UTD Unscripted: A sense of wonder
I’ve always had this sense of wonder about my United career.
In terms of impacting on the first team, 10 appearances for Manchester United isn’t a huge amount, but then again I got to live out every kid’s dreams and something I’d fantasised about doing from the moment I got my first United kit as an eight year old.
Once my Dad handed me that kit in a pristine white box, I was a diehard United fan. My first memory of watching football was Mark Hughes scoring from that ridiculous angle in the 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup final against Barcelona. A good friend of mine was Spanish, he came round to watch it with us and he was telling me that we had no chance, they were the best team in Europe and we were going to get hammered. I was bouncing around my living room after we won that one!
Fast forward to 13 and Grimsby Town, whose youth team I was playing for, sent me on trial at Lilleshall. United’s scout, Ron Cattell, watched me play, then rang my house the next day and told me: “I knew after 10 minutes you were a United player.” I was completely blown away. He asked me to come for a trial and, after I’d stopped floating above the ground, I went for the trial at the Cliff. It went well, I was asked back. I’d played for England through Lilleshall and I remember in the first couple of weeks at United, the gaffer told us how proud he was, how well we’d done, and then reminded us that we were now on the bottom rung of the ladder and the hard work was about to start.
In that moment, you’re either fearful or you’re excited. I was excited. I wanted to prove that I was the best in my age group and good enough for the first team. If there’s a part of you that doesn’t believe you’re in the top two per cent in your age group, you’re not going to get very far at United. I always believed I was in that top bracket, no matter what anybody said. I was always playing a year up, as a striker.
For 10 years I’d been a centre-forward scoring goals for England and United, I’d scored in every round of the Youth Cup before Anfield and suddenly I wasn’t a striker anymore. That’s a big thing to process at 17. Looking back, the reality was that Eric probably did me a favour. Did I have the killer instinct to be a Manchester United striker scoring 20, 30 goals a season?
It didn’t deter me, I just had to adapt. I had to develop a range of passing, get used to receiving the ball in the middle of the field. United are excellent at removing you from your comfort zone, so I had a lot of problem-solving to do on my own. I had to learn how to become a midfielder with only the odd pointer from Eric, Kiddo and Jim Ryan; body shape, scanning before receiving the ball, things like that. In my first Youth Cup game as a midfielder I scored, and those moments of success suddenly make you think that it was perhaps a good decision. I went through a transition period to become a midfielder at 17 and 18, helped by a great loan spell at Wrexham.
I came back after Wrexham, was put straight into the first team squad and the reserve team in 1998/99. I continued to score goals in the Reserves, and I was buzzing to be training with first team players I aspired to be like; players I aspired to replace in the team. Young players at that time like Curt, myself, Cleggy, Jonno, we weren’t afraid of it. That’s the environment the gaffer wanted, where you’d go in and put yourself about. You were getting niggles from the first teamers, giving you a look if you got a bit physical, that look that says: What are you doing? You’re a kid.
We all get that look. There were other really talented players who got the look, got shouted at and crumbled. I didn’t mind it so much. Far worse is if someone turns you down for a pass if you’re open. If Scholesy sees you open and turns the other way and plays a pass somewhere else to someone under more pressure, now that’s chipping away at your confidence. I’d rather have Keaney screaming at me than Scholesy turning me down for a pass and not trusting me with the ball. The look is just part of football. As you get older you give that look to kids coming through behind you.
Quite early in the Treble season I got my first chance in the first team, away at Brondby in the Champions League. I think we were 6-1 up at the time and the gaffer turned to me and said: “Right, on you go.” The hairs on the back of my neck still stand up now. Seeing the away support was a big thing for me. A couple of my mates had travelled from Scunthorpe and were trying to get my attention when I was warming up – it was just incredible. Standing on that sideline, waiting for your moment and then getting out there in that jersey… it’s an unbelievable feeling.
I was on the bench for the 3-3 draw at Barcelona later in the group stage too. Butty got a kick early on, the gaffer sent me out to warm up and that really was squeaky bum time! Butty recovered, but after the initial shock I was dying to get on there. Wes is on already, go and join your mate. Get out there and go for it. What a game to be involved in, even on the bench.
That year was interesting for me. I was starting to be a part of squads when I got a bad back injury. My momentum was halted in a heartbeat, it took me a few weeks to get back and then you get a little bit out of sight, out of mind. It’s fine to be back and doing well in the Reserves, but the first team rolls on as it rolls on. I remember getting back in the first-team squad later in the season but I found it difficult to push back in until I hit a run of form in the Reserves where I was scoring every week and training with the first team. Missing out on the squad for the FA Cup final and Champions League final was a bit of a sour ending because we were low on midfielders and I felt like I was really getting to where I needed to be.
That was kind of exacerbated when, in pre-season straight after the Treble, I started virtually every game. On the way to Wembley for the Charity Shield, Steve McClaren showed me a newspaper story about Kieran Dyer joining Newcastle and said: “Dyer’s gone for £6million – what does that make you worth, Willo?” That was a boost! I quickly came back down to earth when I found out I was back on the bench against Arsenal, having been told I’d be starting, and I was annoyed not to get on. The gaffer was making me wait, and I finally got to make my first start the following month.
Croatia Zagreb at Old Trafford. Our opening Champions League game as reigning European champions.
My mum and dad were in the crowd. You’re very aware that they’re there. I believed that I had earned the right to have an opportunity at that point, but I won’t deny that I was nervous. Take it back to arriving in the stadium and it's like: I'm starting tonight. I'm playing. This is this is my opportunity. Of course you get butterflies, anybody that says they don't get nervous, I don't believe them. It's just a sign of you wanted to go out there and perform and it’s a sign that you care. I still felt relatively calm and well-prepared because that was the nature of the team, the way we trained and the way the gaffer filled you with confidence. Again, Steve helped me beforehand, saying that he knew it had taken a while but I was finally getting what I deserved.
There’s a smell and a feel… just something really special about Old Trafford on a Tuesday or Wednesday night in the Champions League. I enjoyed the warm-up, getting a feel for the ball, for the surface… I’d played on it loads of times as a Reserve-team player and I’d been out there maybe on the on the bench, run up and down the touchline but this time was different. I'm gonna start a Champions League game. When you get back into the locker room, my process was just getting my own head straight and thinking about how I was going to play, what I was going to try to do. No real last-minute instructions from the gaffer other than: “Go out there enjoy yourself.”
Then the walk down towards the tunnel and then when you get into the tunnel, that's when you stand there and it's an interesting feeling. Having that jersey on, it just breeds confidence. You’re stood there, chest out, ready to play. This is the biggest club in the world and you're a part of it. I think I had my dream midfield in that one: Scholesy, Becks, Giggsy… what a privilege that is alone. Keaney was missing through injury. At the time you feel like you deserve to be there, getting your chance in his absence.
Then the music starts to play. You start to walk, come out of the tunnel and this atmosphere just hits you. The Champions League music is playing, the hairs on the back of your neck are standing up and then it's into focus mode. Then it’s into everything you’ve trained for because if you’re in any other space in your head, you're not gonna be there. It's hard to explain, but everything else just fades into the background. There’s 50-odd thousand people there, but you're more aware of what your team-mates are saying at that point. Then it’s kick-off and you’re straight into role and responsibility: go win the ball back or get on the ball and make your passes, look for opportunities to play forward and you’re constantly processing, just trying to play your game, trying to play your part for the team.
Jaap and Henning gave me a lot of the ball early on, I picked out a few nice forward passes into Yorkie and Coley, but it was a tougher game than we expected. Ossie Ardiles brought a well-organised team. I was against Igor Biscan playing in the middle, he was a big old unit, two good feet, tough to get around, but he was anchoring the midfield and we were in a flat four, so tactically I look back at it again. We were in a straight-up 4-4-2, we’re better than them but they’ve got all this time on the ball playing 3-5-2 because of Biscan at the base and they rotated as well. We hadn’t moved on into any type of 4-3-3 system at that stage, hadn’t played that way at all and we came up against this technically good, well-organised Croatian team, and we found it difficult for a while. Every time we went forward clearly they were in awe. You’ve got Becks bombing down the right, Giggsy down the left… you’re looking at the new European champions, so we look like we could carve them open but we never created anything really clear cut. Lots of good play until the final third and no real cutting edge.
For me it was a game to have a real impact, while maybe for some of the others who had been there and won it a few months earlier it was just the first Champions League game of the new season, so there was a difference. I was trying to have this impact and it probably, in all honesty, meant more to me and Cleggy than maybe others in the team. Not that it affected their performance, but psychologically it’s hard not to see it that way.
I remember loving every minute, even though I was taken off after an hour. I remember performing well and getting some good press off the back of it. One of the quotes was: “He's not a Roy Keane, he's more cultured.” I’ve got that printed out and highlighted in yellow marker so I can put it in front of Keaney one day. Perhaps not. But I got some good press and that really propelled me forward in terms of how I was perceived. It didn't propel me forward into a run of games as I’d hoped just because you're at United, trying to remove Scholes, Keane and Butt. In that situation, you can learn so much from them but trying to get in the team is a nightmare. I felt like those guys were fit ALL THE TIME.
I'll be honest. At that time I think I was playing in the Reserves and training with the first team at a level I never really got back to. Being at United, you feel a certain way, you’re filled with self-belief. It can hinder you sometimes because you expect too much as a player. I wasn't as realistic as I needed to be at times. Being candid, my mindset was: why am I not playing? I think I'm better than this player, I think I should be in at this particular moment.
You need consistent games to make your mark. I've also seen players go through dips and poor spells while they’ve been playing, but continued to play because there’s a natural process of having a dip and then kicking on, having played through that patch. That chance just didn’t arise for me. Watford away in the league towards the end of 1999/2000, I was taken off at half-time, so I came off thinking: Wow, I must have been terrible today. I’ve watched it back and there was another player who gave the ball away about 20 times in the first half! Even taking away the subjectivity, I've looked at runs I'm making into the box, things I'm doing on the ball, challenges I’m making, but we find ourselves 1-0 down at half-time and I was the first to go. For a long, long time I thought I'd had an average game against Watford. Andy Gray in commentary referenced me: “Wilson’s the only one getting in the box at the minute,” I was maybe a yard in front or behind or maybe my timing was off, but either way it's a positive. Today, as a young kid showing that energy and effort and understanding, you’re given time. Instead, it was: Willo off, Yorkie, on you go.
Yorkie scored and we won the game, so the gaffer was justified. He could see it as the right choice. Yorkie on, Willo off and we won the game. In terms of player development it was a tough school back then.
Same season, Sturm Graz at home. I felt like I was doing well in the game, getting on the ball, trying to play a couple of passes but I gave the ball away two or three times. I was trying to do the right thing, I felt, but then Keaney had a pop at me, I had a pop back and then in the dressing room at half-time, the Gaffer says: “Willo, give it away one more time and you’re coming off.” I had my petulant head on, just p***** off that again there were other players not performing, I was trying to do the right things and make things happen but I’m getting dug out for two passes. Within five minutes of kick-off at the start of the second half, I got the ball and tried to fizz one over the top to Giggsy. The full-back nicked it out of play and I’m thinking: ‘That was half a yard off being right on his foot and he was away.’ Giggsy even clapped the pass.
I look over and the subs go out.
That was me. Five minutes later, off I come. Tough school, like I say, but standards were standards. I certainly think there was a skewed perception at times. Maybe because players had played a certain amount of games they were afforded the bad passes. At the time I didn’t take it as well as I could. The gaffer explained to me the next day that he’d needed to teach me a lesson, which I now completely understand. I love the gaffer to bits – he’s been such a major influence on my career and life, characteristics I’ve developed and experiences I’ve had – but I was young and itching for more chances. I signed a new contract in 2001 but that summer, after Veron arrived at United and when Middlesbrough came in and offered me more money, I ended up leaving for the wrong reasons.
Of course I look back on that. I wonder: would I ever have removed Scholes or Keane at their peak? Probably not, but I’d have loved more of a chance to try. It’s bad timing yet amazing timing because I was around in that of era players that is still spoken about today in the best possible way. I'm proud to have been a part of that group of players. I think the gaffer only used 225 players in 25 years, so to be one of those names is a privilege and an honour.
That particular era was a really tough time to be a young lad at United because you were judged so harshly, but I wouldn’t swap it for anything. It still serves me today. It builds resilience, it challenges you.
My wife always asks me: “When you fail at something, why you have any fear of moving on to the next thing? When something goes wrong with your company you just keep ploughing on.” But that’s exactly what you do: put one foot in front of the other and on you go. Have a look at why it went wrong, but it can’t knock your belief or confidence. I've been through enough of those learning moments at United alone, being challenged and tested every single day, but that's life, right? On and off the field, if you're gonna be successful, whatever you do, you have to be challenged to learn and grow. That’s what United did for me. The gaffer, Eric and the other coaches were all on message: don’t be offended that I’m demanding more, don’t be offended that I’m critiquing what you’re doing, don't live in your comfort zone and be satisfied having a good game today. Training’s tomorrow and what are you going to do to show me your worth then?
They challenge you, then nurture you, then break you, then challenge you again, so you’re getting all these experiences. Then, when your character is pieced back together, you’ve got resilience, leadership, accountability, humility, vulnerability. You’re pieced back together and you’re better, you’re more of what you want to be. You’re better than you were yesterday.
Of course there are still times that I wonder about what could have been because it didn’t work out for me as a player at Old Trafford, but everything I do now is still rooted in what I learned at United.