Paul Rachubka.

Rachubka's crazy trip to Brazil

I still remember knocking on Sir Alex’s door. I was 17 and I was there to tell him that I wasn’t happy with what I’d been offered.

I’d moved from California to Stockport with my mum when I was seven, started training with United when I was nine after Brian Kidd asked me along, and, year after year, I’d kept coming back. I was one of the local lads and, in 1998, all the local lads were given one-year professional deals. At that point, I couldn’t even get a place in the B-team, never mind the A-team or Reserves. I needed more. More games, more experience, more security.

So I went into Sir Alex’s office and told him I wasn’t happy. He just said that if I kept doing what I was doing, began playing regularly in the Reserves, then he’d look after me. That was that.

I honestly thought that I was going back to the States.

Paul Rachubka. says

"Only one goalkeeper can play and that’s not even me in the B-team… I’m never going to play. That’s where I was at."

My contingency plan was that I was going to go and study and do a scholarship out in the States because there was no chance I was going to be a professional at United, as far as I was concerned. Look at the other goalkeepers who were in front of me: Peter Schmeichel – who always played every single game – Raimond van der Gouw, Kevin Pilkington, Paul Gibson, Nick Culkin and Adam Sadler.

Only one goalkeeper can play and that’s not even me in the B-team… I’m never going to play.

That’s where I was at.

Don’t get me wrong, I was having some amazing experiences and had done for years. I was having day release from school to train with United. I’d come in on a Monday morning and train at The Cliff. The goalkeeping coach, Alan Hodgkinson, would train the goalies, and then I’d go back into school and have lessons in the afternoon. “Where were you this morning?” You could tell your mates you were training with Peter Schmeichel, but they’d never believe you. You couldn’t prove it.

I remember, one day, all the youth-team lads were off except me, so I joined in with all the senior goalies, then the first team had a friendly among themselves and needed numbers, so I ended up playing right wing in an 11v11 match with the lads who would go on to win the Treble within a couple of years. It was crazy.

No wonder I’d go in for my lessons after training and everyone would be wondering why I was so tired!

That first-team squad was known for the extra work they used to do. They’d always want to do more work, they didn’t seem to want to leave the training ground. They’d always need a keeper, especially earlier in the week because there was no reason for Peter or Raimond to be doing that kind of extra workload. So I’d end up in goal facing the likes of Yorkie, Coley, Ole and Teddy. You’d have Becks and Giggsy crossing it in. You’d be thinking to yourself: Don’t parry it out because Scholesy and Keano will be smashing it back in at you.

It was a bit surreal because that was just what I grew up with and there was no choice in it; that’s just what was happening. Obviously I really enjoyed myself. The culture was such that everyone was driving each other on because everyone wanted to be that next young player coming through. You knew that pathway was there, so it was ultra-competitive. You were always bringing your best game because of that, and that’s what everyone thrived on. You had to have the attitude to be part of that. I enjoy working hard and challenging myself, which is something that’s encouraged and developed. It starts in the Academy and you’re playing with the best boys in Manchester aged 10, you’re getting coaching sessions from the likes of Brian Kidd and Nobby Stiles, giving you hints on how to improve, and you drive each other on. With that recipe, you can understand why the players who came through did. They were great times, growing up.

Being a local lad, you’d always get asked to do extra things. The out-of-town lads would always have Christmas off and that leads us to how I ended up going to the Club World Cup in Brazil...

So, Tony Coton joined us midway through the Treble season to be our goalkeeping coach, and he used to ring me up every now and again on a Sunday morning to help him out. I’d have the day off after playing on the Saturday, I’d be looking forward to my lie-in on Sunday – sometimes after a night out with my mates, knowing I had a day off to rest – and the phone would ring at 8.30am.

It was always Tony.

“We need a keeper. See you soon.”

He’d start laughing, then, within the hour, I’d be playing five-a-side at The Cliff.

Forget missing my lie-ins, it was great, because the standard of the games were so good, you’d pay to watch them. That was the level it was at. You’d play, get your bacon butties and go home, cobwebs blown off. Fantastic. That was quite a normal thing to happen, and that’s what happened to me on 31 December 1999. We’d been given Christmas off, but sure enough I got an early-morning phone call from Tony.

“Get yourself to the Cliff, we need a keeper.”

I’m thinking to myself: why do they need a keeper at this notice? Normally, I’d get an 8.30am call for playing an hour later, which was easy because I lived 20 minutes away. This time, I had half an hour to get out of bed, get there and get ready for training at 9am.

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I was late.

I literally ran in, saw the kit-man, threw my gear on in an empty dressing room because every other player had gone out to warm up. I was last out onto the training pitch at The Cliff – and that was a bonus in itself, because youth team lads and young pros never really got to train on there as we’d be at Littleton Road. Tony told me to apologise to the manager for being late, and the gaffer was stood in the far corner of the pitch, so I had to do the walk of shame across the pitch towards him, with all the lads running around me doing their warm-up.

“You’re late.”

“Sorry boss.”

“Right, you’re coming away with us.”

No idea what’s going on.

“I want tea and toast every morning while we’re away. That’s your job.”

I’m still not clocking what’s going on.

“You’re coming with us to Brazil. You can have tomorrow off, so you’d better behave yourself tonight. Make sure you’re on that plane. Right, off you go. Get warm.”

I remember Tony just laughing at me. I’m trying to work out why nobody else was going instead of me, but I think players had been sold or loaned out, so suddenly I’m on the plane with Mark Bosnich and Raimond as the third-choice keeper.

Is this really happening?

Paul Rachubka. says

"It was already mad enough for me without getting in trouble for hang-gliding."

Thing is, we all thought the world was going to end at midnight anyway. The 'Millennium Bug' was going to destroy everything as far as we were concerned. Nobody had a clue what was going on!

The whole world is ending, so I’m staying local anyway… do I tell my mates I’m going or not? They wouldn’t believe me and they might do something daft when they had a few drinks… I can’t even be bothered going out now, but it’s the Millennium and I’m 18 years old, so I have to go out.

I ended up having a quiet one, going home at five past 12 without saying a word about it, and the next day we flew out to Brazil because, thankfully, the world hadn’t ended. At this time people, didn’t really have mobiles, so my mates were none the wiser until they realised that I wasn’t around or read about it in the press.

It was weird because there was nobody else my age on the trip. The youngest lads, after me, were probably Danny Higginbotham, Jonathan Greening and Ronnie Wallwork, so I tagged on to them. Raimond was brilliant with me, he’d always take me under his wing. Being so young in a squad that had just won the Treble, nobody else in that squad had anything to prove, so I was always the young lad. If they say to do something, do it.

Except hang-gliding. Unlike a couple of the lads, there was no way I was doing that. We’d go and sit by the pool in the afternoon once we’d finished training, and on this particular afternoon there was a bit of commotion as this hang-glider floated overhead and the guys up there started yelling down at us.

The gaffer went nuts.

“That better not be any of my players.”

I was just trying not to make eye contact with him because I knew who was up there: Keano and Butty. I was just keeping a low profile with everything that was going on. It was already mad enough for me without getting in trouble for hang-gliding.

It was the first time I’d got the chance to spend time with the squad outside a football context. You sat down next to them having dinner, chatting about normal stuff, getting to know them as people, rather than just everything being about football. I’d previously always have extra training or jobs to do, so I wouldn’t have time to mingle. To hang out with them for something like 10 days was just an amazing experience.

I remember we were walking along Copacabana Beach while Ned Kelly, our security guard, was telling us all sorts of stories. Suddenly, a couple of tourists stopped Becks and asked for a picture. Except they were asking him to take a picture of them, without him in it!

Obviously, the lads loved that.

In terms of the actual football, we didn’t do brilliantly in the tournament.

For our first two games, against Necaxa and Vasco da Gama, I was on the bench, just as a spectator. I’m warmed up, stripped and ready to come on, but there were 10 subs. Bosnich and van der Gouw had it covered, so I was just there for the experience. Maybe the gaffer wasn’t joking when he told me I was going to make the tea and toast every morning!

I remember the atmosphere inside the Maracana was unbelievable. There was a moat all around the ground – a proper, deep moat – to keep fans from getting on to the pitch, and I’d never seen that before. You could understand why, especially at the Vasco game, because it was full. Bouncing. The whole place was vibrating. You go down into the changing rooms after the warm-up and at half-time and you can still hear everything, it’s so intense. The heat, smells, passion, voices, sound… it was completely different, but brilliant.

We lost to Vasco, having drawn our opening game with Necaxa, so we were eliminated by the time we played our third game, against South Melbourne. As usual, I’m sat watching the game and, with 10 minutes to go, Tony Coton shouts me over.

“You’re going on. Get ready.”

Really?

So on I went.

Paul Rachubka. says

"It was rocking by the time I went out there. To come on in that atmosphere, with us winning comfortably, was just phenomenal."

By the time I came on, the stadium was filling up for the next game. Vasco were playing Necaxa in their final group game afterwards, so it was rocking by the time I went out there. To come on in that atmosphere, with us winning comfortably, was just phenomenal.

In terms of action, all I can remember is catching a through ball and throwing it out to Becks. That was all I had to do, the whistle went and we’d won 2-0. But I’d made my debut for United.

That’s it. You’ve achieved one of your goals as a kid.

The club scheduled a private jet after the game, and we flew straight back to Manchester. All the lads were really disappointed at how things had gone, but I’m sitting there, high as a kite because I’d just made my debut. I could have flown home myself.

The flip side was that two days after coming back from Brazil, I was playing for the B-team at the Cliff against Halifax Town. Back down to earth. Then we moved to the huge new training complex at Carrington. The place had literally just opened, so it was almost empty, but I was still getting told to do everything because I was still the youngest. I was still coming in on a Sunday morning and nobody was there because the first team had the day off, so I was doing all the jobs, making sure the balls were pumped up and we had bibs to train with!

I went on to make a couple more appearances with United. I came on in a League Cup win at Watford and played 90 minutes against Leicester in the Premier League, and I never conceded a goal. Someone told me it’s something like 103 minutes without conceding, it had come up in a quiz a couple of years ago, so when I found out I was like: okay, I’ll keep repeating that one until people are sick of it!

Ultimately, I had to move on so I could play games. Sir Alex was very honest with me and said that he was always prepared to spend big to get the right goalkeeper for his team. I get that: it’s a position where you have to get it right and if it takes big money, so be it. It’s a very tough position to fill internally. Tom Heaton did well but never made it to the first team at United, Dean Henderson is doing brilliantly at Sheffield United, so we’ll see what happens with him, but it’s a hard gig. I always wanted to prove myself elsewhere and then come back to United. It didn’t happen before I retired, but I don’t have any regrets.

How can I have any at all when I look back at the experiences I had?