UTD Unscripted: Don't look back in anger
When you’re young, you maybe take things for granted a little bit.
When I was named in the Champions League squad to face Wolfsburg in Germany back in 2009, I thought of it as something I’d earned. It was the logical next step for me. Now, 11 years on, I’m 29, I’ve retired from football and I can look back and see it for the absolute privilege that it was.
The journey through the ranks at United is a crazy one. You get scouted, you sign on as a kid and it’s such an amazing feeling to tell your family that you play for United. There aren’t a lot of kids that will get that chance and it’s a long journey to the first team. In my time at the club I never made a massive step forward or backwards, I just followed the path. I stepped up in years, went into the youth team, into the Reserves and I did the same in the England system: from the U16s to the U17s to the U19s to the U21s, so it was always in steps for me.
Every now and then I’d train with the first team, and when you went over to their training pitch, you really saw why they were first team players and why they’d had such amazing careers. It just showed you where you wanted to be and what it would take to get there. Giggs, Scholes, Carrick, Hargreaves… the standards that they would set themselves just showed you what was required.
I remember looking at the situation of the players in front of me, and it’s arguably one of the best front threes United have ever had: Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo. Behind them was Nani, and he had an absolutely outstanding talent. The things I’d see Nani do in training put him on a level with Ronaldo, I just think maybe Cristiano’s mindset carried him further. Nani was still one of the most gifted players in the world at the time. You weren’t just working towards a first team you could walk into; you were challenging some of the best players in the world, not just the best in England. That went for positions all around the pitch at the time; Edwin van der Sar in goal, a defence with Rio, Vidic, Evra… United’s team at the time wasn’t something you could stroll into.
If you are going to be a young player at United, you still have to believe that you’re going to do it. I can talk about my years competing with Ronaldo, lads before me can talk about competing with Yorke, Cole, Beckham, Giggs, Cantona… you can go back further. Manchester United is always going to have top players. No matter what decade or era you’re in, it’s not easy to get into that team. You’ve got to be more than proud of the achievement of getting to the cusp.
Making the squad for Wolfsburg, as far as I was concerned at that time, was the next step for me. It was the last Champions League group game in 2009/10, and we’d already qualified for the next round but we needed a draw or a win to finish top of the group. The gaffer was missing about 15 players for different reasons, so all the young lads knew that there might be a chance to be involved.
I knew that it was going to be between a few of us. I’m not convinced, looking back, that I was completely confident I’d be picked, but I did know that it was going to come down to who was playing well at the time and who had done well for Ole and Warren in the Reserves. They were going to have a big say in it, because the boss would have seen bits and bobs of us, but I suspect he would have asked them before making the final decision on which lads he’d be taking to Germany. I think what gave me some confidence that my name would have been in the conversation was that I had done well for Ole and Warren.
By the way, what a managerial pair they were. They had different styles but I cannot speak highly enough of what Ole and Warren did for my career, for my life, really. Moving forward after United, they put me in such good stead. My whole United path was lined by great coaches and people, who all contributed to make players good human beings. I swear there’s no better place to be. Ole and Warren probably get my nod as the best coaches I had because they helped me and nurtured me in ways that were different. Warren was seen as a hard man, and he was tough in terms of fitness and demanding more to make you a better player, but he was absolutely brilliant at talking to us and making us feel confident and happy. He was very versatile. People have this preconception that Ole was the nice one and Warren was the hard one, but that’s not quite true. If there was anyone who I knew would give me an earful at half-time, it was Ole, not Warren. Ole has a ruthless side to him and if he didn’t like something, you’d know about it. The two of them together were perfection, and anyone who played under them will tell you the same. I can’t praise the pair of them enough.
So I was quite hopeful they’d speak highly of me to the manager. I think a few of us found out we’d be going the morning before the first team travelled to Germany. The whole squad, including the Reserves, were on the bikes and a few of us – me, Ollie Norwood, Magnus Eikrem, Ollie Gill, Matty James – were told that we’d be training with the first team that day, which meant one thing:
Woah. We’re travelling.
I remember telling my family. It made me realise the journey we’d all been through and where I’d gotten to, because Mum and Dad were ecstatic, to say the least. Mum’s usually quite reserved but dad was so excited. Sometimes I think some parents think they invested a lot in helping their kids to build a career in football and are maybe owed something, but mine never did that. When I got in that squad and when I made it into England squads, they were proud of me because of what I’d invested, not because of what they’d put into it. They were just proud of how hard I’d worked and how well I’d done.
You know what stands out most in my mind from that trip? Manchester Airport. Arriving there and being blown away. The Media presence, everything surrounding you is just so, so different. You think people are interested in you when you’re playing for United’s Reserves, and you might get recognised out and about every now and again, but travelling with United’s first team is just something different altogether. The amount of cameras just watching you walk around, the number of people who just want to speak to you… everything around it is just so different, so overwhelming. It’s something that I’ll never forget, going to the airport that day. It’s another world. You always have to present yourself correctly for Manchester United, but on the day you’re part of the first team squad, that’s even more so. You feel 10 feet tall and it puts your confidence on top of the world. For anybody who wants to play football, there is no better feeling. Scoring goals is one thing, but there’s just something about walking around as part of the first team squad that you can’t even describe.
Before the game itself, I don’t think I was overawed. I was psyched for the game, very excited for it. I remember the boss came up to all us young lads after the warm-up and just said: “Look, enjoy today and things will take care of themselves. If you get an opportunity then don’t be afraid to take it.” I don’t think it overawed me at all, I just looked forward to it. I didn’t feel any pressure. Listen, if I knew I was going on the pitch or if I was starting the game then it may have been different, but I think the way we were told to enjoy the experience made everyone feel more relaxed about it. It wasn’t a pressure scenario, it was a case of: enjoy this moment, you deserve it.
We had 15 players out, we had a back three of Evra, Carrick and Fletcher, but so what? If we’d botched the game, the manager may have come out afterwards and pointed out the number of players missing for a hard fixture, but that’s not the conversation we had in the dressing room. We’re still Man United players. We still expect to win this game. At any level of the club, that’s what’s drilled into you. How else are we going to think? It was just another game – regardless of who was in the squad – where we go out, play our football and try to win the game.
And we did.
Looking back, it was not an easy game. Of course it wasn’t. It was a Champions League tie. I’d watched the competition and experiences playing for England, but being part of a Champions League game like that showed me just how good other leagues’ teams were. We weren’t playing Bayern Munich, this was Wolfsburg – by which I mean no disrespect – but they were still a top team with top players. We had to hang in there at times, but Michael Owen scored an outstanding hat-trick so we came away with a 3-1 win, which was a great result at the time.
Flying back afterwards, the feeling I had was one of: work hard, go back and achieve that again. There was no point coming home and feeling like I’d travelled with the first team so I’d made it. There were 15 players injured, after all. My thoughts were clear: if you want to feel that way again and reach that level again, it’s time to come home and work harder. I think it also gave me the desire to go out and play first team football. The way that the first team prepared, travelled and focused was something that stuck with me, and I wanted to go and try that every week. It’s difficult at United because you always want to be around, you never want to go, but at the same time a good loan can set you up to come back. Or it can set you up to join another club. The fact is, we can’t all make it into the first team.
I couldn’t think of one bad word for my time at United, none whatsoever. From the moment I arrived to the day I left, they helped me with every single step of my journey. Even when I left, it was done nicely. There was an opportunity for me to stay. All I can do is thank the club for the opportunity and for my upbringing, really. Obviously your parents bring you up, but I left home at 15 to live in digs. Really that’s part of when you start to become a man and I learned that at United. I’d like to think I’m a good man, so hopefully they did alright.
So I went on to play for a lot of different clubs, including some really good ones, but I retired at 28 because I just felt like I was done with football. I needed a breather because everything was becoming a bit much. I’d had two ACL reconstructions and just didn’t feel the same about the game. I didn’t want to coach so I had to look for something else to do with my time. I could have stopped altogether and done nothing, but you have to do something with your life, so I looked into things that I wanted to do.
It’s a huge change in lifestyle, of course. You listen to ex-players on TalkSport talking about what life’s like after you’ve quit playing and if I'd carried on playing I would probably just have batted that off, but I can tell you now that it’s harder than you think. Sometimes you’re disappointed in yourself and think about what you should have done, what you could’ve done, what you didn’t do and you find yourself thinking and thinking. Sometimes, being sat at home with your own thoughts is not a good place to be. I now think about how proud I am of the things that I did do, what I’ve achieved in such a short career and life, and what I hope to achieve in the future in a different way – whatever that may be.
I probably lost about 18 months, which is not too bad compared to some, just not knowing what to do and not wanting to do anything. I knew I wasn’t going to play again but didn’t want to accept it. The wages and the lifestyle are gone. When you stop playing and you think about it, is that you have to realise that that income is never going to be the same and you’re going to have to manage until you retire. Your life isn’t the same and you have to process that and manage it. For me, it was all about baby steps, going from what you spent before to what you could now afford, it was just so different.
My Mum’s a manager at a medical centre, an opening came up which was part time so I ended up going in as a prescription clerk. You handle people’s repeat medication, make sure everything’s in line and just do quite simple stuff. It started out as a hobby, really, but I found medicine more and more interesting. I want more and more responsibility, which has ultimately led to me hoping to one day be a pharmacist.
For a player in my situation, retiring so young, some parents might have had that glimmer of ‘what if’, but mine never did. They were both really proud of where we’d gotten to in the first place, what we’d achieved and how hard we’d worked. They never once questioned what I was doing. It was just: “If that’s what you want to do, son, that’s what you do.” I’d had two ACL reconstructions at that point, so they just said: “If you know you’re not feeling the same, if you know that you’re not reaching the levels you were at, then don’t put yourself through something that’s making you unhappy.” It was never about what they’d put in, it was about what I’d put in, and I can’t tell them enough how much I appreciate that.
I was pleased that there were things we could all look back on and be proud of together, though. I’ve kept four shirts from special occasions in my career – my first England shirt, my last England shirt, the one from the Reserves’ cup final against Aston Villa and my Champions League shirt from the Wolfsburg trip.
My journey didn’t get me on the pitch in Germany, but just being on that trip was one of the pinnacles of my parents’ lives. I’m happy enough with that.