Walking off the Old Trafford pitch, to a standing ovation, having represented my boyhood club in my last-ever start in professional football… it doesn’t sound real, does it?That happened to me, though. A proper fairytale ending, even if my story hadn’t exactly followed the traditional route to a happy ending.
I’ve appeared in the media a bit recently, albeit not really for the reasons I intended. I never spoke out about mental health to draw attention to They Think It’s All Over and my treatment by them, it was always about sending a message to people. I’m at that stage in my life where I recognise that helping others is what it’s all about, and the number of people I’ve had get in touch to thank me for helping them has been great.
There were times during my United career when I struggled off the field because I was being publicly mocked for my appearance, and I’m not going to lie: that did sour things for me a bit at the time. It should have been the happiest time in my life, but it wasn’t because I didn’t feel like I could mention how I was feeling to anyone. Now, I think people have been wanting me to say that I should have received more support from United, but to be honest even my own family didn’t know what I was going through. I never mentioned it to anyone. Nobody knew how I was feeling. I can’t remember if anyone asked me about it, but being the person I was, I wouldn’t have wanted to talk about it anyway. I don’t think you can support someone who doesn’t make it known that they need support, really. The point, I think, is that I didn’t do what I should have done at the time, which was talk to make myself feel better. That’s the only point I’m trying to make now.
As a footballer, though, they were the best times of my life. I got a Premier League winner’s medal and was part of probably the best squad in the world at the time. I loved my time on the pitch because I loved playing football and I couldn’t have been part of a better group.
To be honest, I was in love with United from the moment I walked through the door.
I was at Arsenal as an Under-13 player in their school of excellence, training one night a week at Highbury and playing on a Sunday. When I was 14 and playing school’s football and regional football, I was scouted for United by Ray Medwell. I was scoring a lot of goals and getting a lot of attention at the time, and Cambridgeshire had a county game against Essex and someone said there was a United scout coming. I was gutted because Essex had an unbelievable team and we weren’t the strongest. We lost 7-1 but I scored our goal and worked hard, so on the back of that I got invited up for a week’s trial at United. I stayed at the Castlefield Hotel with probably another 12 or 13 gifted players from my age range from all over the country. At the end of that week there was a game against Nottingham Forest at Littleton Road and I did quite well in that. We were all dropped off at Manchester Piccadilly and I got the train back to Cambridge, which took bloody hours! I got back to the little village station where I lived, my mum picked me up and said:
“Alex Ferguson has phoned. He was watching your game and he wants to know if you’ll sign schoolboy forms with United.” I thought she was mucking about, but she was serious. Once I heard that, there was no other place I was going to sign.
I think that was part of the genius of the gaffer. I can’t imagine I’ll ever meet anyone like him ever again. He makes you feel incredibly special, calling you personally to ask you to sign for United, but he’d do that for every kid he wanted to sign. He’ll go into the tiny little details. Later in my United career, I was at Carrington as a first-team player and there would be Under-11s Academy players and he’d know every single one of them, where they’re from, every little detail. He’d treat the dinner ladies and kitman with just as much respect as he treated the players. He’d have a go at you, of course, if things weren’t going well, but he had that aura about him where everyone wanted to do a little bit extra for him. You didn’t want to impress anyone more than the manager. If he said you’d done well then it was better than anything; the best feeling in the world. I think if you’ve built that culture and environment where every single person at the football club wants to do well for him, from the players to the laundry ladies, then that’s what the club’s success was built on: the way he built relationships with everyone, got everyone working incredibly hard for the organisation. I think that is the genius of the man. The few times that he shouted at me, the worst thing about it was the thought that you’d let him down because you felt like you wanted to do so much for him. The thought that he was disappointed in you was such a horrible feeling that you didn’t want it to happen again. It’s an incredible skill. He’s a genius. I don’t think anyone’s ever going to do what he did.
There were some geniuses among the players too. Just before United won the Treble, I trained with the first team at the Cliff for the first time and that was just unbelievable. I can’t even tell you how nervous I was. I don’t think any of them had a clue who or what I was. I remember doing the run through as a warm-up and I obviously looked nervous, the way I was acting, and I remember a couple of the guys doing a farting noise when I ran through, just a harmless little bit of banter, and I thought: ‘Oh no, this is going to be a nightmare’, but after that I actually trained quite well.
Me being me, I would dread training with them in the early days. When I was comfortable in my surroundings with the youth team I was fine, but when I got put in with the big superstars I used to get really nervous and I’d dread that call from the coach, who’d come down and say:
“You’re staying here today, training with the first team.” Once I got used to it, to play with those players was amazing. The best one was Paul Scholes. Every day, despite the fact that every one of them was world class, he just seemed to be a step ahead in terms of his intelligence. It was like he had eyes in the back of his head. He could play off one-touch and still look like the best player in the session. He could do a little bit of everything. Particularly when a lot of the stuff we did was in tight areas, he was better than everyone else, and saying that is quite a big statement given how good the rest of them were!
In my days coming through the youth team I used to play on the left wing more, so I’d be more comfortable there. A lot of the time I’d be playing against Denis Irwin playing at right-back and Gary Neville if he was playing. I’d be in the team that wasn’t starting. You can see it straight away because youth-team training is obviously a high standard at Manchester United, but once you go into the first team, the speed steps up, the aggression steps up. They train like they play, which is probably why they had so much success. It was quite an eye-opener compared to training with the youth team. You have to be on it every day, that’s for sure, and the standards are so high. It’s a steep learning curve that stands you in good stead if you’re someone like me, who didn’t really break through at United but still had the opportunity to go and have a career in the game.
It was such a whirlwind when I got in and around the squad that it never felt like I was competing with Giggsy and Becks, it was just a case of being so grateful for getting any opportunity and also just to see them play. They were, as I was growing up, two of my favourite players for the way they played and, even moving up to Manchester, I never thought I’d become a first-team regular but I knew it was such an opportunity to learn the game there. To be part of it, and to be even considered to be David Beckham’s understudy or Ryan Giggs’s understudy, was a huge honour. As a kid, I had to pinch myself. At that age, it was more about the opportunity of being around that. I was never of the opinion that Becks getting injured, might get me a bit of a run in the team, it was just: ‘get up every day, go train and if you get a chance, do the best that you can’.
From the whole squad, I took what it takes to be a professional footballer. You’ve got to be on it every day. Obviously I would look more at Giggs and Beckham, and what stood out most is the effort. You see them playing on telly and it just looks like it comes so naturally, but the amount of work they put in each day physically, and then the amount of extra technical work, it’s a real eye-opener of what it takes to be not only a footballer, but in their case world-class footballers.
Giggsy, the way he moved was just so smooth. He was like a Rolls Royce. You play against him and he takes that first touch away from you, but he’s so quick that you can’t get back to him. It was a joy to watch for all the fans on the telly, but when you’re on the same pitch as him, playing against him, you realise exactly how good he is and the majority of them are.
There are probably a few players in my career who I look back on and think ‘I didn’t like them at all’, but at Manchester United there wasn’t one. Incredible, humble people for what they were achieving and what they were doing every single day. If you weren’t on it in training, you get told in no uncertain terms, but off the pitch, you couldn’t ask to be made to feel any more welcome.
I had some good times in the first team, particularly in 2000/01, my second season in the senior squad, and the outstanding memories probably came against two of our biggest rivals at the time: scoring against Leeds and getting sent off against Liverpool.
I probably didn’t appreciate the ferocity of it at the time because I was so young and just coming through, but United against Leeds was a huge deal. I remember Nicky Butt was struggling with an injury and he came off at half-time, the gaffer said I was going on for the second and I was obviously really nervous about that. I was playing against Danny Mills, who I’d played against a number of times with England U21s and he was a really good player, but I thought the way I played meant I might get the opportunity to get past him a few times.
Midway through the half, Scholesy put Ole through and I was running through the middle. Ole hit a fairly weak shot and Nigel Martyn was one of the best keepers in the league at the time but it was a really sloppy save from him, it came out and my eyes just lit up. I remember thinking: ‘I can’t believe he’s dropped it’, as I raced to the ball. Even I couldn’t miss that one! The feeling of elation when it went in was incredible. I’ve seen it back on the telly and you can see how ecstatic I am, I just ran off and celebrated uncontrollably. I remember being on the pitch with about 15 minutes to go and thinking to myself: ‘please let that be the winner’, but it wasn’t to be and Viduka equalised late on. Still, I can’t tell how amazing it feels to score for Manchester United at Elland Road.
It certainly feels a lot better than getting sent off and losing to Liverpool!
We were 1-0 down at Old Trafford and chasing the game with a few minutes left. I came on late, not much was coming off for us and we were piling forward looking for an equaliser. We must have had a corner cleared or something, and Liverpool broke on us. I don’t know exactly why I was the last man chasing Smicer back, but I just remember getting the wrong side of him. The strange thing was that he was holding me as much as I was holding him. I didn’t really understand it at the time because he could have just run away and scored, but in the end we both just sort of stumbled over each other. As soon as the ref blew the whistle I knew what was coming, and that was a strange feeling inside. I’m not the sort of player that gets booked or carded very often, so to be sent off at Old Trafford against your fiercest rivals was certainly one to remember!
I wasn’t aware of the parallels between what I’d done and what Ole had done against Newcastle a few years earlier. It was only afterwards that I saw the straight comparison on TV. I think the crowd must have recognised it though, because as I was coming off the pitch I got a standing ovation.
I didn’t know what to do! I just thought: I’d better not clap back, what will the manager think?’. My thoughts were all over the place!
I got back in the dressing room and, I forget who it was, maybe Denis, but they were on the treatment table and they asked if I’d come off injured. I said:
“No, I’ve been sent off,”
and I just sat there in silence waiting for everyone to come back in. I was absolutely s******* myself waiting for the manager to come in. It was fine in the end though, and he pretty much said that I didn’t really have any other option than what I did, so that was a massive relief. It was still a huge disappointment that we’d lost a really important game.
It didn’t stop us winning the league by a huge margin, though. I loved getting that Premier League medal and, football-wise, I was feeling confident going into 2001/02.
Unfortunately, that’s when things turned for me a little bit.
I started struggling with my groin and my hips, and the main part of my game, the thing that probably got me appearances for Manchester United was the fact that I was really fast at the time. I had a little operation on my groin and hip, and coming back from that I lost half a yard of pace, and without that really good speed I probably didn’t offer enough to carry on. All I wanted to do was play football, so while everyone else was in the gym getting stronger I probably neglected that and didn’t improve enough physically, which probably resulted in me not being fit enough. After the operation, I went back to training with these lads and I could see that I wasn’t having the same impact, wasn’t making things happen like I did.
I think once I went on loan to Reading I knew that my time at United was over, then I went to Burnley on a season-long loan, but from that time I was never going to break back in at United. The gaffer said to me, completely honestly:
“You’re not the same player, you’re not going to add enough to Manchester United and it’s going to be really tough for you to have a career in the top flight.”
That’s tough to hear, obviously, but at the same time I appreciated the honesty. After that, you go and find your own way, and it took me a long time to change the way I played, because I carried on trying to run with the ball without that pace and ended up not getting joy from it. I had to change my style to be more effective as a player again.
I had tough times at United in terms of things off the pitch and with a few injuries, but from the age of 14 I fell in love with the place. That was strange for me because I never used to want to go to Arsenal. Because I was such a quiet, shy lad, I just wanted to play with my mates, but I was made to feel so welcome and so much part of a family from the second I went in there, I just loved it. United gave me everything, in terms of giving me what was needed to have a career in professional football, albeit not at that top level, a career that I wouldn’t change for the world. I played for some fantastic football clubs. Whenever you go anywhere else it’s completely different to United, but the fact that you’ve been there means you’ve learnt so many lessons of what’s required, really.
Everything I learnt at United has stood me in good stead and it’s still hugely relevant for me today. I’m currently involved in a company called the Football Fun Factory, which is just about – as the name suggests – children between 2-12 having fun while playing football. It’s about the first experience of football being a fun one, rather than being all about who scores the most. It’s about developing positive life skills, praising communication, teamwork, sportsmanship.
As important as it was to be a top football player at United, it was just as important how you represented yourself and the club off the pitch. The values that were built into me from 14 have stuck with me my whole life and made me become, hopefully, quite a good person. Our organisation can give something back to football and take away from the win-at-all-costs approach. It’s about the 99 per cent of kids who don’t make it as professionals but still love football. It’s about positive experiences for children, not money.
For me, that’s what it’s all about. One of the proudest things I’ve done as a footballer was something that cost me a lot of money. Late in my career I was at MK Dons, feeling that my legs were slowing down even more. I didn’t have long left and it was always my dream to play for Cambridge United, my boyhood team, so I actually contacted them about a move. It was a big risk and it cost me a lot of money to leave a League One club, but it was my dream. The move happened towards the end of 2013/14 and the way things panned out from there were amazing.
Firstly, within a couple of months we were promoted back to the Football League.
Secondly, in the 2014/15 FA Cup campaign, we scraped past Luton into the fourth round and we were all buzzing just to make it that far. I was watching the fifth-round draw with my missus and kids. We came out first at the Abbey, then when United came out… it was bedlam. Everybody was shouting and screaming… you couldn’t have asked for a better draw. I can’t explain that feeling – it felt like scoring at Leeds – of being sat there watching BBC and suddenly United being pulled out against us. It was incredible.
To then draw that game 0-0, so that we could go back to Old Trafford was just unbelievable for the club and for me personally. Drawing was better than winning. I think everyone, from the chairman down to the players, was happier not winning that game so that we got the chance to go to Old Trafford, obviously the financial gains for the club were a big deal – it was huge for a small club like Cambridge.
I felt really nervous beforehand at Old Trafford. We knew the team we were playing against, who United would have out, and the team was full of world-class players. I was told I was going to play on the wide left, and Paddy McNair was playing right-back for United. In my head, I’m thinking: ‘right, he’s a young lad coming through, perhaps I’ll have a chance to really impact on the game’.
Within 10 minutes of the game starting, I realised I was going to struggle!
I spent most of the night chasing him! What a fantastic athlete he was. I can’t say I had any impact on the game at all. We didn’t really get a kick and ended up losing 3-0. For me, just to be out there, playing for the team I love in that stadium was an unforgettable experience. During the second half, my number came up and I was subbed off. I just didn’t expect what happened next: another standing ovation. I never expected any kind of reception. It was the first time I was back at Old Trafford as a player since I left, so to get that applause when I came off was a moment that genuinely stood the hairs up on the back of my neck. It was incredible to get that. I never said it at the time, but let me say now: thank you to the people who were there that night. It felt absolutely amazing. I got subbed a fair few times in my career, but that was the best one!
That turned out to be my last-ever start in professional football. Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather my career hadn’t ended then but, looking back, it’s a fairytale ending, to finish off at the club that I always supported, to play at that incredible stadium against the club that made me the person I am today, through my formative years of being a footballer.
I definitely think of that as a happy ending