UTD Unscripted: I couldn’t have asked for a better football education
When I was 16, I was one of the best strikers in the country.
Other lads from Lilleshall, like Joe Cole at West Ham, they’d go straight back to their clubs and train with their first team every day when they were 16. At United, there were so many players, so much quality to get past, that I didn’t have that option.
This was around 1998. Going into the Cliff every morning, I knew I’d be competing with people like David Healy, Alex Notman, Paul Wheatcroft, Ian Fitzpatrick and Erik Nevland. Top, young strikers. I’d do my chores in the morning, go in the gym, work on my technique, do my training session, then I’d go and sit on the hill overlooking first team training.
Because above all those guys I was competing with, there was the top of the tree.
I mean, come on!
I was firmly fixed on those four guys and how I could get to be alongside them in the long term, but in the short term, what could I learn from them? I’d say to myself: 'I can control a ball, I can score goals at my level. Why are these guys as good as they are?'. So I’d just sit there on the hill and try to take in as much as I possibly could from them.
One of the major things that stood out for me was watching them all do extra work. I know the game has changed now, so sports scientists might take you off the pitch and say: ‘You’ve done enough lad’, but I’m a firm believer that the minutes you put into anything dictate what you get out of it. Those minutes can make you improve, make you that little bit better, and those four all put in so much extra time. They were so competitive. Most days you could count on one or two of the senior players going home early for whatever reason, but most of them would be out there doing extra work –those four were always there, and I’d watch them like a hawk.
I’d watch them all finishing. They were always working on their finishing. They’d do it collectively, especially when Steve McClaren came in as assistant manager in 1999, but prior to that, Brian Kidd would do more individually focused stuff.
Coley was particularly involved in that approach, and he has a lot of one-on-one sessions with Kiddo. I especially looked to Coley because I cleaned his boots. At the time, his game was in transition, but he was still getting chances in games and scoring goals. I just watched him perfect the art of being a centre forward. When he came, there were question marks about him, people were saying: ‘He won’t play the Man United way’, but he learnt to do it and he did it with class. He became a top-drawer, all-round striker, and he did it through hard work and determination. For any young player looking up to that, you try to mimic the behaviours that made them what they are.
In terms of conduct, Yorkie, as much as anybody, showed me what you could be. In the club I was always a disciple, if you get me. What the coaches say, I’ll do. Yorkie taught me that that’s fine, but you can have your own personality with it, and that it was important to bring your personality onto the pitch. Yorkie would drive into the Cliff in the morning, and he would act the exact same way in his car, getting out of his car, going into the changing room, going into the canteen, going onto the pitch, leaving the pitch, there would be no change in his character at all. No trying to be a different person for the manager or anybody - 'I am who I am and I express who I am at all times'. That was really eye-opening for me. He’d just been signed for £12.6million, which was massive money back then, but he just had a freedom about him and I loved that. He played like nothing bothered him.
The hardest part for me was that, as a kid, I tried to play like nothing bothered me. By trying to do that, you’re already thinking about it, aren’t you? You’re already thinking about how you relax, rather than just relaxing.
Teddy was another who was just so cool. Never fazed. Everything was done clinically. His finishing was all about great contact on the ball. He didn’t mess about. Wherever the ball came, he was just dead cool in the way he did things. Never looked flustered, always looked accomplished in the way he finished, which is something that a lot of young players aspire to now. A lot of them try to look accomplished rather than be accomplished, but to be accomplished you’ve got to put in the hours and hours for years and years. You find some lads in the game now who, even something as simple as a 10-yard pass, their body language is so relaxed because they think they have to look a certain way to make the pass, that they miss the pass. They still think they look cool. Whereas it doesn’t matter what it looks like. You look cool when you make the pass and it reaches its target, know what I mean? It’s all about function.
In finishing, some lads would try to chip the keeper, bend it around them, whatever. Ole would just hit the bottom corner. Didn’t mess about. I’d say out of all those four senior strikers I would watch, he knew that he’d spend more time on the bench than anybody, and he dealt with his position. He’d fight to start games, wouldn’t moan, realised he’s playing for the biggest club in the world, realised he’d get his minutes, realised he’d need to be ready when he got his minutes, and that told on the training ground.
However the ball would arrive at him, the outcome was the same:
He hit bottom corner.
After bottom corner.
After bottom corner.
It was like a religion to him.
I used to think: ‘Why doesn’t he chip it? Why doesn’t he do something different?’
Saturday came… boom.
He slips it past the keeper, bottom corner.
Drives it across the keeper. Bottom corner.
Then you realise what he’s doing:
He’s forming habits.
I didn’t see my style much like Ole’s, but I loved what he did. My style definitely wasn’t like Teddy’s, but I loved how he was never fazed. I could see things in Coley and Yorkie where I thought: ‘I wonder how you do that, because I sort of do it and want to get better at it.’
Coley and Yorkie were maybe the most influential to me. They were so different, but I saw bits of my game in those two. Coley was quick, played on the shoulder and that’s what I wanted to do. Quick on the shoulder, get a chance, put it away, try to be deadly. I also enjoyed the side of Yorkie’s game where he’d come to feet and link play up. Then come and maybe float around the pitch and get on the ball. So those two had real key attributes that I could really relate to.
There was so much fuss made about him before he came, because he’d done his knee but we’d waited a year to sign him anyway. Back then, it wasn’t like now, where you’ve got everything on tap. Today, you could go on YouTube to see all his goals. You’d see the odd goal on the news and think: ‘Flipping heck, ok.’ He came in, and before he’d even fully settled and integrated into the team, he was scoring for fun. Pretty soon, things really clicked and he dominated that position. I just watched him in games and up close in training and thought: ‘Wow… this guy.’
What I learnt off Ruud was that he had an obsession with scoring goals. He was fuming in training if he missed the target, fuming with himself. He thought about nothing else but scoring. His movement… he was like a ghost. He was the first player I saw play off the shoulder in an offside position. It went against the rulebook of everything I’d been taught. We’d just paid millions for this guy and he was doing everything that, coming through the ranks of Man United and England, I had been brought up not to do. But then he’d go clean through one-on-one with the goalkeeper. People would shout: ‘How is he through one-on-one?’ Ruud wasn’t the quickest. When Coley went through, he was rapid, Giggsy too. You’re not going to catch them. Ruud would go through one-on-one, but he’s already six yards ahead of everybody else. How has he created that gap in a split second?
Neil Bailey, one of our coaches, used to say to me: “Don’t watch the ball, watch the man”, when we watched games. So, in my case, I’m watching Ruud. What’s he doing? Me and Bojan Djordjic used to sit there at Old Trafford just analysing the people in our positions. ‘Why’s he doing that? Why’s he doing this?’ Some of the other young lads would get off early. They’d appease the coach, then get off and go to the cinema or wherever, but me and Bo used to sit there as students.
Look at Ruud, how has he scored again? How has he got in that position?
I sat there and worked out why, how, realised what Ruud was doing:
He was invisible. Don’t be seen. Never be seen.
He was always, as a frontman, trying to stretch the play, trying to gain every slight advantage. People talk about what you do off the ball; what he did off the ball enabled him to be in the positions that he was. And he was just a goalscoring machine.
Time moves on, of course, and both Coley and Yorkie left the club not too long after Ruud signed, but then Diego Forlan came in as well. Great lad, Diego, absolutely great, and he spoke good English from the moment he walked through the door. While he was still settling in, he played alongside me in the Reserves. That’s when you get the measure of a player: when you play with him, and I didn’t see any gap between us at that time. That was fine, I didn’t see any problem, it was just somebody else I had to fight with for appearances. At that time, I felt like I was in touching distance of the first-team squad. I’d already made my debut, already played two games, I semi-got what it felt like, I just wanted to get there all the time. That’s all I could think. How could I do it? I had to go on loan to get some experience, which I did with Watford.
In the summer of 2003, I was offered a three-year deal to stay at United, but David Bellion was signed and the situation was quite clear to me: if he’s coming in and we’ve paid money for him, he’s going to get game time. It wasn’t the done thing to choose to leave United at 21, especially with a contract offer on the table, but I just thought:
'I’m going to need to forge a career for myself'.
When I was 16, like many youngsters, I saw my career playing out in this glorious fashion, like in the way Wayne Rooney’s has, for example. But what you don’t reckon on is having six operations in your teens, missing vital months of playing time, during which your coaches and managers simply have to turn their attention to somebody else because you’re not on the training pitch. Don’t get me wrong - I’m not saying I would have gone on to play 500 games for United, but the boss even said to me at one point: “Jesus, son, you’ve had some bad injuries at the wrong times.” There was always something to stop the momentum.
So, even though my heart has always been at United, even though the club is in my DNA and always will be, even though almost nobody did it, I left the club and set off to forge a career.
And I did. I’m proud of my career. It wasn’t Rooney’s career, but I look back very fondly on what I did in the Premier League and with the different clubs I played for. When I left Old Trafford, I took every bit of information that I’d already absorbed, and every step of the way, I still never took my eye off United, still watched the games every week, still continued to learn from them.
You just couldn’t get a better education.