UTD Unscripted: Things that truly matter in life
I’m the first to admit that I’ve had good times and bad times in my career so far.
Coming through the ranks at the club I love.
Playing with my mates.
Playing for Sir Alex Ferguson.
Winning the Premier League.
All the bad stuff… those things are nothing but minors.
Of course, I’d love to be sat here with more league winner’s medals. I’m still bitter about the way we lost it in 2011/12 and it was only at the very last minute that the manager decided I should go out on loan to Wigan in 2010/11, the year United won the 19th title. So I might be sat here with three medals rather than one.
But that’s all part of the story.
That happened in 2011/12. From the moment I came on against City in the Community Shield to the moment I went off injured against Bolton five weeks later, that was a special time in my career. I find it hard to remember enjoying football more than I did in that period. Coming into a world class team and really finding my feet quickly, seeing off teams with loads of goals… it was amazing. I never thought I’d landed, but I felt at home in that team.
Then the injury against Bolton just killed me that year. It was a really complicated injury that I had in my foot. I look back and have a few regrets about the tackle that put me out, but I guess that’s part of the story too.
The same goes for how 11/12 ended. It doesn’t get much worse.
I wasn’t in the squad at Sunderland that day, but I was on my way down from the directors’ box at the Stadium of Light and as soon as Dzeko scored City’s equaliser, I knew. I could see it unfolding and that it was meant to be theirs. It was a terrible, terrible day in my career.
I still can’t listen to Martin Tyler’s commentary when the clip comes on Sky Sports.
You know the one.
I cannot listen to it. I have to turn over. My best mate, we’re both the same; can’t listen to it. Everything just comes back. Losing to your city rivals on goal difference with the last kick of the season, it doesn’t get much worse.
I’ll never forget in the dressing room after that game. The manager said to us all: ‘I told you. That’s why I wanted you to be more ruthless and really kill teams, because you can lose leagues on goal difference.’
And he was right. We’d gone in after beating teams 3-0 or 4-0 that season and he still hadn’t been happy with us in the dressing room. That’s how much of a winner he was, how ruthless he wanted us to be. If we’d done that, scored more goals, really killed teams, we’d have won the league in 11/12. But had we done that, would we have had that real determination to win it the next year and win it as convincingly as we did?
Would that have been so sweet if it hadn’t been so sour the year before?
Certainly I was looking forward to 2012/13. I played for Team GB at the London Olympics – that’s something else I’ll be telling the kids about with great pride: being an Olympian – and even though we got knocked out in the quarters I felt like I played well. It kept my fitness up, playing a summer tournament, and I had confidence going into the new season.
The whole squad had a big boost, actually.
For longevity, I have to say that Scholesy and Wazza are the best two players I’ve played with in my career so far, but if that Premier League winner’s medal in my trophy cabinet was owed to someone, it would have to be Robin van Persie. He was unbelievable. As an individual season, you’ll struggle to find many better than him in 2012/13.
Games where we didn’t even play well, that were such stalemates, you could just give him the ball and he would make a goal out of nothing. Just an unbelievable finisher. For me, I couldn’t have imagined his move going as well as it did. Everything he struck that season seemed to find the back of the net.
It wasn’t quite the same for me. Early on in the season I was aware that it was brewing and brewing that I hadn’t yet scored a senior goal. Newcastle came to Old Trafford in the League Cup and in the first half I missed a sitter.
I can’t really go into detail on the manager’s comments to me at half-time, but it was along the lines of ‘you couldn’t hit a barn door.’
I went out in the second half and scored.
I’d been at United since I was 11 years old.
What a moment.
Scoring at the Stretford End as an Academy graduate is great. People like Rashford, Welbeck, Lingard, it’s always in the media that they’re doing it, but if you go through individuals who’ve come through and done it, it’s not that many.
At the time, though, it was just a feeling of relief. In my previous loan spells I’d always scored goals, so it was just so good to get off the mark.
Well, it’s one of them… you’re told to cross for the back post and keep it on target, for just that instance where if you do overhit it, it goes in. I think I can be honest enough now and say that it was a cross and I was looking for Robin in the box. I’ve kept it on target like you’re told to and it’s found the net, so there you have it.
That was a great feeling, but to this day, I’ve never felt as good after a football match as when Robin scored the last-minute winner against City at the Etihad a couple of months later. Even when we actually won the league, I didn’t feel as good as I did in that moment.
I think Antonio Valencia and I were both doubts going into the game, and we’d kept it very quiet that both of us were going to play. I remember in the warm-up, thinking to myself that the manager had put a lot of faith in me, starting me in such a big derby – all the pre-match talk was that it would be the most viewed derby ever – and afterwards I was really pleased with my performance.
First half, 2-0 up, we were flying, I’d played well. I don’t think we played better all season. Even in the second when we were on the rack a bit, I still felt like I was having a good game. I didn’t get flustered despite the circumstances. City pulled it back to 2-2, at which point I think we’d have been big underdogs. With their home record, they thought they could smell blood.
We just came back at them and got the winner.
The manager brought me off with five minutes to go, so I was on the bench, right behind Robin’s free-kick as it went in. I knew it was in as soon as he hit it. Jonny Evans had come off earlier in the game and I was sat next to him. I’m good friends with Jonny and we still laugh about that moment now because I don’t think two people have ever squeezed each other so tight!
We went mad. All over the place, the celebrations were madness.
All my mates were in that away end, with flares going off around them.
To win the derby, in the last minute of what had been a proper game, everything kicking off like it did… every circumstance just felt so good. I wasn’t just pleased with all of that and my own performance; I felt like it was a bit of revenge for what happened the year before.
Revenge was also a factor when we beat Sunderland a week later. Obviously Sunderland as a club, we didn’t have anything against them, but it does stick in your mind, those Sunderland fans goading us on the final day of 11/12. Like I said, I’ve got close mates who are die-hard United fans, and in the build-up to that game at Old Trafford you got a sense for how much the fans remembered Sunderland. We played brilliantly, I scored, we won so comfortably, and after that we had our Christmas get-together. We were comfortably top of the league and things were going well.
For me, it made things even better that Welbz was in the team too. For sure it means more to share that kind of experience with a mate - you do get an extra buzz. We both played in the same youth team and I suppose it’s just nice that someone does that journey with you. Jonny was in the team too and he’d had the same journey, but me and Welbz were just a bit closer. You see what Rashford and Lingard are doing now. It does seem similar to what me and Welbeck had at that time. It’s always better when you’ve got a pal there who’s on the same journey.
We both started against Real Madrid at Old Trafford, in the Champions League. That’s another one that was both a highlight and a massive source of frustration. That night was the best Old Trafford atmosphere I’ve played in, but I’m still gutted because of the way it panned out. It would have been a big part of my career, beating Real Madrid in a Champions League knockout tie. We were doing it convincingly up until the controversial Nani sending-off, then Modric came on and he was brilliant. They made the extra man count and they beat us in the end.
We should never have lost that game. I still remember the manager getting up, gesturing to the Stretford End, the roar that got from the fans… it was just an unbelievable atmosphere and I can’t believe we got beat. All their big players were quiet until they got on top when we went down to 10 men. On a personal level I’m pretty gutted really that I never really got a good run in the Champions League, but it is what it is.
It wasn’t too long before we were Premier League champions. Before we clinched the title we played City at Old Trafford and lost 2-1, and even though we were still miles clear at the top of the table, I remember the manager being livid for the rest of the week that we’d been beaten. The lads wanted an extra recovery day but he just kept everybody on their toes. We got straight back to winning ways. He was a genius at getting the players to perform to their maximum on the Saturday.
The night we won it against Villa, I was on the bench. I wish I’d been on the pitch at some point, but I have my memories of the night. As soon as the first goal went in, you just thought: ‘here we go, this is it.’ I remember Welbeck’s reaction – everybody’s reaction, actually – when Robin scored that second goal on the volley. Nobody could believe it.
The celebrations made for a good night after that. We were all together, even the backroom staff. We went to the Living Room on Deansgate, then a couple of other places, but what mattered most was that we were all together. It went on long into the Monday night, we had a day off on the Tuesday and then straight back at it on the Wednesday.
That was the mentality of the club. I remember the manager and Mick Phelan speaking to us all and telling us that we wanted to finish well. That ruthless streak again. I remember some big challenges going in during training in that week where we’d won the league. The mentality of some of those players, the standards they set… Scholesy, Vida going in hard. Win the title, just one day off and go again. We still had a job to do.
Some things don’t change.
Some things do.
I was playing in the club golf day when I heard whispers that Sir Alex was going to call it a day. Later in the day you start hearing that it’s true, we went in to training the next day and he told us. It was clear he wasn’t going to change his mind.
You’re just like… wow.
I have so much respect for players and managers that continue to do it at the top. There are so many challenges, so many obstacles to overcome to be at the top for so many years. He had 27, 28 years of it. It’s unbelievable. He deserves everything he got. All the trophies, the success, the plaudits. It was just so frustrating that we weren’t able to win his last game, at West Brom.
Obviously we wanted to win it for him and we threw a big lead away. We should have won that game, no doubt. I think we went 4-1 and 5-2 up, but threw it away. It was so frustrating, but in the grand scheme of things, it didn’t change anything. For the 3,000 United fans at the Hawthorns, it wasn’t about winning the title, it was about giving the manager a proper send-off.
After the game, when he walks up to the crowd, that moment…
Goodbye after 28 years.
Yeah, goosebumps. Even now.
These are the things I’ll never forget.
Things like the trophy parade around Manchester, too. With the season being over, we enjoyed the parade day a little bit more than the night we won the league. It was unbelievable. I don’t think you’ll see scenes like that on Deansgate again. People must have been breaking in to offices just to get out of the windows and onto the scaffolding. Pictures of that are the things I’ll be showing my kids. That, and outside the town hall on stage with the Courteeners, who are my favourite band. For me, it was literally what dreams are made of.
I don’t think I realised at the time how significant a moment it would be in my career. You’re obviously hoping to be there for the rest of your career and challenging for titles every year.
I never thought that would be the end.
I was quite positive about David Moyes. A good, British manager who had the stability at a previous club, but unfortunately it just didn’t work out for him.
When I look back on 2013/14, two games were massive in, well, my downfall, I suppose. Liverpool away at the start of the season, we got beat 1-0, and it was a flat performance from myself. I’d already had a man-marking job on Hazard in our previous game against Chelsea, and that day I had the same job on Coutinho at Anfield. For me to show the other side of my game, it was tough.
Then you start hearing whispers.
It’s hard to get away from it all when you’re living in Manchester, your mates are all United fans and you’re playing for the biggest club in the world. Looking back, I probably wasn’t mentally ready for everything that was going to come my way. I struggled with the mental side of things. In the mix of it all I had a couple of good games – the manager still had the faith in me to play and I played a lot that year – but then the Olympiakos away game killed me, really. I was poor that night.
The snowball had already started, but now it had real momentum.
I was one of those players who goes under the radar in a team of stars, and you’re the first name that comes into everybody’s mind when they’re thinking about making changes. I remember my next start, four weeks after Olympiakos, going into the City game at home when we got beat 3-0 and I’ve never, ever been lower on confidence. For me, confidence is the biggest attribute a footballer can have, and that night I had none of it.
I’m not going to lie and say that I was enjoying my life at that time. Football was my life. I was playing for a club that I loved, I’d worked so hard to get there and I could see it falling apart. It was devastating.
You get letters at the training ground. You try to respond to fan mail, but in the end it gets to a point where you’re better off not reading it. Social media was just a hindrance, so I closed my accounts. Having a lot of followers on Twitter meant a lot less to me than my mental health and my football career. I just got rid of it all and I’ve never gone back on since. I think that’s been good for me.
Now, with two young kids and my missus, I’m far too busy in everyday life to be tweeting or Instagramming every two minutes. Of course, I fully understand it’s an important part of the modern game, having interaction with fans, but it’s just not me as a person, so I’m not going to try and do it.
It's been four years since I left United. Louis van Gaal was straight with me, which I appreciated, and I didn’t want to be a player who wasn’t playing. While I’d never wanted to be anywhere else, I knew it was my time to leave.
But, you know what? When my kids are a bit older, I’m not going to sit down and tell them bad things about my time with United. I’m not going to tell them that somebody shouted this at me in the street or someone sent this to the training ground. Like I said, these things are the absolute minors of what happened during my time with United.
My old man has always collected newspaper clippings, headlines and stuff like that from my career. Those things, all my youth medals, Charity Shield winner’s medals, an FA Cup runners-up medal from Villa, England caps… those are the things I’ll be proud of when I finish. That’s what I’ll show my little lad and little girl.
And I’ll tell them about playing in massive games for the club I love, with my mates, under the greatest manager ever, and how we won the Premier League.
And I’ll show them my medal.
Those are the things that truly matter, and nobody can ever take those things away.