Nick Culkin highlighted in the 1999/2000 Manchester United squad photo

UTD Unscripted: My place in the record books

Saturday 06 July 2019 07:00

I’m very, very proud of my place in the record books.

The shortest Premier League debut ever. I was on the pitch at Highbury for around 30 seconds. In actual playing time, less than two seconds.

A lot of people laugh at me for that. It’s not much, I know, but let me break it down for you.

Let’s think how I got to that point.

Firstly, you’ve got to get to Man United in the first place, something I’d always wanted to do as a kid. I worked really hard, training at York City through my younger years. Eventually someone from United came to look at me.

Les Kershaw watched me for about 12 months. I remember Les used to stand on the sidelines in his massive scout jacket with the United badge on it. I don’t know if the club were trying to test me mentally to see how I’d cope with a United scout watching me, but I wasn’t the slightest bit bothered, to be honest. I was quite confident and I backed myself, whoever was watching.

The move happened in 1995, the morning after the game when York beat United at Old Trafford in the League Cup. The deal was done before the game and I had no idea about it at all.

The secretary of York came to see me the morning after and said the gaffer, Alan Little, wanted to see me.

I couldn’t think of anything I’d done wrong, so I went in not knowing what to expect.

“Sit down, son. Man United want to buy you, and I’m going to let you go.”

I was a bit taken aback. It’s a lot to take in, you know?

“When am I going?”


“Right, ok… what if I want to stay?”

“You’re not. We need the money.”

We both started laughing. That was it. Done.
UTD Unscripted
Nick Culkin says

"I drove down to meet Sir Alex and sign the deal. United brought a PFA representative, but there was no negotiation whatsoever. Give me the pen. I’ll sign it, whatever it is."

I drove down the next day, Friday, to meet Sir Alex and sign the deal. United brought the PFA representative in to look over the contract for me, but there was obviously no negotiation whatsoever on my part. 

Give me the pen. I’ll sign it, whatever it is. 

I signed that four-year deal then and that started my United career.

Head down, get stuck in.

My first training session that Monday was a shooting session against Eric Cantona and Andy Cole, with all the coaches and the gaffer watching. Talk about pressure. 

Eric chipped me, but everyone just laughed it off because that was the norm for him. Even I just laughed. Fair play. I think I did pretty well, in general.

I started in the B team, working through into the A team, the Reserves, then training with the first team. Being in and around that squad every day was just unbelievable. All these little steps build you up, you improve, you get stronger, you get used to the standard of it.

Those standards were ridiculous when it came to Pete Schmeichel.

I’ll give you an example.

We might be doing a shooting session, where the forwards just take shots at you. Usually, the keepers would take turns facing the shots, but if Pete was on form, he would face all the shots. Rai van der Gouw, Kevin Pilkington, me, we’d all just watch.

I’d never seen anything like it in my life. I still haven’t. For a goalkeeper to take part in a shooting session and hardly concede any goals is absolutely unbelievable. This is in a session where you’ve got Becks, Scholesy, players like that who were unbelievable at shooting, but he hardly let any goals in. 

I’ve never seen anything so strong, so fit, so agile. You just stand there watching and you’re like… 

I don’t even want a turn. It would just be embarrassing now. 

I’d just keep watching and trying to learn. It was his timing. His timing to save shots, his timing to spread himself when he did in his star shape, and when not to. He could read the situation so well. He was just immense. He was awesome. Best I’ve ever seen, maybe the best anyone has seen, even to this day.
UTD Unscripted
Nick Culkin says

"I’d never seen anything like Peter. I still haven’t. You’ve got Becks, Scholesy, players who were unbelievable at shooting, but he hardly let any goals in. He was so strong, so fit, so agile."

Speaking of Scholesy, actually, he was a right pain in the backside. He was ruthless in training. Say he had a tap-in from a yard out, he would smash it in. If you tried to block it, you’d be taking one in the face. He had no need to do it, but he was training as he played. 

I could never read what he was going to do, and that’s still the case now. I played against him in a charity game at Oldham a few months ago, and I was still falling for things. He tried to chip me a few times. I said to him at half-time: “You’ve just brought back some right memories there. I still don’t feel comfortable playing against you at all.”

He just started laughing. That’s Scholesy all over. 

Even in that game, he was running it. Sliding in, taking people out. I was in stitches laughing at him, but just praying he wouldn’t get the ball or shoot because he was dying to score. He didn’t in the end, and I pulled off a point-blank save from him too, using my gut. He just said: “Your belly got in the way there.” He was an outrageous player. Ruthless. What a talent. He was something else.

So I went through all these stages and got to a point where I was working with the likes of Pete and Scholesy, and made it into the first team squad as third-choice keeper. Then I was named on the bench if one of the senior keepers was injured.

Then, in August 1999, that day came.

The previous season, I’d been third-choice keeper when we won the Treble, and I’d had a good start to 1999/2000 in terms of involvement. Pete had left, I was sub in the Charity Shield against Arsenal, first-team training every day, then I was named on the bench at Highbury, four games into the Premier League season.

What a game that was. We went 1-0 down, Roy equalised and the game was so intense. This was at a time when United and Arsenal really was the biggest game around. The tunnel was intense, once the game started tackles were flying in, Fergie and Wenger in the dugouts, Keane and Vieira on the pitch, the rivalry was how it should be.

Roy scores again right near the end and we’re going mad. We’re 2-1 up at Highbury with a couple of minutes to go. Arsenal were suddenly throwing everything at us because they were almost out of time. A free-kick comes in, Rai makes a save, but Martin Keown flies in and properly does him with a knee in the face. It’s the most obvious free-kick you’ve ever seen in your life and, of course, the ref awards it.

Now, Rai is a tough, tough man. Even now, he’s still absolutely ripped. He’s in his mid-50s but he’s still as fit as he was when he was at United. I played with him in Malta last year in a Legends game, and he’s still the same. It’s disgusting. I told him as much. 

He just shrugs it off, like: “Well, you know…”

And I’m like: “No, I don’t know, actually. It’s disgusting. Your body is the same as it was 20 years ago. Stop it.”

Anyway, he’s always been a strong guy who would never go down without being really injured, so when he stayed down, it was obviously a proper injury.

I saw Rob Swire, our physio, motion that he needed to come off. And the gaffer just turned round to me.

“Nick, get yourself ready, you’re going on.”

UTD Unscripted
Nick Culkin says

"I saw Rob Swire, our physio, motion that Rai needed to come off and the gaffer just turned round to me. 'Nick, get yourself ready, you’re going on.'”

Ok, fair enough.

So I just got my training kit off. I had my shinpads on already anyway. No warm-up, just get dressed and on you go. 

Steve McClaren says: “Nick, put the free-kick right on Sylvinho’s head.”

Ok, no problem.

So I run on. 

Henning Berg, knowing that I’ve not had a warm-up, says to me: “Nick, do you want me to take the free-kick?”

Not. A. Chance. 

Nobody’s taking this away from me. 

I’m thinking, as I’m running on, that there’ll be three or four minutes of injury-time because of the stoppage for Raimond. 

I’ll come for everything. Take pressure off the team. This is my chance.

I was so confident.

I get there, get the ball. The foul was virtually on the line, so I’m taking the free-kick as a goal-kick, really. The Arsenal fans are throwing coins at me, giving me a bit of verbal abuse.

So I can hear all this stuff going on, but I get myself ready to take the kick. 

I look up. 

Ljungberg and Bergkamp are both stood 10 yards away.

So suddenly it dawns on me: 

If I shank this, I am not going in that dressing room. My career is over forever.

Thankfully, they backed off in the end. 

I took the goal-kick and pinged it clean, exactly where I was told to put it.

Unfortunately or fortunately – unfortunately if you ask me – the game ended immediately. 

I celebrated like we’d won the World Cup. I ran off with my arm up like Alan Shearer! In my defence, the game had been so intense, so important, and we’d just won. 

Plus, that was a 500 quid clean sheet bonus for me. The team had conceded, but I hadn’t, so I still got my bonus. I’ve still got the wage slip at home. I got the win bonus, which I think was around 600 quid at the time, so I made about 1,100 quid in one kick, so that was my next summer holiday paid for!

I remember walking into the dressing room and Sir Bobby Charlton laughing with me.

“You can’t have that as a clean sheet!”

He was laughing his head off.

I remember the drive back to Manchester on the coach afterwards, having just won at Highbury, sat on the table sat opposite the gaffer, Roy Keane and Denis, playing cards. Roy asked me how much I got for my clean sheet bonus and he started laughing when I told him. 

Most of the way back, I’m sat looking out of the window, thinking: What has just happened here?
Watch Culkin's briefest of cameos against Arsenal in 1999.
We had a really busy week ahead. We beat Arsenal on the Sunday, so I was hoping to play in the midweek game at Coventry three days later, because I didn’t think Rai would be ready in time. His eye had come right out and he could hardly see out of it. But, Rai being the warrior that he is, he recovered and I was on the bench. Two nights later I was on the bench again in Monaco when we played against Lazio in the Super Cup. We lost 1-0, but having played Sunday-Wednesday-Friday, it’s no wonder we were fatigued. 

I’ve still got the runners-up medal from that game, to add to the two I got from Charity Shields. 

What a week that was for me.

Not long afterwards, we signed Massimo Taibi. That absolutely gutted me. I went out on loan to Hull around Christmas, made my debut on Boxing Day at Darlington and a few days later the United squad went to Brazil for the world championships. Paul Rachubka went instead of me and, as you can imagine, it wasn’t the best trip to miss! 

I had a couple more loans before I left United in 2002. I would have loved just one game, just to see how I got on. Sink or swim. How would I have coped? I like to think I’d have been alright. I don’t think I was good enough to play every week. No chance. But it would have been nice to have a game or two, to see how I got on. 

I retired from professional football because of injury in 2005, and I still play for United in the odd legends game, but my day job is the gardening business I started up in Manchester a few years ago. 

I ended up having the shortest-ever United career and the shortest-ever Premier League career, two records which will never be beaten. Quite often I’ll get messages from people telling me that I’ve just cropped up as an answer in a pub quiz. That makes me smile.

Sometimes, if it’s a bad day at the office or whatever, I look back on the good things that have happened in my life. I’ll just have a little sit down and that kick just come back. The memories of it, the feelings, the emotion… I can actually get quite emotional when I talk about it, but I genuinely am really proud of it.

People might laugh, but there are millions of United fans around the world who would give anything to pull on the shirt and represent the club. That’s something I did and it’s something nobody can ever take away from me.

It may only have lasted a couple of seconds, but I had one hell of a journey to get there.