UTD Unscripted: Band of brothers
When people ask me what it was like growing up at Manchester United, I always describe the club as an empire.
Coming from the top, all the way through the club, the standards and the morals were really high. For a young player coming through the ranks, they wanted to you to be a good person first, then a good footballer. The club’s priorities were right. If people were acting the d***head then they’d very quickly be made aware that it wouldn’t be tolerated.
All around you – the players, the coaches, the physios, the welfare officers and people all over the club – none of them stood for any bulls***. There was just a winning mentality and a winning environment. It was great to be brought up in that setting because it put me in contact with some amazing people.
When I first came over from Ireland, I was buzzing just to be offered a trial with the club. I was overjoyed I could tell my mates at school about it. I never thought I’d end up signing; I thought it was too big a club for me. I had offers from other clubs, so when I went to United I was quite relaxed because I didn’t think I had any chance of signing anyway, so I just saw it as something to enjoy.
I ended up having a really good trial and they offered me a deal. I had to weigh it up because Leeds had been the frontrunners to sign me up to that point and they had big Irish connections, but ultimately United were too good to turn down. Luckily I made the right choice – Leeds had a turbulent few years after that.
Before you come over to England from Ireland to pursue your career in football, there’s always quite a negative, but I guess realistic, reaction to it. It’s great to be picked to go over, but then people start talking about the percentage of players who don’t make it, the homesickness, players not making the grade… so I went over like a man possessed.
There was no way I was going back to Ireland without making it. I would approach every training session like it was a game. I look back on my time as a kid at United, the way I played in training and I just think: Jesus, I was a lunatic! I was probably way over the top in training and might have overdone it at times, but I went into it assuming that everybody was fighting for a career.
Straight away, it was explained to me and all the other players that the FA Youth Cup was the most important competition for the young lads. I remember Jimmy Ryan saying that the youth leagues were for development, where the coaches would change personnel and try different things, but when the Youth Cup came around, game faces were on because the competition was absolutely massive. You could feel it in the build-up to the games. All the history of the competition was drilled into you – Bobby Charlton, the Busby Babes and so on – so you knew what you were representing when you walked out onto that pitch: history.
The nerves and anxiety that surrounded those ties were great preparation for senior football. It’s hard to replicate games that really mean something, and the Youth Cup gave you an early taste of what was to come. In the week or two leading up to the Youth Cup games, we’d have 11v11s in training and that was basically the trial for the game. I learned so much in those games, I’d make mistakes and I’d have Jimmy Ryan and Brian McClair telling me where I’d gone wrong, so I’d go home afterwards and make entries in a little journal about what I’d learned.
The day before a Youth Cup tie, usually on the minibus going home after training, you could sense there was a bit of anxiety going through the lads about the game. We all knew that if we won the Youth Cup, there was a pretty good chance that we’d get an opportunity with the first team, even just training with them. That was a driving force, that sniff of getting nearer the first team.
We also knew we had a really good team and a really good chance of winning it, so the lads were so fired up for it. That 2002/03 team was me and Mark Howard at centre back at the start of that cup run because Phil Bardsley had been injured, then Lee Sims right-back, Lee Lawrence left-back, Luke Steele in goal, they were all very good. Kieran Richardson was a big player in the team, probably the star, because he had that buzz that went with his name as well, and something of a fear factor for the opposition.
Mads Timm, too – Mads was a brilliant player at the time and it was sad to see that it didn’t really happen for him. David Jones was a very good midfielder with an excellent attitude towards the game, Chris Eagles could create something from nothing, Ben Collett was a real workhorse on the left. Upfront we had Eddie Johnson, who was in my digs and he was a goal machine, then it it swapped between Sylvan Ebanks-Blake and Ramon Calliste to partner him. We had some really good players.
We got a huge boost by beating Newcastle in the first round because they were one of the favourites at the time. I remember after that game, we also found out that Rio Ferdinand, Gary Neville, Roy Keane and some of the other first teamers had been watching on MUTV, and as a 16-year-old that was such a buzz. That was also a driving factor for me: of course you want to impress the first team. It was a brilliant experience. Getting through that first game, being watched by the first team, gave us that confidence and I think teams feared us in the Youth Cup that season.
Our confidence kept on rising and propelling us through the rounds until we met Middlesbrough in the two-legged final. We won 2-0 up there, drew 1-1 at Old Trafford and it felt amazing to get our hands on the trophy afterwards. The final’s on television, so I had people back in Ireland watching me, in my first year over in England. That whole experience: fresh-faced, ginger-haired, freckly kid, fresh off the boat from Ireland, comes over and wins the Youth Cup live on Sky Sports… it was a special year for me.
In fact, looking back, my first year in England was, professionally at least, probably one of my best years in England! The sense of achievement was incredible. I remember going back home after the season with my mum and dad and it felt like a job well done. Of that class of 2003, I’ve always stayed in touch with Sylvan Ebanks-Blake. We joined at the same time so we had a lot in common. We’d always do extra-training together too. After school on school days we’d go into the training ground and play one-v-one. I swear we used to kick the s*** out of each other. We were best friends but sort of hated each other at the same time because we tried to drive each other on.
In the gym, we’d kick the ball off the wall, he’d try to control it and I’d be up the back of him, booting him. We were just trying to get better and better every day. We struck up a special friendship and we still chat now. The friendships that really formed, though, came years after I’d left United and moved to Hull City. There was a phase where a lot of lads from United were coming on loan to Hull when they were in the Championship, and it became a United outpost. There was James Chester, Joe Dudgeon, Robbie Brady, Cameron Stewart and Corry Evans – I knew Corry already through Jonny, who was a similar age to me.
James was a similar age to me, I think I played an under-17 game with him. I knew Robbie’s family already, I’d played against his brother Darren back home, so there were little connections already, but what brought us close together was the United thing. We just had this same mentality. It’s like an institution, like we were brought up with the same principles and standards and we really got on really well.
Me and Robbie were living with James at Hull. I lived in Leeds but decided to move back to Hull because the travelling was becoming too much. I asked Chezzy:
“Is it okay if I stay at yours for a week while I find myself a place?” I ended up staying there for nearly two years! We had a good relationship, a great understanding of things. James is very professional – I learned so much off him in that period of living with him.
The discipline he had in himself, the preparation he’d do was brilliant. Then Robbie came on loan from United and he’s genuinely just hilarious – I think he’s the funniest person I’ve ever met. So quick witted, even at such a young age. Joe was the brains of the group. He’s a very intelligent guy and a great person to be around. He’s really good company and he had his head screwed on.
Corry and Cameron were two great lads that were a big part of the dynamic. Cameron lived with us as well until he went out on loan and Corry and Joe were always in and out of the house. It felt like football university, minus the alcohol – except on special occasions like the year we got promoted back to the Premier League. When you have these people beside you, good lads who’ll do anything to win, it gives you confidence on the pitch. You put your body on the line for those sort of people.
James, Robbie and Joe were groomsmen at my wedding, I was best man at Robbie’s wedding, I was groomsman at Chezzy’s wedding, we’ve had a WhatsApp group for some time, so we’ve always been in touch with each other and kept in touch wherever football has taken us.
We’ve been on holiday together and done everything together. As well as us, our wives and girlfriends are good pals as well. We’ve all got kids now too, so it’s a shame with everything that’s going on in the world right now that we’re not able to get our families together every weekend, but at least that’s something to look forward to.
It’s been over a decade and the relationships have developed through the years. I’m just glad that we’re still so close. In football you meet so many people, you end up losing touch because it’s a natural thing when you move to a new group of lads, form new relationships and lose touch with former team-mates, but our relationships have pretty much stayed the same.
I was down south at Reading, away from all the lads, but now I’m back up at Rochdale, I’m living in Worsley close to most of the lads – and it’s great to have them down the road when we’re able to meet up again. Everyone who has come through United at a certain stage has that same winning mentality. I want to hang around with people who have that mindset and want to make the best of themselves, have that drive, and that’s something we all had in common. That stemmed from the grounding we had at United. That brought us together and we were similar.
For a club like Manchester United, despite the size of the place, everybody is so down to earth – there’s no crap with anybody and that’s what I love about the lads: they’re honest, hard-working, down-to-earth lads. They’ve all made brilliant careers for themselves and that’s down to the schooling they’ve had at United.
I’ll always look back fondly on my time at United. Not only did the experience develop me as a player, it also shaped me as a person and gave me some of the best friends I’ve had in my life.