You are browsing the archive for Old Trafford.

Willock turns Gunners rejection into resurrection at United

February 14, 2017 in Interviews

Every season, many young footballers go through the dreaded experience of getting released by a professional club.

The realisation that they will not fulfill the dreams they have chased for years can be a hard blow to take and for many of them, the opportunity will have passed forever.

To rub salt into the wound, in some cases the judgment comes from the player’s favourite club, the one they will watch for the rest of their lives thinking ‘what if’.

Former Arsenal trainee and lifelong Gunners fan Matty Willock knows this scenario all too well.

After spending his formative years dreaming of emulating his hero Thierry Henry, at the age of 15 he was given the bombshell news that he would not be kept on as a scholar in the under 18s.

But it was not the end of the story, as amazingly he was offered a second chance – at Manchester United.

Contact

Despite the turn in events that got his career back on track again in Manchester, the pain of rejection by his first love was hard to take at first.

“I’m an Arsenal fan so I was dreaming of playing for them one day,” Willock said.

“But when I was 15 I got released. They told me they weren’t giving me a scholarship, so obviously I was without a club.

“Fortunately the head scout at Arsenal was in contact with United and he organised a trial for me to come up and play a couple of games. Luckily enough they said they wanted me, so I signed for United when I was 15.”

For many Premier League academy cast-offs, this type of career rescue act is unheard of. Some might drop down a division or two and have a mediocre career in the lower leagues; most will slip out of the professional game altogether.

Of course, grassroots football is where every player begins their journey to the top and the man from the capital’s East End was no different.

willock-city

Willock left his boyhood-club Arsenal at 15, but resurrected his career at Old Trafford

Connections

Recalling his pathway to Old Trafford, Willock said, “I started off in Sunday League when I was six or seven.

“I was at Ridgeway Rovers. David Beckham played for them and there are a few other players who have come through there. It was probably the best club around my area, Chingford, and they’ve got good connections with a few clubs like West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal.

“Then I got a trial with Arsenal when I was about 10 or 11 and I just went up through the age groups.

Now 20, and an important figure within United’s under 23’s, Willock’s career is on the up.

Having trained intermittently with the first team squad, he further proved his worth to the Red Devils’ hierarchy with a 93rd – minute winning goal in the Premier League 2 fixture away at rivals Liverpool.

The Londoner’s header deep into injury time secured a 1-0 victory at Anfield, and three vital points for his team.

Siblings

The next challenge for United’s match winner on Merseyside, is to force his way into Jose Mourinho’s reckoning and make his first senior appearance; something another member of the Willock family has already achieved this season.

willock-anfield

The midfielder grabbed a late winner at Anfield for United’s U23s

“I’ve got two brothers who still play for Arsenal; Chris and Joe,” said Willock, proudly.

“We used to play together as kids in the park, my dad used to take us every day. It was just something to do. It’s good going home and being able to watch my brothers and they’re both doing well, so that’s a good thing.

“Joe (17) is playing for the under 18’s at the minute and Chris (19) made his [first team] debut in the EFL cup [against Nottingham Forest] which was obviously a big moment for him because he’s a proper die-hard Arsenal fan, it was a dream come true.

“I wasn’t there and it wasn’t on TV so I didn’t get to watch it, but he told me he did well.”

Whilst his younger siblings continue their development in North London the older Willock brother knows he must bide his time for the opportunity to feature in Mourinho’s plans.

Furthermore, to be considered for a loan move away from Old Trafford in order to pick up valuable minutes in a first team environment, Willock concedes that he must listen to the instructions and wishes of his club.

“I’ve been with the first team a bit in training, hopefully I can push my way forward. Patience is key, really. Sometimes as a player you really want something but you have to remember the club always knows best.”

Barriers

Mourinho is famously a manager who tends to utilise experience, rather than youth, within his squad and therefore the path to the first team will not be straightforward for any young player at United.

chris-willock-home-debut

Willock’s older brother, Chris, has featured for Arsenal this season

Yet Willock, in pursuing his dreams, has proven that he is not adverse to overcoming barriers placed in his way.

Having bounced back from his early experience of rejection and the harsh realities of competitive football at the highest level, what message would Willock pass on to youngsters who, like him, have been left high and dry by their academy experience?

As you’d expect, old-fashioned hard work is high on the list. But so too is keeping a level head and realising there is still time for things to change.

“It’s not the end of the world,” he signs off.

“It’s easy to give up and start thinking you’re not good enough when people say it by releasing you, but you have to keep believing in yourself and keep working hard. If you’ve got the talent you’ll come through.”

Spurs are blunted yet again at Old Trafford

December 29, 2016 in I Was There

“Tottenham at home. We all know what Tottenham is about, they are nice and tidy but we’ll f*cking do them,’’ said Roy Keane, back in the days when he, Scholes, Beckham and Co. would ensure that Spurs wouldn’t even see the ball on their annual Old Trafford trip, let alone have it long enough to do anything with.

This season was different as Spurs saw too much of the ball, if anything, and still didn’t know what do to when they had it.

Tottenham helped themselves to over 60% possession, which may come to a surprise to some but in reality this is a regular thing for Pochettino’s side. The North Londoners have out-possessed all but two of their opponents so far this season but often lack ruthlessness in the final third.

Passing was again the theme and for all the 429 passes they attempted, over double that of United, it was one simple, piercing ball by Ander Herrera that breached the Spurs backline and unleashed Henrikh Mkhitaryan.

The way Danny Rose and Kyle Walker maraud forward as wide midfielders is indispensable to the way Spurs build their attacks.

But for all the undoubted positives this entails comes one fatal negative, as Spurs found out when Harry Kane gave the ball away in the middle of the park, leaving Rose helpless halfway up the pitch.

Inconsistency

Mkhitaryan was allowed a clear run through on goal and two touches later the ball was in the back of the net. One measured touch to take it into his stride, and another to lash home high into Hugo Lloris’ goal, and a reminder to Spurs that £26m can actually buy you a half-decent winger.

“Christian Eriksen’s bad spells seem to last longer now, whilst Spurs fans have waited three years to see the best of £26m man Erik Lamela, and are still waiting”

Spending wisely has been a problem at White Hart Lane for a number of years now. With the absurd amount of cash floating around in the Premier League, Spurs have used their budget about as sensibly as the Greek government did.

Even with the second best defence in the league and the rare luxury of having a 20-goal-a-year striker in Kane, Tottenham still look short compared to their competitors.

And that is down to the inconsistency, as the attacking midfielders who support Kane blow hot and cold far too often. None more than Heung Min Son, whose overall game was epitomised at Old Trafford.

He had two shots of note, one fierce left-footed drive from 25 yards that was well tipped over by De Gea, and the other cutting in from a promising wide left position, as well as having other options, blazed high and wide into the Stretford end, a stark contrast. He was then hauled off just shy of the hour mark.

Timid

If Son was in those box of chocolates Forrest Gump was referring to, he’d be the exclusively wrapped up one, with little to no chance of knowing what your going to get. But to single out the South Korean would be harsh.

Christian Eriksen’s bad spells seem to last longer now, whilst Spurs fans have waited three years to see the best of £26m man Erik Lamela, and are still waiting. Record summer signing Moussa Sissoko has failed to make the matchday squad at times this season, let alone warrant a place in the starting XI.

“The sun set over Manchester and as the light started to fade, so did Spurs’ chances of getting anything out of the game”

Tottenham’s flair players are too timid and patient, so it was no surprise to see them prancing around the edge of the United box, creating the impression that something promising was about to happen. It didn’t.

The one time Dele Alli managed to break through late on, like a man shot of confidence, he cut back, stalled, and the chance was inevitably squandered.

United manager Jose Mourinho was animated and agitated simultaneously, like a harried wedding photographer haplessly ordering for everyone to squeeze in the picture that bit more.

Pochettino appeared calmer on the touchline which could have only been his very best poker face, as he would have been far from impressed at what his team were producing in the final third.

Conviction

The Argentine spent a lot of time motionless scratching his chin, like we all used to do back in school to gain more time attempting to answer a teacher’s question.

He had the look of a man who knew he had three defenders and Georges-Kevin N’koudou to choose from to somehow change the game around.

“In many ways it was indicative of Spurs season; plenty of huff and puff but not enough to break the door down”

Plus Sissoko, who must have fancied it in training this week, as Pochettino brought him on to run at makeshift left-back Matteo Darmian who looked about as convincing as those Walls of Jericho.

Wladimir Klitschko was present in the crowd and the Italian looked like he’d just gone 12 rounds with him as he was beaten on a number of occasions, but Spurs lacked the conviction to land a knockout blow.

The sun set over Manchester and as the light started to fade, so did Spurs’ chances of getting anything out of the game.

Paul Pogba berated Marcos Rojo like a strict father for going to retrieve the ball for De Gea after winning a free kick deep inside his own half late on. Gone were the days where United would go for the kill but they knew they had done enough to blunt Spurs here.

In only three of their last 13 games have the North London side scored more than a single goal, so limiting them to scraps was not one of the world’s toughest of tasks.

In many ways it was indicative of Spurs season; plenty of huff and puff but not enough to break the door down. Rose claimed afterwards that they are ‘still in third gear compared to last season’.

Spurs have to start delivering over the Christmas period as they are already 10 points off the league leaders Chelsea.

Goss won’t rush after year-long injury nightmare

December 8, 2016 in Interviews

Manchester United’s Sean Goss remains content to bide his time and wait for the opportunity to impress Jose Mourinho.

The central midfielder, 20, has been at United since signing from Exeter City as a 16 year-old and despite being named in previous match day squads for the first team, is still yet to make his competitive debut.

But having recovered from a serious back injury that sidelined him for almost 12 months, Goss is focused first and foremost on regaining his fitness, before pushing for a place in Mourinho’s thinking.

“I’ve only just got back fit, I’ve been out for a year and I’m still on the road to recovery,” Goss told Elephant Sport.

“I had two fractures in my back and I’ve been out since last December. I played my first match [a few weeks ago], so I’m just concentrating on getting a few games under my belt and see where it takes me from there.”

Frustration

A footballer’s lifestyle might not often be described as ‘back-breaking’, however an accumulation of stresses and strains will soon mount up for a top-level athlete.

As is often the case, the road to recovery can be a long and arduous one.

“Van Gaal really helped my game and pushed me forward”

Describing his frustration at the injury Goss explained: “[The fractures] happened over time.

“I woke up and could hardly move, so I had tests, and then three months where I wasn’t allowed to do anything, I just had to recover. No gym, no swimming, no training or anything, which is hard, as you don’t know what to do with yourself.

“You’re watching games and you just want to be playing, so that was another big test. I had the time off and then when I got back I had to slowly build up with injections and that kind of thing.

“Hopefully now that’s the end of it.”

Youthful

Prior to his ill-timed injury, the Devon-born youngster had made big strides towards staking a claim for a spot within United’s first team.

goss-pic-1

Goss is hoping to make his breakthrough in 2017

Having signed whilst Sir Alex Ferguson was in his final years at the helm, Goss had seen David Moyes come and swiftly leave before Louis Van Gaal arrived.

Fresh from leading the Netherlands to a World Cup semi-final, Van Gaal set about building a competitive, yet youthful Manchester United team.

The Dutchman’s move from orange to red proved fruitful for Goss who feels that the former Barcelona manager helped to raise the levels of his game nearer to that of a Manchester United first team player.

“Obviously I was younger when Sir Alex Ferguson was here. You’d see him around, as you would all the managers.

“But the main one when I started to push on was Van Gaal, he really helped my game and pushed me forward.

“He was always communicating with me in some way, whether I was playing for the under 23’s or if I was in and around the [first team] squad. If I was training with them they were always letting me know how I was getting on, what I could do better.”

“I was just at that age as well where, with the other ones before I was maybe a bit young in my body, but I think that was the time [under Van Gaal] where I was turning into a man.”

Debut

In fact, Van Gaal rated Goss so highly that he took the left-footed midfielder on the club’s pre-season tour of the USA in 2015.

Despite drawing comparisons to Michael Carrick in terms of playing style, it might have been easy to presume that Goss was there to make up the numbers; taken along to gain experience.

goss-pic-tour

Goss made his debut against PSG during Manchester United’s tour of the USA in 2015

However there was to be a fairy-tale ending, as Van Gaal introduced Goss as a second-half substitute during the friendly with Paris Saint-Germain, handing him his first team debut.

To add a further poetic element to the moment, it was Carrick who made way for the debutant.

Recalling the mixture of nerves and excitement, Goss explains; “You dream of making your debut but it’s hard to explain how it was.

“You’re there training and you hope you get your chance but when it finally happens you’re just concentrating on the game. It was a big crowd in a big stadium as well so it was a dream come true.

“He [Van Gaal] said I would get my chance. I just remember being sat there on the bench and getting told to warm up.

“It’s almost as if your stomach drops and your heart skips a beat for a second, but it was quality.”

Breakthrough

 Upon returning from the USA, Goss continued to be involved in Van Gaal’s first team environment, making the match day squad for the trip to Watford in the league and travelling with the squad for the Champions League tie away at Wolfsburg.

“When you’re younger you think ‘I’ll play for Man Utd one day’”

United scored in the last minute to defeat the Hornets 2-1 at Vicarage Road and whilst being an unused sub, the experience was of vital importance to Goss.

Sitting alongside him on the bench that day was Marcus Rashford, who would later go on to make his breakthrough for club and country, whilst Jesse Lingard and Paddy McNair made sizeable contributions on the pitch.

All three had been peers of Goss before being given their breaks by Van Gaal and at the time, the left footed Devon man hoped he might follow suit.

Whilst many Utd fans believed the time was right for Van Gaal to leave at the end of last season, for Goss there was a feeling of what might have been.

‘Unbelievable feeling’

“I felt like you never know what could happen. There were a few injuries in the squad at the time, but it’s hard to say, as I never got to as I was injured.

goss-pic-rooney

The trip to Wolfsburg provided valuable experience for Goss

“But you saw that other players came through and made appearances, so you’d be hoping that I would have been one of them.

“I was on the bench at Watford and then travelled to Wolfsburg with the squad. Again, when you get told you’re involved it’s an unbelievable feeling. It’s an
other amazing experience I can look back on and hopefully I can get more of them.”

 

Goss has been working towards his first team breakthrough ever since making the move from Exeter City in 2012.

A boyhood United fan, he had previously been the mascot for the Grecians’ memorable FA Cup third round draw at Old Trafford, whilst dreaming of stepping out at the ‘theatre of dreams’ as a player.

“When you’re younger you think ‘I’ll play for Man Utd one day,’” he said.

“But it’s only when you’re older you look back and realise it’s near enough impossible [to sign for Manchester United]. To get the chance is quality and looking back I never expected it.

“There were tough times… but I think they’re the most important times where you’ve got to keep your head and keep working hard”

“I started at Exeter when I was about seven or eight and played a year up for most of my time, until under 16s. I had a few chances with the youth team and then I was lucky enough to get a trial with United.

“I went up [to Manchester] and played a couple of games. I went to Amsterdam and played against some big teams like Ajax, Barcelona and AC Milan.

“After that I was lucky enough to get signed and joined when I was 16.

“It was tough, the first year especially. You’re only young, 16, moving away from home and it’s not like it’s just around the corner either. There were tough times where I felt a bit homesick but I think they’re the most important times where you’ve got to keep your head and keep working hard.

“The coaches are a big help; you get the welfare officer and coaches. When you’re a first-year scholar you’re not really near the first team, usually just the youth team and reserves, but the coaches were a big help if you ever needed some time off.”

Class of ’92

Amongst the coaches who helped Goss to settle were members of the famed ‘Class of ’92’.

Along with the likes of Warren Joyce, who recently left the club to become manager of Wigan Athletic, and senior members of the first team playing squad, the young players at Carrington could depend on a strong support network.

“They were all really good with us, every single one of them.” Said Goss.

“We had Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes for the Champions League [UEFA Youth League], which was always helpful, especially with the experience they’ve had at the club. I think you always need someone like that who’s had history with the club.

“You can go up and talk to any of them, there’s no big egos. Everyone’s human at the end of the day, if you wanted to chat to anyone they’re more than happy to help you out.”

Mourinho has historically favoured experience over youth throughout his career and not many people would be able to argue against the Portuguese’s policy given his medal haul.

But at a club such as Manchester United, whose homegrown players have been a major part of the club’s sustained success, there is an expectancy amongst the supporters that they see their ‘own’ players on the pitch.

Whether or not Mourinho sticks around long enough to give youth a chance remains to be seen. For players like Goss the key will be hard work and patience.

Five famous footballing returns

November 29, 2016 in Opinion

Many Liverpool fans were hoping against hope that club icon Steven Gerrard might have one last hurrah at Anfield after leaving MLS club LA Galaxy.

Gerrard, 36, opted to end his playing career last week, but may one day return to Liverpool in another role – possibly as a coach and potential manager?

For a footballer, leaving the club where you are seen as a legend is an incredibly hard decision, but the chance to return as a player or manager can be an even bigger one.

Remind everyone why you became a hero in the first place, or ruin your reputation; which way will it fall?

Here are five of those who did it best:

5 – Graeme Le Saux – Chelsea

Graeme Le Saux’s first spell at Chelsea ended in anger but the second was glorious.

Le Saux was the most expensive defender in England at the time at £5m – a far cry from the £30m Chelsea recently paid for David Luiz to return to the club after a £50million move to PSG two years earlier – when he returned after a controversial first spell in west London. 17 Sep 2000: Graeme Le Saux of Chelsea in action during the FA Carling Premiership match against Leicester City at Stamford Bridge in London. Leicester City won the match 2-0. Mandatory Credit: Dave Cannon /Allsport

In 1993 Le Saux was a regular starter at Stamford Bridge, but rarely lasted the whole match, and when he was taken off at Southampton, it proved too much for him to take and he ripped off his shirt in disgust, throwing it on the feet of manager Ian Portfield.

The defender was soon on his way to Blackburn Rovers, where in his first full season, he helped them win the Premier League title and became an England regular.

In 1997 he returned to Chelsea, making him English football’s most expensive defender and in the next three years, they won the FA Cup, League Cup, Cup winner’s Cup and UEFA Super Cup.

Leaving Chelsea as the “villain” for showing disrespect to the manager was tough enough, but returning to the club that sold you after your misdemeanours is a risk Le Saux took and evidently it paid off.

4 – Thierry Henry – Arsenal

When Arsenal’s record goalscorer Thierry Henry left for Barcelona in 2007, after eight years, 245 appearances and 174 goals, a huge part of his heart remained in north London.

So in some ways it was no surprise when five years later he returned to train with the team, and, inevitably, play for them again. Henry celebrates after scoring the winner on his return to Arsenal.

By then Henry was playing for MLS side New York Red Bulls, and during their 2012 off-season, he trained with the Gunners to keep in shape.

But when they suffered an injury crisis, manager Arsene Wenger looked to his former talisman and he signed a two-month loan deal. ‘King’ Henry was back.

He made four appearances and scored twice; the first came in his debut when he scored the winner goal in an FA Cup tie against Leeds.

His last ever Gunners goal came in his final match under Wenger – again, the winner, in injury time for a 2-1 triumph at Sunderland. No wonder there is a statue of him outside the Emirates Stadium.

Henry is now Belgium’s assistant manager and a pundit on Sky Sports. Many Arsenal fans would love to see him succeed Wenger as manager one day. Is another hero’s return too much to ask for?

3 – Ian Rush – Liverpool

Ian Rush’s 346 goals in two spells at Liverpool make him the club’s all-time record goalscorer. At his peak in the 1980s, there was no-one to rival him in English football. Ian rush celebrates scoring at Wembley for Liverpool.

Having won four league titles and two European Cups in six years with the Reds, in 1987 Rush left to join Serie A giants Juventus. It did not go well, with just seven goals in 29 appearances for the Italians.

Loaned back to Liverpool for the second year of his Juventus contract, Rush’s Midas touch returned, as he scored 30 goals in 42 matches.

A permanent return home was just a matter of time, and the Welsh striker spent another eight seasons at Anfield, making 245 more appearances and adding a further 90 goals. During this time he also won another league title, two FA Cups and became their record goalscorer.

A legend? Unquestionably.

2 – Didier Drogba – Chelsea

Didier Drogba was not just a legend as a player; over two spells at Chelsea, he helped change the history of his club.

His first spell, after joining from Marseille in 2004, saw Chelsea win their first league title in 50 years, in his debut season.

Another Premier League title followed the next year, setting up a glorious era in which he became the first ever player to score in four different FA Cup finals, as well as the first African player to score 100 Premier League goals. But nothing compared to how he signed off his first stint at the club.

His 88th minute equaliser in the 2012 Champions League final against Bayern Munich, in Munich, took the game to extra time and then penalties. And who scored the winner? Drogba, of course.Drogba celebrates scoring the winning goal in the Champions League final.

When he left that summer to join Chinese league side Shanghai Shenhua, after eight years, 226 appearances, 100 goals and eight trophies, a fan poll by Chelsea’s official club magazine saw the Ivorian named as the club’s best-ever player.

Supporters probably thought they would never see his like again. They were wrong.

Drogba’s stint in China was short-lived, and soon he was playing for Galatasaray in Turkey, where he added the 2013 Turkish Super Cup to his medal collection.

The following year, he was back at the Bridge, signing a one-year contract for manager Jose Mourinho – like Drogba, enjoying his second spell at Chelsea.

Drogba managed four more goal in 28 appearances, before announcing that the final game of the season against Sunderland would be his last for the club.

After half an hour, he had to come off injured, but rather than limping off, he was chaired off the field by his team-mates. Now that’s a stylish exit.

The success Drogba enjoyed in his first spell at Chelsea meant that coming back for a second time he had to be as good, if not better than he was previously. Undoubtedly, he was a good playing an integral part in saving Chelsea’s season and thats why he is second.

1 – Paul Scholes – Manchester United

An increasingly rare one-club man, Paul Scholes’ 466 appearances for Manchester United over 17 years make him one of the modern greats.

In his testimonial match in August 2011, the midfielder signed off with a 25-yard finish, showing that even though he was retiring, he had still not lost his touch and he could have played on for a while yet. But no-one expected that he would actually do so.

Five months later, with United going through an uncharacteristic rough patch, he was back, making his ‘second debut’ by coming on to score in the Manchester derby, and also finding the net in his first start second time around. Scholes makes his second debut for United in a Manchester derby.

He was persuaded to sign another one year contract extension, keeping him at United until the end of the following season, and retired for good at the end of the 2012-13 season – fittingly, picking up a yellow card in his farewell match. Well, he never was much of a tackler…

His total of 25 major trophies makes him the most decorated English footballer of all time, and he is now co-owner of Salford City FC, a coach at United and a pundit on BT Sport.

The fact that Scholes completely retired from football before returning to top level football looking fitter than ever, makes his comeback the greatest of all.

Skip to toolbar