Do you have any specific memories of your time as a Flixton player?
I think I first started playing for Flixton juniors when I was 6, I went down on my own with the usual nerves kids have when they first start at a club but I was made to feel welcome straight away. The club created a fantastic atmosphere with great emphasis placed on developing youngsters in a positive learning environment so I absolutely loved it. It had a rich history of producing and developing good players at the time so my dad had obviously done his research! I still remember winning the well renowned Lytham St Annes youth tournament when I was 8, it was my first taste of success and you remember days like that forever. I’ve still got the trophy now. It’s scary to think that it was 20 years ago! We won 2-1 after going a goal behind. I scored the winner in extra time against a team from Grimsby so we did the North West proud! Incidentally, it was at Flixton that I first met our manager Andy Nelson as I played alongside his son Terry. Gaz Thomas was also in the same side.
You were then spotted by United, how did that come about?
We had a fantastic team at Flixton, the best around for our age group by some distance and we dominated for a number of years so it was no surprise that clubs were watching us. I was originally with Manchester City from when I was about 7 years old but when Manchester United came calling there was only one place I was going! I was playing for Flixton in a local tournament in Swinton when a scout from United approached my dad. He didn’t tell me until I was in the car on the way home and as you can you imagine, I was absolutely buzzing when I heard the news. My brother Stephen was in the car too so it was a great family moment.
Have you any stand out memories from playing at United?
The whole experience was something I will always cherish and look back on with great pride. The coaches were superb and they always took an interest in you as a person, not just as a player. You remember things like that as you get older. Even though I was still young, I learnt so much about the game from a technical and tactical point of view. Some of the coaches, such as Paul McGuiness and Tony Whelan, are still there now and it’s the continuity and quality of coaching that sets United apart from other clubs. I played with some really good players and some like Phil Bardsley (Sunderland), Alex Bruce (Hull) and David Jones (Blackburn) who were fortunate enough to go on to make it professional. Although I obviously never made the grade, to say I represented the club I love for a number of years really was a dream come true. Not many people get the opportunity to do that so I feel extremely privileged and honoured.
What happened at the end of your spell with United? Did you have offers of a professional contract?
I had a few offers when I left United, I had opportunities at a few clubs like Macclesfield, Bury and Stockport but it just wasn’t the same. It was United or nothing for me. The playing philosophy and coaching environment was a huge contrast to what I was used to at United and I didn’t enjoy it. For the few weeks I was at Stockport all we seemed to do was running which just wasn’t for me! I completely fell out of love with the game for a long while after leaving United and it took me quite a few years to start enjoying it again.
Is this the time that you moved from centre forward to centre back? Or was this a gradual progression backwards?
Well I originally started my career as a striker as I was actually quite small as a kid but I think every player starts out as striker anyway! When I went to United I did eventually play centre back but they teach you how to be a better footballer and not just a better position so it gives you an excellent grounding and education. They followed a similar model to what Ajax introduced where everyone would play in every other position to improve your thinking and technical ability. You also get to understand the role of your teammates more. It benefited me extremely well because at various times throughout my career I’ve literally played in every position. I was a centre mid for much of my career since leaving United because I could just sit in there and spray the ball around but it doesn’t really suit my style at non-league level as there is too much running and closing down! My body is not built for that! In the back of my mind I knew I would return to centre back at some stage as I got older because I can read the game well and anticipate danger.
Two Years in the first team at Sheffield University (as well as being captain) you must have been a cut above the rest? What did you study?
I studied Economics but that certainly took a back seat! I was lucky in a way that we had a fantastic team during my time at Sheffield University and it was probably only then when I really started to love football again. As you’d expect from lads at university, are fitness levels weren’t at their peak during those years but the quality of football we played was first class and we travelled all over the country playing against some top universities. The highlight was an end of season derby against our local rivals Sheffield Hallam at Bramhall Lane in front of a few thousand and it was a great atmosphere. After winning 1-0 to claim the trophy and the bragging rights, we went out after the game on the Wednesday and didn’t stop celebrating until the Friday!
After university you joined Salford City before joining Maine Road, a side famous for its junior set up and attempting to play the game in the right way. As a club, what was it like to play for?
Yes, I had heard about the reputation of Maine Road and I knew straightaway that it was something that I wanted to be part of. Despite its connection with Man City, the club had a history and tradition of playing the right away so it suited my game perfectly. Ian Walker and Derek Barber were great to play for because they gave us so much freedom to go out and express ourselves. The highlight was in 2008 when we won the Vodkat League Cup and finished 4th in the league, which was a club record at the time. We played a lot of games that season, I think it was about 56 competitive games in total, but we were playing such good football and enjoying ourselves that it didn’t matter. It is not by luck that they are favourites to go up this year. They are proving now that if you have stability, a philosophy and strong foundations you can achieve your ambitions and make it last. They are a superb club who I still hold in high regard and the parallels between them and West Didsbury & Chorlton are very apparent. Both clubs have stability and a good tradition of playing the right way, as well as looking at the long term rather than throwing money about for a short term fix. I have absolutely no doubt in mind that West Didsbury & Chorlton will be competing at a higher level in the next couple of years.
You stepped up a division in 2009/10 and signed for Chorley in the Evo Stik North Division? Did you enjoy the step up and the challenge that comes with it?
Yes, I was happy at Maine Road and playing well so I was reluctant to leave in many ways but I’ve always wanted to push myself with new challenges. The fitness levels were higher as you’d expect and there was a bit of a step up in terms of quality, but I enjoyed the step up and more than held my own. I was awarded the Man of the match in 2 of my first 4 games but my personal highlights were actually during pre-season playing against Preston North End and Bolton Wanderers. We got beat 3 nil by Preston but it was a full strength side that included Darren Carter, Callum Davidson, Ross Wallace, Keith Treacy, Karl Hawley, Andy Lonergan and Billy Jones who is the fittest player I have ever played against so I’m not surprised he’s now playing in the Premier League for West Brom. We lost 3-2 to a good Bolton side but from a personal point of view I was pretty happy because I scored! Their team included Danny Shittu, Nicky Hunt, Ricardo Gardner, Riga Mustapha, Adam Bogdan, Chris Basham and Mark Davies who is the best player I’ve ever played against by some distance – I was up against him in centre mid and I couldn’t get near him, the only time I got close to him was in the clubhouse afterwards! He was just so quick, agile, clever and technically superb – playing one and two touch football with great thought and purpose. Unfortunately he’s very injury prone since but I’m pretty sure he would have gone on to play for England if he hadn’t of been, he’s the type of player they have missed since Scholes retired. I couldn’t walk for about a week after that game but I suppose it was worth it to score against players of that calibre. I know Stevie Settle is a big Bolton fan so I’ll dedicate that goal to him now!
In 2011 you joined Australian 2nd division side ECU Joondalup SC; how did a man playing for Chorley come to marking Grafite? What was the standard of the football like?
Yes, I had always wanted to test myself in a different country and experience something different so I really enjoyed my season in Australia. I know a lot of people who have been to other places like America but I wanted to do something different. I got in touch with a few people in Australia and I was offered the chance to do some coaching in Perth so I just went for it. Perth is a fantastic place and I loved the lifestyle there; it was so relaxed and laid back so it suited me perfectly. The 40 degree heat also helped me top up my bronze tanned skin! It was a great environment to coach in too because the facilities were outstanding and the kids were so sporty. They invest a lot of money and time into sport for kids and it has definitely paid off. We could learn a lot from countries like Australia. They play so many different sports but football is getting more and more popular. I ended up setting up my own coaching company with my friend which proved to be very successful. I was also fortunate enough to play at a really high level, one tier below the full time A-League. It was a really great feeling knowing that I was playing in front of thousands of people each week. The standard of football was really high and extremely competitive; it was probably the best level I have played at. Australia has a good influx of different nationalities so to play against players from Mexico, Greece, Italy and Serbia was very testing. I also played against Al Ahli (based in Dubai but were on tour) in which I was up against former Brazilian and Wolfsburg striker Grafite who was a handful to say the least!
I was playing centre back so I was directly up against him but he didn’t score until near the end – when I was off the field incidentally! He was the German league’s top scorer a year before after moving to them for £5million and he also played in the Champions league against Man United so it was tough test but I had in my pocket!!
You returned to England playing for Mossley. Were you part of the side that won the Manchester Premier Cup?
Yes that’s right. My season in Australia finished in October 2011 after starting in February so, after a long season, I had a bit of a break back in England and only joined Mossley in January 2012. I then had to wait 6 weeks for International clearance so it was a very frustrating time. I was doing a lot of fitness work and training hard with Mossley but as any footballer will tell you, with no games to look forward to it was mentally quite tough. I was short on match practice but when my clearance eventually came through, I played a few games and did okay but the season was in its final stages. It was a bit surreal winning the Manchester Premier Cup despite us not actually playing in a final! The final was meant to be played on the Monday evening so we were actually preparing for the game at training on the Thursday night when the manager got a call to say that Droylsden couldn’t “field an eligible team”. They were fighting relegation in the Conference North at the time so apparently they didn’t want to risk getting players injured but it definitely left a bit of a bitter taste as we all wanted to play the final. They actually went down anyway so they might have regretted the decision in hindsight!
Last season you went to Captain Ashton Athletic and finished 20th in the NWCFL Premier Division. What prompted the move?
As daft as it sounds, it was actually seen as a success! The club was rock bottom of the league when I joined so the task was to pretty clear – avoid relegation. I joined around November 2012 after work commitments had kept me out of the start of the season. I was actually still at Mossley but Ian Street (who was previously part of the West Didsbury & Chorlton set up for a brief period) convinced me to sign to help them stay up and it was a challenge I readily accepted. 2 games later, he left and I was in a bit of a limbo but Jimmy McBribe made me captain so I was even more determined to fight for the cause. It was a different experience to what I have been used to so it was tough at times but I learnt a lot about captaining a young and inexperienced team.
What or who brought you to West Didsbury & Chorlton? You joined West in the summer as Junior Football Co-ordinator and have found yourself as Captain of the 1st team. Did you come with the intention of doing both?
Well I originally got in contact with the club about the role as the Junior Football co-ordinator. The club offered me the coaching role and I can’t wait to get started. The plans that the club have in place really are fantastic. There is so much hard work being put in behind the scenes by the board and committee members so it is an exciting time for everyone connected to the club. When it became apparent that the club were getting promoted, both Andy Nelson and Rob Turley called me in for a meeting and they were keen to get me involved in the playing side, too. I did have ambitious of playing in the Evo-Stik league again this season but the clubs ambition certainly matches mine so I had no hesitation in agreeing to play, too. I have loved it since joining and I feel like I am part of something very special.
Finally, as the first player we’ve interviewed who did not travel to the Isle of Man, so can’t ask you about it, have you got a favourite/funny story of the season so far?
Mark Woodcock – one of the funniest guy you will ever meet and he doesn’t even have to open his mouth! Sometimes we just look at him and laugh. He comes out with some absolute pearlers without even knowing it. We were waiting for the second half to kick off against Wigan Robin Park, he turned to me and said with the straightest face, “Mark, is 9% strong for a beer because I had one last week and I think it was”. He also asked Rick Gleave if he rides horses. So random but so typically Woody! He’s a great lad to have in the dressing room.