UTD Unscripted: So, what happened then?

Sunday 10 April 2022 13:00

“Reece, what happened to you?”

I still remember the first time I heard that question.

It was summer 2015, a couple of years after I’d left United. I was at Burton Albion on trial when Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink was manager. Pre-season training was tough. I was overweight. I could do it, but didn’t want to do it and that was the problem. We trained at St George’s Park and I saw all my old England coaches who had coached me during my teens.

They all came over and asked me straight: “What’s happening to you?”

“What do you mean?” I’d never heard it before.

“What’s happened? Where’s it all gone wrong?”

I was 23.

When you’re asked that question, you can’t help but think back.

I’d been involved with United from the age of five. I went to the development centre in Moss Side, and was also involved with City, Blackburn, Stoke and I was playing for Fletcher Moss too. Because my brother Wes was playing for United, and I was a United fan, it was quite obvious how it was going to turn out.
I loved being a player at United. Any kid who gets to pull on that shirt is unbelievably lucky. Playing at the Cliff, Littleton Road and Carrington gave me so many memories. Looking back, it’s funny which ones stick out.

One was a triallist game when I was 13. I wasn’t actually supposed to be playing so, after school, I went straight to town with my friends. It must have been half five and I got a phone call from my mum.

“You’ve got to go to the Cliff. Now. Be there for 6pm.”

I had to run from the Arndale Centre to the Cliff. That’s two or three miles. In school uniform.

That was my warm-up sorted.

I hadn’t had any food, any kind of preparation. It was short notice but even so, I didn’t know enough at that age when it came to preparation. I rocked up thinking I could play and had an absolute nightmare. The striker who I was up against was called Elliott Slingsby and he took me to the shops that day. I think that’s the quickest I’ve ever seen anyone get signed. The game was the Tuesday and he was signed two days later.

Yeah, you’re welcome, mate!

In my defence, centre-back was still new to me at the time. I was always a striker up to being in the under-12s. We were at Littleton Road one day, a defender got injured and the manager said to me: “Just go and play at the back.” I was massive for my age, quick, strong, plus I could use the ball, had technical ability and ticked all the boxes. I wasn’t happy about it, but I did it. I played there for about 15 minutes and never, ever saw striker again. I was brought in a few days later, sat in the Academy office with my dad and Wes, and Tony Whelan said to me: “You’ll have a chance at this club playing in defence.”

Ok, fine, but I used to hate it. I swear to you, I hated it. It wasn’t me.
Reece Brown says

"I loved being a player at United. Any kid who gets to pull on that shirt is unbelievably lucky. Playing at the Cliff, Littleton Road and Carrington gave me so many memories."

I struggled for a year. I was used to scoring or creating goals. No part of defending appealed to me for that first year. After that, I had a breakthrough moment where it dawned on me… I actually quite like this.

I went in for a 50-50 during a game and I remember my ankle vibrating afterwards from the striker’s studs.

I’m thinking: Ow, that hurts. But then I looked down at the floor and the other guy was in worse pain than me, so that’s when I thought: I don’t mind this.

It sounds weird – and stupid – I know, but I used to like getting hurt.

That said, one game I had a couple of years later, when I was in the Under-16s age group but playing for the Under-18s… that was a nightmare. It was against Leeds, who had a lad called Tom Elliott. I thought I was big, but he was bigger. Six foot four, really strong, fast… he was the same age as me, but he showed me that I wasn’t in the Under-16s anymore.

We were playing at Carrington by that stage, and I still remember our first ever training session there. When you turned up there was a binbag with your name on it, just full of kit. I opened mine and there were pants in there. Nicky Ajose and I looked at each other.

F*** it, let’s put them on.

It was summer. It was boiling. There was no need to put pants on whatsoever. Everyone else had gone out in shorts, but me and Nicky went out in pants and were told in no uncertain terms: “Get back inside now.” We thought we’d get away with it – I mean, why give us pants if we couldn’t wear them? – but looking back I think it might be our fault that no kids are ever allowed to wear pants in training at Carrington!

That maybe said a bit about my attitude at the time. That was during a spell when I wasn’t doing too great. Because of my ego, because of who my brother was, I honestly thought I don’t have to work hard. I’ll be fine. I thought there was a nice, easy path for me to go down. One of the coaches pulled me and asked me if I wanted to go back to Fletcher Moss for six months.

I was a bit of a problem for United. Noel Blake, who coached me for England Under-19s, wanted to take me earlier, but United wouldn’t let him because of my ego. When I got older and I was playing mainly with the Reserves, I was still kept back in the youth team dressing room while others moved up, and that was to keep me grounded.

I had the talent, but I needed more. I maybe could have done with more guidance, more of an arm around the shoulder from someone who was prepared to give me extra time. Then again, I don’t know that I would have listened.

Warren Joyce (the best manager I had, I still speak to him this day) warned me how things would turn out and I didn’t want to listen. I used to think Joycey hated me and was picking on me all the time, but he wasn’t. I’ve come to realise now that if your coach isn’t annoying you and isn’t on your case all the time, then there’s a problem. I thought he was picking on me and I didn’t understand it.

I was considering an offer to join Tottenham when I was in the Reserves, and Joycey said: “You can go out on a few loans, work hard and play your way into the first-team squad, or you can leave now and just go down bit by bit, league by league.”

I stayed, but I just didn’t listen. My ego got the better of me.

During one period around that time I was training with the first team for two months, so in my head I was thinking: I’ve smashed it. My ego got even bigger after one particular session.

Dimitar Berbatov never, ever used to speak to me. Not a thing. I used to wonder what the problem was. I said to Daniel Welbeck all the time: “He hates me, him,” but Welbz would just say: “Nah, Berba’s a nice guy!” So, I’d be wondering to myself: why? Why does he hate me? If I walked past him in the corridor I’d say: “Good morning,” and I might get a little nod if I was lucky.

Then, one training session, I had an absolute worldie. No word of a lie, I was the best player on the pitch that day. I swear to you. Rooney, Scholes, Giggs, Carrick… they were all there but, I promise you, I was the best player on that pitch. At the end of the session, I ‘megged Wazza, Rio tweeted it, tagged me and I went from 15,000 followers on Twitter to 280,000. The gaffer made me delete my account. “You don’t need Twitter,” he said.

No words.

Anyway, the next day I came into training and saw Berba.

“Good morning.”

“Morning, Reece.”

Wait, what?

“That’s what I’ve been waiting to see. I only speak to players who do it on the pitch, especially young players. I see you all walking around the place like you do when you haven’t done anything. Now I’ve seen a little bit from you. Now I want to see more.”

You can imagine what that did for my confidence!

Not long after, I started going out on loan to other clubs. Bradford City, Doncaster Rovers, Oldham Athletic. In all these places, you take the United values with you, but the football doesn’t always translate. I liked to get the ball off the goalkeeper and play it out, not just get it and whack it. I was brought up to play football, but you have to understand that different managers come in with different ideas – that’s something I struggled with. At Oldham under Paul Dickov, where we were in a relegation battle in League One, we weren’t there to play. Keep kicking it forward for Matt Smith up top. Get the ball, hit him. Hit him. Hit him.

You’re thinking: this is boring, what’s all this about?

Well, this is real life.

This isn’t a fairy tale at United, this is real people paying their mortgages. One slip from you is your team-mates missing out on extra money that they need. Chances are you’re the highest-paid player at the club so none of that really matters to you.
Reece Brown says

"This isn’t a fairy tale at United, this is real people paying their mortgages. One slip from you is your team-mates missing out on extra money that they need."

In my last season at United, 2012/13, I went to Coventry on loan. I was in the first team, then Mark Robins came in as the new manager and I didn’t get a look-in. I didn’t react well. Some of the things I ended up doing were disgraceful. I’d go to McDonald’s and bring it back to eat in the canteen, just to show everyone that I wasn’t bothered. That was my attitude. I didn’t know better. Lee Carsley helped me a lot, but I still didn’t want to listen. I thought I knew it all.

At the end of that season, I went out again, this time to Ipswich. I hardly played. They had two centre-backs with something like 900 league appearances between them, so I was never going to play, but what they want from a young lad in that situation is maturity. My ego was telling me that I was a Man United player. They played me in a reserve game and I’ve got a picture of it in my phone which I still laugh at. I’m wearing tights and gloves, thinking I looked the part. Mick McCarthy went mental at me afterwards.

Last day of that season, I went to the PFA awards. We were told we had a day off the following day, so we went out and enjoyed ourselves. Then, 11pm that night, we were told be at the training ground for 9am the following morning. That was a little bit too late for me to save myself. I ended up getting there at 5.30pm. McCarthy rang the gaffer the next day in front of me and the gaffer told him to fine me. The biggest punishment was that I didn’t get to play in the last game of the season, which I had been due to start.

Despite all that, Ipswich offered me a three-year deal. Despite the fact that my contract with United was almost up, I turned it down because I just hadn’t enjoyed my time there.

A few years later, I saw Mick again and he explained what the plan was.

(This bit kills me.)

He asked me: “What happened to Tyrone Mings?”

“What do you mean?”

“Where did he go?”


“That would have been you.”

I knew that Eddie Howe liked both me and Josh King when we were younger. He used to come and watch us in the Reserves. It turned out, the plan was for me to go to Ipswich, play a season of football and then join Bournemouth in the Premier League. Instead, I turned it down, Tyrone Mings played instead and joined Bournemouth for £8 million.
Reece Brown says

"McCarthy rang the gaffer the next day in front of me and the gaffer told him to fine me. The biggest punishment was that I didn’t get to play in the last game of the season, which I had been due to start."

A few years later, I had a chat with Eddie about it.

First thing he said… “What happened?”

I had no answers.

“You had everything. I’ve always wanted to coach you, but you never had that spark to take it seriously.”

There’s the younger me in a nutshell, I guess.

After United, I ended up signing with Watford, spent a year there hardly playing before moving to Barnsley. I played there week-in, week-out, then wasn’t playing because Premier League teams were interested in Mason Holgate and James Bree, so I was paid up and didn’t do anything for six months. Joycey called me, got me back in training at United while I looked for a club. I got quite fit and he told me to sign for Bury. I spent a while there and they offered me a three-year contract, but I turned it down because I knew there were four bigger clubs interested in me. Then, in the space of two weeks, all four of those managers were sacked. You couldn’t make it up.

I ended up getting a call from Chris Wilder on deadline day in 2016 and went to Sheffield United, which was a no-brainer. That was one of the few sensible choices I made. It didn’t work out and I ended up back with Bury, playing through injury with a busted knee to make sure we stayed up in League One.

After that I went to Rochdale for 2017/18, but that really didn’t go well. The knee still wasn’t right. I’ve done my knee four times in total, but always managed to avoid doing my cruciate because I can hyper-extend it backwards, a bit like a dog. Anyway, it wasn’t allowing me to train or play properly, so one morning, near the end of that season, I remember waking up and thinking to myself: I’m calling it a day at the end of the season. I’ll go in today and tell them I’m calling it a day. I went in, trained, finished, went to the manager Keith Hill’s office and he said it was time for us to part ways. I totally agreed and we went from there.

I was young enough at that stage to say to myself: You gave it a shot. I was 27. From that point on it was only going to be six-month deals, one-year deals, and that could be anywhere around the country. I wanted to be at home and work out what I wanted to do next.
Reece Brown says

"I was young enough at that stage to say to myself: You gave it a shot. I was 27. From that point on it was only going to be six-month deals, one-year deals, and that could be anywhere around the country."

For a year-and-a-half I went out every Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I went up to 18 stone. I wasn’t good at speaking to people properly. I always let on that I was ok when I wasn’t. I always used to struggle opening up. The first person I spoke to properly about anything in any depth was Chris Welbeck, Daniel’s brother, when I was maybe 24, because he could see that I needed someone to talk to.

It's incredible when someone reaches out to you like that, and it happened again when I was drinking my weekends away after retiring.

Anne Wylie, head of player care at United, called me and told me to come see her. I was embarrassed to go in, but I did it. She asked me what I thought about getting involved in coaching. I wasn’t keen but I gave it a try and I loved it. I coached at United for a while but left to take up a position as lead coach for a season with Morecambe’s Under-15s and Under-16s, alongside a part-time position at Oldham’s development centre Under-13s, as I wanted to get more experience and stretch myself in more senior roles. I’ve been coaching for four years now. When I think back, I wish I’d stopped playing earlier so I could have moved into coaching sooner.

Football is my passion, I’ve learnt a lot, not just from my own experiences but also from those around me during my journey. After everything that I’ve been through, all the ups and downs of my career, I now feel like it was all for a reason: to pass that knowledge on to the next generation.

I love the guidance aspect of coaching. As a player I had people telling me what to do, but no-one actually guiding me through. I needed an arm around the shoulder. I see the kids now and some of them are so similar to how I was. I need to make a difference. A lot of people are struggling and you have to be relatable to them, be friendly, show them you care. For some of the kids I’ve coached, I’m trying to be the guy I needed when I was their age. Feedback I’ve had from parents at United, Oldham and Morecambe makes me feel like I’m good at what I do. I get a kick out of it.

I definitely feel like I’ve found my calling. Football isn’t just about ability, there’s so much more to it and the lessons I’ve learnt can be a guide to others. I’m looking for that next step to grow further and I’m excited. I’ve had a number of approaches recently so we’ll what the future holds.

Now, it’s not about what happened. It’s all about what happens next.

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