UTD Unscripted: Going back to the start

Of course, I was still playing football, improving my skillset, using that physicality to be quite dominant on the pitch even though I was quite small. It got to a point where I had to make a decision at 15 about what I was going to do. The only option, really, was to go to college to study. I took Biology, PE and Business – I loved these subjects and all these years later they are still my favourite areas to learn about.

Then, through all this endeavour and training, a miracle happened: I was approached by a scout called Bryan Poole who had seen me in a few games. A central defender who was going to be at United’s Academy had picked up an injury, so there was a position to be filled. Even though I was playing central midfield at the time, he wanted to give me the opportunity to see if I could do it at centre-half, although I was a small lad. So, even though it could have been a huge disadvantage for me, being put in at centre-half, all the training and the lifting gave me something different and made me stand out. In December 1991 or 1992 I played my first game for Dave Bushell for the Under-16s away at Blackpool.

I thought to myself: This might be my one and only chance. I’ll leave it all out there. So I tried to do absolutely everything: I scored a goal; I took corners, free-kicks and throw-ins; I was talkative, I expressed my power – I just took the opportunity. I ended up signing a YTS after playing another six times for the Under-16s. I found out later that Dave Bushell had decided they were going to sign me after that first game, not because of my football ability or even my physicality, but because I looked him in the eye when he was speaking to me. That maturity convinced him to take a chance on me and help me develop as a player.

Once I joined United, it was very, very difficult. I remember my first day. You turn up, get your kit, you’re proud of where you are, you get the badge, your number – I was 56, I’ll never forget it – and you’re in this man’s world all of a sudden. You see Bryan Robson and all those players walking around the Cliff. Looking back now, the timing was a great watershed from the old school to the new generation of professionals about to embark. The ‘Class of ’92’ were two years above me, there was a great buzz around them and I was following in their shadows. I didn’t realise that there was also a hidden glass ceiling about to be created above my head, but my journey had begun.

The B-team, which was the Under-17s, was led by Pop Robson, while Eric Harrison took the Under-18s, known as the A-team. As soon as you got there, you realised it was us versus them, whether it was in the dressing room or on the pitch. Pop set us up to play against the Under-18s and Eric was preparing them for the Youth Cup. Every day was physically and mentally exhausting, just because the level of the second years was so high. I remember losing 12-0, 13-0 the first couple of weeks – they were like the Red Arrows flying past you – but as us first years matured, got a bit fitter, we started to find a way to firstly unnerve the second years, and then to dominate them and beat them. I’ll never forget that feeling. If we can beat them, we can beat anyone. That year group, the ‘Class of ’94’, ultimately didn’t succeed. Then we became second years and the cycle continued. The new first years had to go through the same gruelling but essential process.


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