UTD Unscripted: The road less travelled
This isn’t the kind of story you’d usually hear from an ex-footballer. I’m 31, I retired at 26, and I’m currently running a zero-waste shop and a plant milk business from Totnes, down on the south coast. I don’t really exercise, I hardly kick a ball and you’re more likely to find me at the beach than watching the match.
I recognise that it’s a different story to normal, but up to the age of 20 I was following the path that a lot of young players go down. I’ve always been a United fan. I couldn’t not be, coming from Walkden and being involved with the club from around seven or eight. It was natural selection. Once I was in the fabric of the club, I fell into supporting them, as you would.
One thing United coaches have always done well is that they’ve always talked about the history of the club alongside what the first team is currently doing. It was always part of the conversation. If we played at the weekend in the Under-10s, they’d be asking us if we’d seen the first-team game and what they’d done, so it was always referencing the first team, making you part of it, so you were living it all the time. You never saw yourself as being that far from the first team because the coaches would always speak to you about what the first team were doing, what certain players had done, how they prepared themselves and so on.
I had some highlights as I rose up through the age brackets, particularly the FA Youth Cup run of 2007. I’d just come back from a year out with a fractured spine, it was my second youth year and we all just gelled. We went out together, had an amazing time and it was a really enjoyable time to play football. I don’t think anyone expected us to get to the final and bond like we did, so there wasn’t a huge amount of pressure on us. We had a great youth team coach in Paul McGuinness and his staff were brilliant. The meetings would be really inspirational, we all felt like we were in it together and that showed on the pitch. Obviously it ended in disappointment, losing on penalties to Liverpool in the final, but we had a great attitude and we carried that up into the Reserves. That run propelled me, personally.
I got to the point of being around the first team and, oh man, that was huge for me. There was a part of me that was just so nervous going into training with these players I’d grown up looking up to 10 years earlier. Having jokes with Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes… it felt so weird. I was in awe, but you can’t do that. You have to remind yourself: I’ve got to apply myself here because I want to match what they’re doing and hope to one day reach their level. I knew I was where I wanted to be, but I had to get over those nerves. Even though you’ve been trained by great coaches all the way through the system and you’ve always been aiming towards the first team, when you get there and Sir Alex Ferguson is watching from the sidelines, it’s difficult. Of course it is. You have to focus but you’re just thinking to yourself: This is incredible… I hope I don’t f*** up!
When I look back now, making my debut 12 years ago… it honestly feels like it wasn’t me. I was living a different life to the one I’m living now. I work with plant milk now, so it’s crazy to think that I did play football, I did come on against Spurs and play against Gareth Bale and other top players. For me, it was such a great experience every time I played in the first team and I took lots of different things from them, the main one being that playing in front of so many people was incredible. I made my debut in a big game against a big team at a packed Old Trafford and we won 2-1. A lot of work and sacrifices went into getting to that point and I enjoyed every step of it.
When you leave United, as I did in the summer of 2009, it’s all downhill from there. Not in the sense of lifestyle, necessarily, but in terms of how incredibly good the footballers are and how dedicated they are to their craft. Each step I took after United was different. Going to Burnley was just different to being at United, then going over to Toronto to a fast, athletic league with facilities almost on a par with United, but the playing standards weren’t as good. Then going to New York Red Bulls, being around the likes of Thierry Henry, who is incredible, like Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of his professionalism. Then I came back to England, played for Oldham and my time was up. The passion was gone. I just didn’t feel it. I was going home and not being as happy as I should have been. I was being controlled a lot and I didn’t want to be told by an agent where to go and when to go.
“I’m going to quit football.”
This was in August, so I would have been going to other clubs to secure a contract, but I’d had enough. That was five years ago now and it was important that I made that decision, rather than pursue something that ultimately wasn’t going to make me happy. I’m not saying that you’re meant to be happy every single second, but certainly the majority of the time.
So we decided that we wanted to move to the south of England, live near the beach and figure out what to do when we got there. We rented a camper van for a week, visited where we're living now, and decided: Yep, this is the place. It's organic, the people are quite earthy, there are lots of incredible beaches. Thing was, we didn't know what we were going to do.
I turned vegan in 2014. I was playing for Red Bulls and injured my ankle ligaments in a game against Chivas USA. That put me out for three months and because the team was spending so much time travelling, it gave me a lot of time by myself or with my partner and we watched documentaries, read books, and I just got into the plant-based lifestyle. I soon noticed that I was healing quickly, I had loads of energy, I felt great and I've just continued it to this day. Football allowed me to have the space to do my own research into what was needed to become a plant-based athlete and thrive. Towards the back end of my career at Red Bulls I played the best football I'd played, I had more energy, I was recovering quicker and I think that led into the next phase of my life: eating only organic food that isn't sprayed with pesticides or herbicides. Living in New York, there's a huge movement for climate action, loads of protests ongoing, with people trying to shift the paradigm, so I was getting quite earth-conscious anyway.
Then, after we'd moved to Totnes and come back to Manchester to pack up our stuff, while we were planning what we were going to do, I just saw this image of a shop in Berlin. We'd pretty much decided to have a fully organic shop to become part of the community, serve customers and have a pleasant life, but when I saw this no-waste shop in Berlin, we decided to make our shop a zero-waste shop. That was the seed that grew into something big. There are now over 500 zero-waste shops in the UK and they're spreading all over the world because there's a massive need for people to not take on more waste than they already have to. In the last few years I've noticed that it's not too hippie to do things that are good for the planet. Every time you spend money, you're casting a vote on the world you want to live in, so if you're buying chemicals on a supermarket shelf, that goes into a drain that ultimately works its way into our oceans. We're all part of this big organism, so we have to be careful of where and how we spend our money.
I want my children to see me on a regular basis, I don’t want to be travelling all over, I want to be present with them. Now I don't have to worry about whether I've done well in training, whether the coach likes me, none of that. We own the shop, Earth.Food.Love, and we run a plant milk business called ReRooted. Both businesses have done really well and the milk is now being delivered nationwide in glass bottles which are washed and reused, which is mind-blowing. I'm in control of my life again and things are a lot more fluid than when I was playing football. Obviously you don't have money coming in left, right and centre, but the freedom has improved my life and my happiness.
Honestly, I often think about that mindset. When people absolutely dedicate themselves to something, eventually it turns out to be good. When you focus on something and study it for so long, you eventually become a master of it and I love that aspect of life. That’s what I tell all my staff now: when you’re uncomfortable, keep doing it and you eventually become very good at it. I learnt that from the likes of Gary in particular.
That doesn’t have to be in football either. If you haven’t watched the documentary Free Solo, watch it. It’s about Alex Honnold freeclimbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Until the end credits, I don’t think I exhaled. You’re living vicariously through him and thinking: f***, don’t drop! But that’s something you can only admire: someone training themselves and training their bodies so much to the point that they become a master of what they’re doing and they accomplish incredible things.
That can be through anything: business, family life, whatever path you want to take. For me, what I’m doing now is my craft. I want to reach the pinnacle of the food industry, be a pioneer in circular food businesses and I’m dedicating myself to it.
I’m about as far from playing at Old Trafford as you can be, but the journey to where I am and the road to where I want to be started with what I learnt in my time at United.