You came through the youth set up at Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson. How do you reflect on that experience?
“I joined the club at 11 years of age then I progressed right through until the reserve team when I was given a professional contract.
“It was a fantastic experience being trained by top coaches at The Cliff then on to Carrington which were both great places to train. Every session was intense. Our sessions in the youth set up replicated those of the first team at the time.
“I have great memories of my time at the club and working with Tony Whelan, Paul McGuinness and Rene Meulensteen in particular. You can’t get much better than training with coaches of that class at a club like Manchester United with the top facilities and world class players in the first team.”
What was it like when you trained with the first team? You mentioned the world class players that Manchester United had at the time. Did they train exactly as they played on a match day?
“After training, I’d go over and watch the first team when I was with the reserves just to watch the players in my position and look closely at their movement, their touch and their overall attitude.
“When I made the step up to train with the first team, it was very difficult. You are training alongside Scholes, Rooney, Ronaldo, Giggs, Ferdinand and co. The tempo is frighteningly quick but the more you train with players of that quality, the better you get.
“I relished the opportunity as a young player, but you need to learn quickly and take all instructions given to you or else you stand out like a sore thumb. It is the definition of sink or swim when you are with the United first team.
“You had to be exceptional to get any opportunities with the first team at that time because the depth of quality that Sir Alex had was incredibly impressive hence why the club were successful in every competition over that period.”
You played for the United first team against Crewe in the League Cup. You started alongside Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Alan Smith, Gabriel Heinze and other first team players. How proud are to have made a first team appearance given the quality at that time as we’ve discussed?
“I’m immensely proud as it was so difficult to get a sniff of a game at that time. Playing for the first team was a dream come true but it was disappointing not to get many opportunities after that game. However, being realistic, I knew it was always going to be a massive challenge but when you’ve got Van Nistelrooy, Rooney and Ronaldo ahead of you then I guess you can’t complain too much (laughs).
“The current Manchester United team are in a transitional period which lends itself to more youngsters getting opportunities whereas Sir Alex’s team was at the top of the game at home and abroad.
“I have no regrets at all from my time at Manchester United as playing full time at the club in that bubble was unbelievable. I’ll never forget those memories.”
One experienced player that you played with for a limited time at United was Henrik Larsson. He was coming towards the end of his career at that stage. As a forward, did you tap into his experience in training each day?
“I absolutely tapped into that experience every day. All of the first team players had time for the younger players. There were no egos on the training ground when training started.
“Henrik was a phenomenal footballer and you could see why he had the top career that he did. He had scored hundreds of goals for Celtic and he would stay back after training to practice his finishing and he’d be happy for you to ask questions which was great.
“I was closer to Ole at that time as we both completed rehabilitation from injury together. I had been in a nasty car accident which kept me out for over a year and Ole was coming back from an ACL injury.
“He was someone I looked up to and he would advise me on how I could improve my movement and finishing which was invaluable for me.
“It isn’t until you leave a club like Manchester United that you realise just how lucky you are in terms of the facilities and how you’re looked after. I left United for Blackpool and the contrast was unbelievable to be honest but that’s the reality of football especially outside the Premier League.”
How close were you to signing for Inverness Caledonian Thistle following your departure from United?
“Inverness was the first club I trained with following my departure from United. Sir Alex was open that it was best for me to go and play first team football and establish a career.
“Inverness were in the Scottish Premier League at the time and the thought of playing at Celtic Park and Ibrox was appealing to me, so I went up to train for a few weeks.
”I enjoyed my time training with the club. Terry Butcher was impressed with me and wanted to sign me but there were a few clubs interested in me at that time, so I went to Blackpool instead which in hindsight didn’t work out for me. If you could see that in advance, then you’d make a different decision and maybe I’d have joined Inverness but unfortunately that’s football and you must live by your decisions.”
Things didn’t work out at Blackpool, but you went on to have a prolific career in non-League Football with clubs such as Stalybridge Celtic and FC United of Manchester. How would you sum up your experience of non-League Football?
“From being at Manchester United to tough spells with Blackpool and Bury, it was difficult for me to go to non-League initially. It was hard to accept really.
“Luckily, I got over that relatively quickly and got back to enjoying my football again which was the most important thing.
“Playing for FC United was great as the crowds were big for that level and there was the link to United as well. I scored on my debut and got a few goals in the FA Cup which felt great.
“Stalybridge was another good spell for me, and it was full time which was even better. The manager played a good style of play and trusted me to be the main goal scorer which at any level of football makes you feel special as a player.
“You need to make the most of what you get in football at any level and that’s what I’ve always tried to do.
“Eventually, something good will happen for you if you don’t give in. It’s easy to look at the elite level and think about the cars and the house that the very top players have but people forget that without hard work then that would not be possible for those players.
“Football is a great game but there are tough times too when a manager doesn’t take a shine to you, or you suffer a bad injury which can affect you.
”I look back on my career and know that I could have played at a higher level but non-League is a good standard of football and there are many players at non-League level who could easily play at a higher level.”
Based on the players and coaches that you’ve worked with in non-League football, who would you say are the best players and coaches you’ve worked with so far?
“I played Connor Jennings who has played in the football league and scored some big goals in play off matches. He’s a top player who I enjoyed playing upfront with at Stalybridge.
“At Forest Green, I played with James Norwood who went on to play at Ipswich Town. He was very good.
“I also played with Sam Clucas who played in the Premier League. Those three players stand out for me.
“Jim Harvey who coached me at Stalybridge stands out in terms of coaches. He was the assistant to Sammy McIlroy at Northern Ireland and Morecambe. He got me playing my best football.”