UTD Unscripted: Facing the midfield masters
It’s been over 10 years and I’m still irked by Scholesy.
It had been a scrappy game, Wolves against United at Molineux, towards the end of2009/10. There wasn’t much in it at all. We’d probably made the game scrappy and in that sense things had gone to plan for us.
At that time in my career, I wasn’t as defensively minded as I have become. At Wolves I learnt a lot about defensive responsibility from Karl Henry, including a long chat after that particular game. He sat down with me and talked me through what Scholesy had done. I’d looked away, he’d found space behind me, received the ball midway inside our half and less than 10 seconds later he’d pounced in the box, shown great composure to score the only goal of the game. I was nowhere near him when he scored, and that shouldn’t have been the case.
Later in my career, there’s no doubt I would have swivelled my head, looking for him. You have to specifically watch a player like Scholesy when he comes into the box. You wonder why players don’t look for him when the ball gets into the final third of the pitch, because he’s the danger. He drifts in as if he’s not interested, not making the kind of movements that suggest interest in what’s unfolding, but the ball always seems to land to him to score.
To be fair, I should have known better. I’d seen him up close enough times in training to know.
It was a huge deal for any of the young lads at United to be stepping up to train with the first team. You’re on a journey from the moment you join the club and your sights are always set on reaching that top level. I shared digs with Kieran Richardson, while we were maybe chalk and cheese in terms of personalities, we had a decent bond and friendship, shared the same values. He was ahead of me in his development, in terms of getting opportunities to be around the first team, and he used to say: “When you come to the first team, the standards are so high that you’ve got to be 100 per cent focused all the time. If you give the ball away, it’s a big deal.”
I was prepared in terms of knowing that I had to be on it, every single minute.
Just keep the ball.
Don’t give it away.
Show your touch is good.
Keep it moving.
Don’t give the coaches any reason to put you back with the Reserves.
So, after one particular session with an onus on possession, I felt I’d kept the ball pretty well. Roy Keane came over to me and just said:
“Stop playing safe. You’re making safe decisions, not the right decisions.”
“I didn’t give the ball away!”
“Yeah, but it wasn’t the right decision, was it?”
After that sunk in, I just thought to myself: He’s right. I didn’t give the ball away, but I needed to be making the right passes; positive passes. It wasn’t just about fitting in and getting by; it was about stamping my authority on the session. Playing safe isn’t going to take you anywhere when you’ve got Keane and Scholes in front of you. A key trait of any Ferguson team was: pass forward, run forward. You needed personality and character or you weren’t going to last.
I did have a handful of opportunities in the first team and did okay in some, maybe not so well in one or two others, but I had to be realistic about the situation as time wore on. There were a lot of midfielders at the club who had maybe blocked my development in terms of first team opportunities. To displace Keane or Scholes, that’s going to take a good couple of seasons of playing sustained top-level football, but the competition to get opportunities had been with Nicky Butt, Phil Neville, John O’Shea, Kleberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Liam Miller, even Giggsy was playing central midfield at times. It was difficult to even get on the bench. Michael Carrick arrived in the summer of 2006 and that was another senior player straight in the squad.
After going out on loan to Preston and NEC Nijmegen, which I’d really enjoyed, the manager came to me and said that the club had accepted a bid from Derby County and he asked me what I wanted to do. We’d previously spoken about a new contract but, in reality, if they were accepting an offer for me then that said enough. I’d spent most of my growing-up years at United, been at the club for over a decade and loved being a part of it, but it was over, so it was probably the most upsetting easy decision I’ve ever had. I agreed to the move, had a few tears in the car on the way home to get it out of my system and woke up the next day ready for the next step in my career. If you don’t demonstrate resilience, move on quickly and adapt, then your career – and probably more importantly your game - won’t progress.
That was how I found myself lining up against United the following season. Derby had been promoted in 2006/07, which was a great achievement, but in 2007/08 there was so much going on off the pitch that it didn’t feel great around the club. We didn’t fare well in the Premier League and, by the time United arrived at Pride Park towards the end of the season, we could only realistically hope to take something other than points from the game.
Personally, it was very special. You always want to test yourself against the big clubs but, having spent so much time there, it made it so special for me to be lining up against Scholesy and Anderson. I really enjoyed the game as it unfolded. United won 1-0 with Ronaldo scoring quite late on, and that was quite a good result for Derby that season, especially with United on course to win the Premier League and Champions League.
That was the first time I played against Scholesy in the Premier League and it struck me just how sharp he was at all times. He somehow always found space. One thing I learned was that he was always watching his opponent’s head, in terms of watching where they were swivelling their head. If they look away from him, he’ll pull into another area or stop moving, so that they don’t know where he is and he can create space. You think he’s with you, but then you turn your head to look at the ball for a fraction of a second, you go to turn back…
Where’s he gone?
He’s five yards away. Next thing, he’s received the ball.
He was just so clever with things like that. When I speak to coaches now, they refer to the ‘dark arts’ of football: these little nuggets of skill, perception or experience in which you just create an edge. Scholesy was the master of them. He knew how to find space, he was so sharp and quick thinking. His vision was exceptional, as was his use of the ball. He was as comfortable and destructive with a 50-yard pass out wide to Giggsy as with a five-yard pass infield to Carrick. You could never, ever switch off because he’d exploit you. He scored so many goals by just ghosting into the box.
I went on to join Wolves so, a couple of years later, when we’d been promoted, I returned to Old Trafford for the first time. Over the years, that became quite a strange experience because it’s always nice, going back to United, but it’s a funny one when you’re playing against them because you know so many people at the club and I’m not really one for too much friendly conversation when I’m trying to focus on the game. It was always a great place to go back and play, even if the teams I’d go back with were always underdogs. You knew it was going to be a tough day but always special. There aren’t many stadiums that feel special to me, but Old Trafford was always one that did. In 2009/10, we lost to United three times; in the League Cup and Premier League at Old Trafford, then at Molineux when I lost Scholesy and he popped up to get the winner.
It was during that period that I came up against Michael Carrick and started to get an appreciation for just how good he was. He’s one of the top players the Premier League has had, for me. Again, I learned so much from him. Whenever I played against him, what struck me was how brilliant he was at reading the game defensively. There were times in games where I’d attempt to thread the ball through for our striker but Michael would just step across and intercept it or get a toe on it. Now, from the stands, it looks like I’ve just passed it straight to him, but I’d basically fallen into a trap. He’d show you just enough space to make you think it was a straightforward pass, but he’d read the game so well, he had such a big stature and big reach, that once he’d shown you an avenue for a pass, he’d step across and intercept it comfortably. The gap might be 10 yards when you’re looking up, but by the time you’ve processed it, brought your foot back and kicked the ball, he’s sprinted across and taken the ball. He made it so tough for you to play your game.
There were certainly not many midfielders I played against who made me think like that. Scholesy would ask questions of you defensively, get on the ball and dictate games. With Carrick, I always felt he made things difficult when I was on the ball, so it wasn’t only how good he was with the ball, he was just so clever without it too. He seemed to know, as a midfielder, what I wanted to do. That’s something else I took forward in my career: thinking what does my opponent want to do and how can I make that difficult? Michael had a great grasp of that. He was so intelligent. It would be great to sit down and have a chat with him at some point because I’d like to know if these qualities were just intuitive, learned, experience or a combination. I’ve got so much respect for how he saw the game. As I got older, I developed that part of my game and I pride myself at being good at interceptions. That’s largely down to watching players like Michael.
At the time, you learn from it in the sense that you don’t make those passes again and probably just pass it wide instead. The through-ball to the striker was so tough to get right when he was around, that it actually altered the way I played. That’s something that you don’t necessarily see from the stands: the way he played, knowing he was there, actually affected the decisions I made when we had the ball. When you know he can read the game that well, it changes your use of the ball. Defensively, I haven’t come across many better midfielders than him.
I crossed paths with Michael and Scholesy a few times, subsequently with Wigan and Burnley. I was on the Wigan bench watching on as Scholesy scored his last goal for United in 2012 and, even though he was 37, even though he’d been retired and come back, it was the same old story: the ball drops in the box and there he is, right time, right place, to put it in the net. He might not have been able to clock up as many miles as he had previously, but he still had the mental sharpness and experience to affect games. He was never reliant on physicality or fitness because he was just so sharp in his mind.
United won 4-0 that day, which was a familiar feeling. I played for teams who were all freshly promoted to the Premier League, so going up against United was always a very hard experience. I played United nine times, lost eight and the best result I enjoyed was a 0-0 draw with Burnley on Di Maria’s debut in 2014. I hit the bar with a free-kick and we deserved the point at least for how we played. It wasn’t that United always played better and had better players; I believe it was a relentless winning mentality that was bred throughout the club over many years. So I never took especially good results from facing United, but there was more than that to it.
Testing myself against and learning from some of the best was something I relished and still enjoy looking back at now. Scholesy and Michael are right up there as the best midfielders I’ve ever played against, and you can’t put a price on that experience.