Player, West Bromwich Albion, 2001-2003
I had it all rehearsed in my head. I knew exactly what I was going to say.
But the moment I sat down in Sir Alex’s office, all the words went out of my head. I completely bottled it.
By then, I’d been a Manchester United player for 11 years, from schoolboys through to scholarship and then professional. But I was 21 years old, and I wanted to be playing regular first-team football. To do that, I felt I needed to leave.
I grew up just behind the Class of ’92 at Manchester United – something I blame my parents for. It was great to see so many academy players have the success they did, but at the same time it was really tough for the group of young lads trying to follow them.
We got judged a little bit by their standards – standards that had probably never been reached before, by such a big group of Manchester United academy players.
It drove you on to make yourself better, though. They’d set the bar high – it was up to us to try and match it.
We trained at The Cliff, where Sir Alex (above) would appear pretty regularly, walking over from the main building to watch us train or play matches. He had a real interest in what was going on, across all the age groups.
You’ve probably heard people say how great a memory he has, and it’s absolutely true. Not only does he know your strengths and weaknesses, but he never forgets a name. He’ll know the names of your mum and dad and how many brothers and sisters you’ve got – it’s incredible.
That’s probably one of the things that makes him stand out from a lot of people. It shows how much respect he has for everyone.
Of course, he could be intimidating when he wanted to be. But it helped that we had Eric Harrison coaching us at the time, because he was almost the clone of Sir Alex in the sense that he was very strict.
"I chose the wrong club, and it was no one else’s fault but mine"
He expected certain standards, and from early on he drilled into us what’s expected from you as a Manchester United team. Yes, you are expected to play a certain way – to entertain people, even at youth level – but you’re also expected to win, and you’re expected to win every single game.
So, when the boss did come to a game, it wasn’t so bad. You were already used to that type of pressure.
When I look back, it’s those two – Eric Harrison and Sir Alex – who had the biggest impact on me from a coaching perspective. Not only because of their strength of character and the discipline that they instilled in me, but also because of their approach to winning.
When you go into management, you come to understand the reality that you get judged on results. But if you put the expectation forward to your players that yes, we have to win, but I want to win by entertaining people, then that’s an excellent starting point.
I was 19 when I first left Manchester United to go out on loan.
I’d seen a lot of my mates leave the club and playing first-team football, and I didn’t want to get left behind. So when Lincoln came in for me, I said I wanted to go. I was warned that it was the wrong choice. Told I should wait for another opportunity. But I was desperate to play first-team football.
It’s an experience that I use all the time with my players now, because it was a great education.
I was there for a month, played four games, and in each one I think I touched the ball about six to eight times, and that was either heading or flicking it on. It was brutal.
I chose the wrong club, and it was no one else’s fault but mine.
"Sir Alex had told the others: 'He’s got some bottle, that lad’"
I couldn’t wait to get back to Manchester United, but I also knew that I had to go out on loan again if I wanted to play first-team football. This time, though, I had to pick the right team.
I had two choices. I could have gone to Wigan, who were at the top of League Two at the time, or to Grimsby, who were bottom of the Championship.
I picked Grimsby. A couple of people at United thought I’d made the wrong choice, but I felt that the standard of the Championship and the opportunity to come up against better players was the right move. I had to back myself.
It worked out well. Over two months I played 10 games, scored a few goals and went back to United with my confidence through the roof.
I managed to get into the European squad, which was great. But it wasn’t enough. I needed to be playing regularly.
That’s when I decided to knock on the boss’ door. You already know I bottled it once, but the truth is I bottled it twice.
“Come in, take a seat. What’s the problem?”
As soon as Sir Alex spoke, I forgot everything I wanted to say. “I was just wondering if, er, you thought I was doing well...”
The third time I knocked on his door, I was determined to get it right. Before I even sat down, I blurted out: “Don’t say anything, let me speak first.”
Some years later, I found out that he went into the coaches’ room after I left and told the others: “He’s got some bottle, that lad.”
"People have a lack of respect and don’t care where you’re from"
If only he knew it had taken me three attempts.
When I told Sir Alex that I felt it was time for me to move on, he said I didn’t need to. That I would get my fair share of games over the next few years and was just starting to mature.
But I’d already made up my mind.
There were a few clubs in for me at the time. A couple in the Championship and Preston North End, who were then in League One. A couple of lads I’d been at United with had already gone to Preston earlier in the summer, and told me how much they were enjoying it. Location-wise, it also worked – I wasn’t moving too far from home.
I joined in the pre-season of 1997/98, as the club’s then record signing. Right from the start, it was a real eye-opener.
As good as youth-team football and reserve-team football was, it was a massive step to go and play first-team football every week. Even if you’re going from playing for Manchester United reserves to a side in the National League, it’s still a progression. It’s still men’s football.
People have a lack of respect for you. They don’t care where you’ve come from.
Because of the signings Preston had made, there were high expectations at the club that season, but it took a bit of time for the squad to gel. We started poorly and for most of the season we were struggling around 15th in the league.
Then in January David Moyes took over as manager and steered us clear of relegation. Over the next few years we did well, winning the title and getting promoted to the Championship in 1999/2000.
I had bit of a love-hate relationship with David. He’s someone I get on really well with now, but as manager and player we were constantly butting heads – not literally, I should add.
"I went into the op with one injury and came out with four"
I always had an opinion. About how we played; how we trained. Everything.
It was probably the manager side of me coming out early doors, but it was to my own detriment at times. On a couple of occasions, it got me dropped from the team.
I still had four really good years at Preston, playing men’s football with a great group of lads. But when West Brom came in for me during the fourth year of my deal, I thought that maybe it was time for a change.
At the time, I felt that if I was ever going to play in the Premier League for a club moving out of the Championship, then West Brom would definitely give me that opportunity. It was January 2001 when I joined, and we actually did make the playoffs that season – but Bolton Wanderers ended our push for promotion in the semi finals.
It ended up being my last chance.
The next season started really well for me. It was looking like becoming the best one of my career, and I was getting a lot of interest – even from Premier League clubs.
But, in November 2001, it came to an abrupt end.
I remember the moment clearly. Partly because it was my next-door neighbour, Des Lyttle – the guy I drove to training with every day – who caught me. I got to the ball just in front of him and he stuck out a foot. Straight away I felt something pop in my knee.
It was a partial tear of my posterior cruciate ligaments (PCL). These days, it’s the kind of injury that 98 per cent of people don’t even have operated on. But I ended up having the ligament reconstructed, and that’s where my problems really started.
I went into the operation with one injury, and came out with four.
Football’s a tough industry to be in. Generally, there are a lot more downs than ups. The two years following that injury were two of the toughest I’ve experienced.
I tried everything I could to get back to playing.
"It was an addiction. But it kept me from a far darker path"
I was in the gym constantly. Doing way more than I should have done. I just wouldn’t let it go. I got a little bit obsessed with it all.
If I’m honest, I was completely obsessed with it.
At the time, I didn’t recognise it. When I started coaching at West Brom a few years later, I got talking to the club doctor who had come in when I was probably at my lowest point. He told me that, if he’d been at the club earlier, he would have got me to see someone.
“What do you mean?”
“You were horrible. A completely different person. Aggressive. You’d give people no time. Very rarely engaged with anybody. It’s Jekyll and Hyde compared to how you are now.”
I’m sure the people around me could see it, but they were too scared to say anything. It was an addiction.
But it was probably one that helped to keep me away from all sorts of other stuff that could have taken me down a far darker path. One that stopped the demons from taking control.
I played my final game of first-team football in November 2003, two years after the day my knee went pop. As soon as I announced my retirement, I planned to head straight back up north.
If that had happened, I’d have easily slipped out of the game completely.
But I was lucky – the West Brom manager Gary Megson was having none of it. I went to see him to say: “Thanks for everything, I’m off.” But he told me to hang on for a while.
“Just for the next month. Come in and stick to your routine. Get your kit on, be one of the players, or stand with us and get involved in a couple of the warm-ups and stuff like that. See what you think.”
One month turned into six. Standing on the sidelines turned into compiling scout reports. Eventually, opportunities started coming my way. First with the club’s under-13s, then the under-15s, and eventually assisting the youth team’s head coach, Craig Shakespeare.
It was the start of a journey that has involved ups and downs of a different nature. But ones that I’m well-equipped to deal with.
Starting my footballing life in the shadows of the Class of ’92 might have been difficult, but doing so under the guidance of Sir Alex Ferguson and Eric Harrison gave me the perfect grounding – and the bottle – for management.