PSG, Ajax, PSV, Barca themselves… the top European youth teams. We didn’t qualify from the group stage, but I had a good tournament. I think I scored five goals and got a few assists from four games, so even though we didn’t qualify from the group, I still got the player of the tournament award. I remember afterwards, the Barcelona staff were joking with the United staff, saying they were going to take me from them.
We got back to Manchester and the home phone started ringing. My mum answered and it was some Spanish guy. I’ve still no idea how on earth he got my home number! Dad got on the phone, I was in the back room and I could kind of hear the conversation but couldn’t make much of it out. It ended with dad saying: “Alright, he’ll get back to you.” He hung up, told me what was going on, said they wanted me and he asked me: “How are you feeling about it?”
I was still a Manc lad, still loved being at United, I was still doing well at the best club in the world, so why would I need to up sticks and leave?
A couple of weeks later I went into Carrington because sometimes, on a Monday, they used to take us out of one school lesson so we could get a feel for the first team environment. I was walking down the corridor and I saw Sir Alex coming towards me.
When you see him coming your way, you think:
Oh. My. Gosh.
What have I done wrong? Have I done badly in school? What is it?
Everything is flickering through your head.
If you’ve done something, he’s going to come down on you like a tonne of bricks.
He gets to me.
“Brandy, you alright?”
“Have you heard?”
I kind of knew what he was getting at.
“What do you mean?”
“Barcelona have enquired about you. What do you think?”
This is a test.
I could feel my heart pounding.
All I could think was: don’t say anything stupid here. If I’d started going: “Well, it’s a good opportunity…” I daren’t think what would have happened. Instead, I just told the truth.
“I’ve just let it go over my head, boss. I’m a Manchester lad, I see my career here.”
He tapped me on the head, said: “Good lad,” and walked off. Phew!
So I carried on my education at United, and there were examples everywhere to learn from. I’d look at Ole and Andy Cole when I was growing up, but Ruud van Nistelrooy was the one my group learned from the most. We had our skills coach, Rene Meulensteen, who used to come over to the youth players and he’d tell us to look at Ruud. Rene started teaching us about how Ruud used to finish. He would put on these sessions just for the strikers and sometimes Ruud would come over and talk to us. It wasn’t just a token thing, either; it was detailed. Really detailed strike sessions. He’d put cones out to mark zones in the penalty area, and he’d say: “You’re welcome to shoot from zone three, but it’s scientifically proven that if you do, you’re reducing your chance to score by 70 percent.” It actually made sense because when you try to score from those angles, you’re scoring maybe two or three goals from 30 shots. Then we’d move three yards to a different zone and suddenly we’re scoring 15 or 20 goals. Little things that separated United from the rest.
I just kept on picking up all this information, and by the time I reached the Under-18s, I was part of a really decent team under Paul McGuinness. We reached the FA Youth Cup final in 2007 and, while we lost to Liverpool on penalties in the final, we had an epic semi-final against Arsenal. We lost the first leg 1-0 at their place, then won 4-2 at Old Trafford in the last minute of extra-time. I was fortunate enough to score that night, along with Chris Fagan, Anton Ryan and Danny Welbeck.
Welbz was the one everyone spoke about in our youth team. You could always see he was talented, even as a kid. He had that Kanu swag to him, that Berbatov swag, that technique that was somehow slow but good, even though he was so quick. He was always going to be big too – his brothers were big, so he was always going that way. I went to the same school as Welbz and his brothers, so I could always see that he was going to be some player. He’s down to earth, regardless of all the success he’s had since. Winning the league with United, scoring in Madrid against Real, winning so many England caps… but he’s always gonna be Welbz. Grounded. He’s highly respected in the game even today.
He was one of my closest mates at United, but I liked loads of the lads I played with. Sam Hewson, James Chester, Richard Eckersley, Tom Cleverley, Danny Drinkwater, Fraizer Campbell, Aaron Burns, Lee Crockett, Ben Amos… when you look back, it goes to show how hard it is to judge where people are gonna be at. I know some people thought I would be a regular in the Premier League because of the buzz I’d had around me, but my path took a different turn. Players who didn’t really have the buzz around them went on to play Premier League, internationals and so on.
I think I was 19 when I realised it might not happen for me at United. We went to Malaysia for the Champions Youth Cup in 2007, where we were playing teams like Boca Juniors, Juventus, Barcelona, Flamengo, Inter… the really top teams in the world. Aubemayang was at AC Milan at that tournament, Thiago Alacantara was there, so we went there and won the tournament. They were such hard games; Barcelona were tough, Boca Juniors were just kicking the s*** out of us, then we had Juventus in the final where I scored the winner.
It was the first time that tournament had taken place, I was our joint top scorer, I’d scored the winning goal to get the trophy and I’d played probably my best tournament of my time at United. We got back to Carrington and I wanted to be more involved with the first team, but it was the same situation: train with them now and again, then go back to the Reserves. That’s probably the point I started to realise that if I’d done that on a worldwide youth stage and wasn’t getting any progress, it was probably time to start thinking about moving on.
Not that I wanted to, of course, so I didn’t totally abandon all hope. It was another two years before I left – long enough for another sign that it maybe wasn’t meant to be. Near the end of 2008/09, I just wanted to play. I’d come back from a loan at Swansea and I went to see the boss about going out again. He said: “If you want to go out and play, that’s entirely up to you.” So I went to Hereford at a time when I was quite high up the United pecking order because of injuries to the other strikers.
A couple of weeks after I’d gone to Hereford, we were in the changing rooms after training. We had Sky Sports on in the corner and United were playing Villa at Old Trafford. I looked up at the screen and just went: “S***, there’s Kiko!”
I was good mates with Kiko and still am. I saw he was coming on and I was just like: F****** hell, that could have been me! With suspensions and injuries, the boss had called Kiko up from the Reserves. He was only 17, I was 20 and had been ahead of him in the pecking order before I’d gone out on loan.
Next minute, I’m talking to my friend in the changing room and all I hear is…
Oh. My. Gosh.
That could have been me. Imagine.
Like I say, that’s football. You just have to be there at the right place at the right time and take your chance.
You’ve got to be patient, especially at United, to wait for that chance. When I think back, there were a lot of strikers during my time at the club. Sir Alex often used to name two upfront, so in front of me at different times I had Welbz, Fraizer Campbell, Berbatov, Rooney, Saha, Bellion, Manucho, Dong, Giuseppe Rossi… a lot of first team strikers when I was there. A lot. He even started moving Ronaldo central at that stage!
Rossi, by the way, never gets the coverage but he was ridiculous. I’ve never seen a striker who could finish as well as him. His striking ability was insane. Left foot, right foot, tight angle, long range, he was unreal. For me, he should have been involved in more first team games, just from his ability. I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but he should have stayed longer. I think every reserve season he played, he topped 30 goals. This isn’t just playing against reserve teams filled with U18s players, you’d have fringe first teamers playing – these weren’t mickey mouse defenders. He was ridiculous.
He left too soon, for me, but I stuck around and kept getting sniffs of first team training. I remember all those sessions, and one incident with Scholesy sticks out. (I know, it’s always Scholesy. Everyone always says Scholesy!) Sometimes we’d play Reserves v the first team and we’d always be talking amongst ourselves, looking forward to the opportunity to impress the boss. On this occasion I started, and everyone was out watching. When the physios are out, that’s when you know it’s an important session. The canteen ladies, when they’re coming out, it’s a really big deal. Their team had the likes of Rio, Scholesy, Gaz Nev, Giggsy, Ronaldo, Gibson, Jonny Evans, Evra… a strong first team. Ours was me, Sam Hewson, Rick Eckersley, Craig Cathcart, Ben Foster in net and others. It was a good reserve team against a good first team.
So, I’ve got the ball in front of all the coaches early on, Scholesy’s come in and I’ve megged him – not going for it, but I’ve tried a trick and it’s ended up going through his legs. I ran round him, he had a little swipe and missed… that attack came and went. Next time I get the ball, I control it and literally he took me off my feet. Swept me. I kicked my own ankle with my stud as a result, so I’m lying on the floor in pain, but the session’s still going on around me.
Come on guys!
A few minutes later, Scholesy had the ball and I ran towards him but didn’t slow down. I clipped his ankle. He went down and the session just stopped instantly. I was like… s***. I am f***** here. The gaffer’s going to kill me.
The first teamers – players and coaches – always say: “Watch your tackles.” I could feel everyone staring. Scholesy ended up getting up and I’ve never felt so relieved. After the game we were walking in to the boot room and everybody was all like: “Fabs, I bet you were s****** yourself then when Scholesy went down.”
None of the seniors played around if they were up against the Reserves. The culture for any youth teamer or reserves player was very much: right, you’re stepping into the big boys’ world now. Deal with how we’re going to be or don’t be here. I remember one time, Vidic wiped out both me and Cameron Stewart with one tackle. I had the ball, dribbling down the side, knocked it forward and went after it, at which point I could see Vidic coming out of the corner of my eye. Cameron got between me, Vidic and the ball and the pair of us were both wiped out. Cameron had to go in injured and I remember Vidic saying to himself: “Why everything I touch breaks?” He was an animal!
But they were great experiences, an unbelievable education.
Everywhere you looked, there was someone to learn from. I had Ole as a hero, a team-mate when he was coming back from injury and then my Reserves manager for around two years. How he is now is how he was as the Reserves manager: calm, collected. He gets his message across, but if you’re messing about then he’ll let you know about it. He’s got that side to him where if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to, he’ll tell you that. He’s got edge. If players try to get the better of him then they’ll soon find out that they can’t. You can see right now that’s he’s trying to bring back the United feeling. He bleeds United, everyone knows that. He would die for the club.
I get why. It's an incredible club. I always loved United and still do, but the time eventually came when I did have to leave.
Again, it was one of those ‘what could have been’ incidents in my career. My contract was about to expire and I was going to join Sheffield United, but then broke my metatarsal in the last minute of injury time of my last game for United’s Reserves. That put me out for five or six months, initially.
United were absolutely fantastic, though. Even though my contract had run out, they told me to come back in and do my rehab with them until everything was sorted out. The surgery meant taking bone from my hip to fill in the gap in my foot, and that wasn’t compatible, so it just didn’t take or heal. I had to get plates in there and overall that put me out for about nine months. I was too eager. I was training through the pain, thinking it was normal and part of the healing process, but I was just making it worse for myself. I got the plate in and I’ve still got it in now.
I’ve taken a break from playing to start a company called Skouted, which is aimed at giving a platform to players who need a club. It’s based on my experiences at United, takes in a lot of advice I got from the likes of Rio, Gaz Nev, Giggsy and so on, and the aim is to help players stay in love with the game if they don’t make it at their club. The press have said it’s basically Tinder for footballers looking for a club, which I can kind of see.
It required a lot of meetings, but it’s self sufficient now, so after lockdown is finished I’m hoping to get a new club myself. I’ve got a few offers to come in and train with different clubs. I’m 31, my body doesn’t feel ready to retire. I feel good when I train and I feel like I’ve still got more to give to the game. I’ll definitely be back, whether it’s League One, League Two, Conference Prem or whatever.
In football, everything has to come together for you at once. Then, when the opportunity is there you’ve got to take it. I turned down Barcelona to stay at United, I went on loan and missed my chance in United’s first team and I got a bad injury at just the wrong time which had repercussions for my next step after United. I don’t regret anything though; I’m just grateful for the chance to live out a version of my dream.