UTD Unscripted: Going back to the start
Some journeys are very linear and take you from point A to point B in a straight line. Others, like mine, unfold in more of a curve or, as I like to think, like the shape of a ball.
I’m back here at Manchester United, nearly 30 years after I first joined the club as a player, doing a coaching job which I always felt was my destiny; a job which, at least in part, bears a striking resemblance to the one my father started over 45 years ago.
When you’re a young lad, you’re ultimately very influenced by the people around you and the things your dad does, especially. My dad, Mick, ran a boxing gym in Ashton-Under-Lyne, so fitness was a big part of my upbringing. For me it was always all about sports and activities, whether it was going to karate, learning how to box or playing on the field… even at home, I’d always be using our chin-up bar and playing with the free weights we had. The first lesson my dad taught me was how to pick a weight from the floor and move it to somewhere else in perfect form. What I didn’t realise until I was much older is this was the start of his training principles and something he carried with him through his and ultimately my career.
There was a competition at my dad’s gym to find ‘Tameside’s Strongest Man’, with various age groups, and I won the pull up section in the under-12s competition at six years old. Physical training within the general public back then was more about how you made your body look not how to make the sportsperson the best he or she could be. With my father being a coach in various sports by this point, including football, I ended up doing some intuitive and explorative training – boxing, sprinting and so on – that taught me to use my whole body as a utensil and he always used the same mantra towards me: “Get in the power position.”
I wasn’t an outstanding footballer. I played for my local team, Dukinfield Tigers, then my town team, Tameside Boys, then a decent team in Droylsden called Droylsden Boys, but I wasn’t in an Academy at a professional club. At 14, I started doing Olympic weightlifting and that’s what gave me the physical edge over other players my age. Power became my ultimate weapon. I came third in the national championships at Olympic lifting.
Of course, I was still playing football, improving my skillset, using that physicality to be quite dominant on the pitch even though I was quite small. It got to a point where I had to make a decision at 15 about what I was going to do. The only option, really, was to go to college to study. I took Biology, PE and Business - I loved these subjects and all these years later they are still my favourite areas to learn about.
Then, through all this endeavour and training, a miracle happened: I was approached by a scout called Bryan Poole who had seen me in a few games. A central defender who was going to be at United’s Academy had picked up an injury, so there was a position to be filled. Even though I was playing central midfield at the time, he wanted to give me the opportunity to see if I could do it at centre-half, although I was a small lad. So, even though it could have been a huge disadvantage for me, being put in at centre-half, all the training and the lifting gave me something different and made me stand out. In December 1991 or 1992 I played my first game for Dave Bushell for the Under-16s away at Blackpool.
I thought to myself: This might be my one and only chance. I’ll leave it all out there. So I tried to do absolutely everything: I scored a goal; I took corners, free-kicks and throw-ins; I was talkative, I expressed my power – I just took the opportunity. I ended up signing a YTS after playing another six times for the Under-16s. I found out later that Dave Bushell had decided they were going to sign me after that first game, not because of my football ability or even my physicality, but because I looked him in the eye when he was speaking to me. That maturity convinced him to take a chance on me and help me develop as a player.
Once I joined United, it was very, very difficult. I remember my first day. You turn up, get your kit, you’re proud of where you are, you get the badge, your number – I was 56, I’ll never forget it – and you’re in this man’s world all of a sudden. You see Bryan Robson and all those players walking around the Cliff. Looking back now, the timing was a great watershed from the old school to the new generation of professionals about to embark. The ‘Class of ’92’ were two years above me, there was a great buzz around them and I was following in their shadows. I didn’t realise that there was also a hidden glass ceiling about to be created above my head, but my journey had begun.
The B-team, which was the Under-17s, was led by Pop Robson, while Eric Harrison took the Under-18s, known as the A-team. As soon as you got there, you realised it was us versus them, whether it was in the dressing room or on the pitch. Pop set us up to play against the Under-18s and Eric was preparing them for the Youth Cup. Every day was physically and mentally exhausting, just because the level of the second years was so high. I remember losing 12-0, 13-0 the first couple of weeks – they were like the Red Arrows flying past you – but as us first years matured, got a bit fitter, we started to find a way to firstly unnerve the second years, and then to dominate them and beat them. I’ll never forget that feeling. If we can beat them, we can beat anyone. That year group, the ‘Class of ’94’, ultimately didn’t succeed. Then we became second years and the cycle continued. The new first years had to go through the same gruelling but essential process.
The ‘Class of ‘95’ had an average team. However, we went on to win the FA Youth Cup in 1995, which was a huge deal for the club. The Youth Cup was preparation for playing men’s football: win at all costs, it wasn’t all about development and the process. At the end of the day, it’s not just about how well you can play; it’s about winning. You need that winning mentality, that killer instinct. If you couldn’t reach the standards then you were let go; there wasn’t a golden pathway for everybody.
I started doing well when I began working with Jim Ryan. Jim’s philosophy is an important one: allow people’s inner thought process and individuality to come out, otherwise you’re just a soldier in an army. Jim’s regime allowed the players to fail. However, if successful and if you were willing to learn and improve in the required aspects of the game the rewards were amazing. If you wanted to work hard then the opportunity was there, but if you didn’t then it would slip away. I did well under Jim because his ways suited me, while others preferred Eric.
I was playing well. I loved the game, the battle, the unknown end point and the fear of not fulfilling my potential drove me. However, I was in shock when I made my first debut in 1996 at Middlesbrough in the Premier League as I hadn’t been around the first team that much. I was probably a little oblivious to the amount of injuries the first team had and when Brian Kidd told me to get ready to travel with the squad, I was super excited. I thought: wow, what an opportunity to be around the squad as they prepare for a Premier League match; listen in to an Alex Ferguson team talk, understand the nervous tension in the changing room and see all the process happening right in front of my eyes.
It was the first time I’d travelled with the first team. I walked into the changing room prior to the game, and from thinking that I was just a part of the travelling squad or maybe a substitute at best, I saw the shirts hanging up: Schmeichel, Cantona, Keane, Beckham, Clegg…
I’ve never been so happy and so scared at the same time.
Suddenly, this arm was put around me.
“Congratulations son, this is a great opportunity. This is every child’s dream: the chance to play for Manchester United in the Premier League.”
It was Sir Bobby Charlton. What a great moment that was.
The scale of that moment and many of the things that came along with becoming a regular squad player between 1996 and 2001 are incomparable. However, it sometimes takes a certain amount of time out of the bubble to realise just how incredible a time that period was. What didn’t we win in that era? We won everything, including that amazing year in 1999 when we won the Treble. I played in some decent games during my time in the squad, got two or three appearances in the Champions League, came on and nearly scored against Monaco at Old Trafford as we drew 1-1 and played away at Anfield when we beat Liverpool. Whenever I played, I was getting good scores in the club magazine’s player ratings, but I was never able to pin down a first team place. Denis Irwin, Gary Neville and Phil Neville were all older than me and ahead of me – I had hit the glass ceiling and ultimately I didn’t really have the power to smash through it.
It was always a tough task and I never wanted to leave, really. I enjoyed being at United and when I did leave it was a sad day. To be totally honest, I struggled a little bit after that. I stopped enjoying my football and I always felt that I wanted to do something that I enjoyed so, when I retired at 26, I knew exactly what I wanted to do and that was to become the best coach I could. I had a two-year apprenticeship under the tutelage of my father and I learnt so much - he was and always will be a legend in my eyes.
Everyone can train. Anyone can teach people how to do basic exercises, but I was able to learn so much by working together with my father. He trained four sons to a high level: me getting into United’s first team, my brother Steven was also a youth player at United, while our other brothers Mark and Shaun were national champions and competed on the European and world stage at Olympic lifting. More importantly, the knowledge he had learned from his 11 years as strength and power coach at United, training the likes of Roy Keane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and the ‘Class of ’92’… I genuinely couldn’t have had a better teacher. Then I learnt my own valuable lessons by working with a variety of different clients, from general public members who wanted to lose weight, to groups of disabled children, to elite athletes and more besides. All of these experiences helped me to round my coaching.
Then came my second miracle. When Roy Keane became the manager of Sunderland in 2006, he asked me to help him create ultimately what my father had created at United. He wanted to replicate that same feeling, that same creativity, ambition to win, enthusiasm and ultimately success at the Stadium of Light. If you’re trying to run a successful organisation then you need other like-minded people around you, so he asked me to join him. It’s always nice to get a job offer, but when that offer comes from Roy Keane, there’s no doubt about it, it feels great.
I spent 12 years at Sunderland in the end, working for some really influential managers and with some decent sports scientists and physios. There’s a lot to learn from that, and ultimately you get a really broad brush of how to speak to players, how to manage yourself and ultimately what does and doesn’t work. As a practitioner you’re always trying new things, some you never do again, some you always go back to and power has always been the key to success in my mind.
After leaving Sunderland, I had a year of trying new things and getting well out of my comfort zone, which was a great learning curve. I made myself really uncomfortable, I drove myself to try things like starting my own podcast, appearing on MUTV, delivering football training courses in different countries, and I took a lot of lessons from all of that. If you're energised then you can make things happen, and sewing the seed – especially when things don't seem to be going your way – is definitely the right thing to do. It's too easy to sit back and feel sorry for yourself or do very little or even be happy to take a job that just ticks boxes. Ultimately you can miss out on something special down the road if you do. I never committed to getting an average full-time job somewhere, I kept faith.
After being away from the club for so long, when you come back you're trying to weigh up the place, see what's moved and changed since I was a player, and you ask questions of yourself. How can I start to influence things as I move on? How do I make the environment better? How do I create a canvas for the players to enjoy being in the gym to become stronger, faster and more powerful?
We're happy with where we are, but we need to keep working on it to make it better and better. We put clear foundations down about behaviour in the gym, we stressed that they should be in there minimum once a day and from that we set a culture. No TV, no phones, everybody respect each other, sometimes those little things can create a snowball effect. We want fit, agile, explosive players who can make a difference when it counts. We want to dominate games, but if there are occasions when we can't, we need to be able to get something out of the game by having non-stop, committed players who can score goals when needed. We in the sports science team have put a really robust training programme in place and we're confident in what we're doing. We're proactive rather than reactive in our approach and consistent with our training plan.
As part of that process, I have a dream job a job I believe I was destined for. United are on the progressive march to start winning trophies again and if I can add a quarter of a percent towards that process, I feel like I'm adding something of value to it. I feel fortunate and blessed to be here. It's been a long journey for me, but I'm so happy to be back.