In today’s instantaneous and short-term social media snapshot world, things that happened just five years ago can feel like a distant memory.
In 2017, Wayne Rooney ‘revealed’ that Sir Alex Ferguson had imposed a ban on young players at Manchester United when he told Talksport : “When Alex Ferguson was there, if you were under 25 then you couldn’t have a sports car… It is little things like that to have that discipline which the older players can help with.”
Those comments were almost treated with surprise judging by the general response by those who heard and reported on them. But those with a long enough memory will recall the incident which caused that ban to be brought into place.
In January 2004, youth team striker Phil Marsh was badly injured after a car crash involving fellow young forwards Callum Flanagan, who was driving the car Marsh was in, and Mads Timm, who was in another.
This came just months after Jimmy Davis, the United striker on loan at Watford, had been tragically killed in a traffic accident.
So many stories in sport feature journeys that end with trophies or some higher-profile personal redemption; Phil’s recovery is no less inspiring as he was able to fulfil a dream. The following is an excerpt from his chapter in my book ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’ where he described the events and his rehabilitation.
The Youth Cup successes of 1992 and 1995 were recent enough to illustrate what was demanded of the players to follow in order to prepare them for, hopefully, an even more demanding spell in the first team. And just the year before, in 2003, United’s latest crop of youngsters had enjoyed their own success in the competition. The expectations were the same but the context in which they now stood could hardly be more different. The constant standard of excellence was a change from how it was at the start of the Nineties, where walking in the shadows of these greats was now a literal rather than figurative phrase, as was the amount of money in the game that was available for players just for signing their first professional contracts.
So the attitude of how to nurture these precocious talents inevitably had to roll with the times too. “The way everything was done at the club was exceptional, from the football side to off the pitch and they offered everything in terms of diet to make sure you were in the best shape you could be,” says Phil. “There wouldn’t be the need to say you were a good player – you were at Manchester United after all, and that said it everything. The coaches would place emphasis on expressing ourselves and provide us with the incentive to train with the first team players which brought its own pressures and expectance.”
Phil’s hard work paid off when in November 2003, he was given his first taste of FA Youth Cup action at the age of just 17 and was named in the squad for the Manchester Derby in the next round. “I was doing really well, captaining the under 17s and I’d just been selected for my first reserve team game as well against Nottingham Forest,” says Phil. “Then I got to play at Old Trafford, coming on as a substitute in the Youth Cup against City. We won, everyone was buzzing and on a high. It’s unbelievable to think of what happened next – it went to show me that you just never know what’s going to happen in life.”
For Phil, the events of Wednesday, 14th January 2004 were to completely change everything. “Looking back, you can’t help but wonder. I was playing so well, everything was going great, and then there was a massive setback. I was lucky to have survived, really,” he admits. “The day after the Youth Cup game we went into training for a cool down. I used to stay in digs with Ritchie Jones and two of the older lads, Callum Flanagan and James Jowsey. Some of the lads would have schoolwork and if they got behind they’d have to come in during the week. I’d been up to date with all of mine and I was ready to go after training.
“The first year YT’s would get picked up by a minibus because the club wouldn’t allow us to drive or get lifts off of any of the older lads unless it was an emergency or a one-off. Because I was waiting for a couple of the others who were doing their school work, rather than have the minibus wait around for an hour, I went and asked if it would be okay if I could get a lift home with Callum as we shared digs. On the way home, Mads Timm, who was in the reserve team, sped down past us in his big flash sports car. Callum drove a Civic, a fairly fast car, and as young lads do he chased after him. It wasn’t anything extreme, he was just trying to play catch up. This carried on as we went past City’s training ground which follows a sort of ‘S’ bend in the road. The last thing I remember is going round a turn and the car spinning over itself out of control. When I woke up I was in a right mess, tangled in the car.”
The car crashed and suffered the majority of its damage on impact on the left hand side, where Phil had been sitting as a passenger. He suffered a multitude of injuries down his left. His left leg was broken, he had cracked his shoulder blade, and suffered injuries to his head which required stitches and would leave scars. In the immediate aftermath of the accident, it was not just Phil’s football career but his life that hung in the balance. “I was lucky that I had friends and family to support me. The club were really good, too. Some of the first team players came to see me in hospital and when I was allowed home, the manager paid a personal visit to see that I was okay. He re-assured me, telling me everything would be okay, everyone had setbacks. You do try to be optimistic but you also have to be realistic and in those early weeks, when you’ve suffered such a setback, you wonder if you’ll ever get back at all let alone to the level that you were at. To receive a visit and such support from the manager showed me that the club believed I could do it.”
It wasn’t just support from the club that served to give Phil motivation. Due to the accident making local and national news, he was now in the public eye and Manchester United supporters were quick to give their own moral support. “I got quite a lot of fan mail in the weeks after the accident,” says Phil. “There were people all over the world telling me they’d heard about what happened and wishing me a speedy recovery. That kind of thing really helps you find the determination to get back to where you were previously.”
Of course, the club and its supporters were well aware of the perils of motor accidents. Less than half a year had passed since Jimmy Davis – the United player on loan to Watford – was killed in a car crash. It is one of those sad tales of fate. United were in the process of implementing new rules and policies for their young players driving which included the use of the minibus. “For those of us under the age of 18, we weren’t allowed flash cars or anything like that. When players reached 18, they had to speak with the manager to reach an agreement on what would be the best step going forward for them,” says Phil. “It was something that was being done anyway, because as far as the manager was concerned, he was reading far too much about accidents with players from other clubs, but when Jimmy’s accident happened there was a clampdown. After what happened to me, there was a total shut down and none of the younger players were allowed lifts with the older ones whatsoever. We all had to go on the minibus.”
Put into that kind of perspective, Phil could consider himself fortunate he had escaped at all, and with the support of the fans and the personal encouragement from Sir Alex, he set about getting on the road to recovery. “For a few months I was in a cast so I just had to stay at home for a while. Once I managed to get the cast off, I went into Carrington to have the physiotherapists checking on me. I had a brace put on my leg for support and stimulation so I could put some more pressure on it, and I was able to get about a bit better,” explains Phil. “I went into the club quite often for treatment, with having the cast on for such a long time I’d lost quite a lot of weight from my leg so that was looked at. Mostly it was a waiting game, going through that routine, as it was very difficult. I’d go on little walks around Carrington, little walks around the side of the pitch. I had a limp but was trying to walk as straight as I could. Once I could walk on it comfortably, I tried to build it up to a jog and then started on the weights to really try and build the muscle back up. After about eight months, and after I’d started some sprint and running work, I was finally back to working with the balls and gradually I was involved in some of the warm ups with the other players. Small things at first, such as pig in the middle where I could just pass the ball without any challenge, little drills like that.”
The coaches were mindful of the extent and severity of Phil’s injuries and so cautiously approached the prospect of him involving himself more in the contact side of the sport. Phil’s physical recovery had gone better than anyone expected but there was, of course, the mental effects of the accident and the damage done to his body that was yet to really be tested. “They were great like that, wanting the physical side to come gradually, and I think that was best. They were very safe with me, and once I got back into the swing of things, I felt fine playing with the ball. I was a little bit frightened coming back, though,” admits Phil. “I did have it on my mind, thinking about people coming in for tackles. An injury would have been the last thing I needed. After a couple of weeks, I felt fine, my biggest issue was my sharpness and fitness and maybe a little bit of being out of sorts, as I’d not trained with the lads for such a long time. I was just keen to get myself back to the level I was at.”
A consequence of the encouragement and well wishing that Phil received was that, for better or worse, there was an inevitable and unavoidable increase in attention on his recovery and development. It’s a fine line between encouragement and expectation but, perhaps fortunately for Phil, he was already well versed in that thanks to his surroundings. “At United, things are always expected of you anyway, and I was doing so well before the accident,” says Phil. “It was amazing to receive the support I did and it gave me extra motivation to fulfil my potential. After everything, I was really determined to do the best for myself, my friends and my family and also for all of the supporters who had taken the time to wish me well.”
2004 had been a year-long journey for Phil on both a personal and professional level. January had seen almost everything taken away from him, and by December he was back in the frame for another FA Youth Cup tie. After the win over Manchester City in January, United had defeated Norwich City before being beaten by Blackburn Rovers in the sixth round and relinquishing their grasp on the trophy as a result. When the following year’s competition began and United entered in the third round, they were given a favourable tie against Stoke City. Phil was given a start in the number eight shirt in an incredibly strong United side that included Jonny Evans, Ryan Shawcross, Gerard Pique, Darron Gibson and Giuseppe Rossi, all of whom would go on to become successful and established players at the top level.
The omens were good – the teams had faced each other at under-18 league level the previous weekend with Phil getting two goals, which made it all the more surprising that United were unable to get going. “To lose 1-0 was a real surprise, I still can’t believe we lost that game to be honest,” laughs Phil. “I was speaking about it recently to one of my friends who was in the Stoke side that day and he agreed. The talent that was on show was unbelievable, our record in the league was so good, but that was just one of those games where nothing goes in. We really thought that we had such a good chance of winning it, so good in fact that we kept hearing that this was the best youth team United had had for many a year. I suppose that’s football isn’t it? The 2003 winning team didn’t have that many players who played at the top level, well, nowhere near as many as the side that we had.”
Defeat on the pitch then, yet something of a spiritual victory for Phil. Having lost a year of natural development and progression, the comeback was significant and profound. As he had just turned 18, his sights were set on advancing past the age bracket sides and into the reserves, and he was given yet further personal encouragement from Ferguson. “The manager was really good and not just with keeping in touch and saying that I was doing really well,” says Phil. “He acknowledged that I’d basically lost a year and so granted an extra year on my contract, which was something that he didn’t have to do, but was something that I really appreciated. He said that I’d lost time through no fault of my own but he’d been so impressed by the work and dedication I’d shown that he was willing to keep observing to see just how much I wanted to play for the club. It was great for him to say that, because he didn’t have to do that either.”
Did that year out of development weigh on his mind? “Sometimes, well, it was something that I thought about. Matches, training, interaction, there were things I missed out on, but I didn’t dwell on it, because I’d got myself back into a good position,” says Phil.
Ferguson’s words about determination seemed to resonate deeply with Marsh. A different way of looking at the “lost year” is to observe the increase in maturity and accountability, an extra awareness and appreciation for the chance that Phil was blessed with, which perhaps maybe even placed him at an advantage. It certainly helped that Phil showed the professional maturity associated with many United players of the modern era when it came to receiving his next break.
A striker of a good standard, a completely unexpected direction began to open up for Phil’s development. “Rene Meulensteen had just started taking over the reserve side and in training there was an increase in the number of drills we did that exercised and worked our technique,” Phil says. “For some reason, I don’t know what it was, but Rene always got on well with me. Sometimes people just take a liking to you and I was happy that Rene did. He was observing how I was doing in the technical drills and one of them was a play where we’d have to practice a long diagonal ball to the winger. I was quite good at hitting the passes, and one day Rene came up to me in a training session and said ‘Phil, can you come and play right back for us today? I just want to have a look at something in your game’.
“At the time, there were a lot of injuries in defence and I think Danny Simpson was on loan at Antwerp, which meant there was an opening in the reserves at right back. I agreed and did quite well in the training game at right back, so well that Rene asked me if I wanted to play in the same position for a game against Leeds at home for the reserves. He said he thought I would do really well. I said that was fine and I’d be happy to do that for him. I was just so happy to get the chance anyway, as up front there were some really good strikers, Giuseppe, Sylvan Ebanks-Blake too, Frazier Campbell. That’s not to mention players like Louis Saha who would feature for the reserves.”
It may come as no surprise that Phil seized his opportunity with both hands. “I did really well and I think I got man of the match against Leeds, Rene was smiling afterwards telling me how fantastic I was,” laughs Phil. “He said I looked like I’d been playing there all my life! So I stayed there for a couple of months, playing at full back, and took to it really well. Rene asked if I would ever consider changing my position. I’d played as a striker all my life, that’s where I’d been picked up and scouted, and I’d always done well in scoring lots of goals. It was lovely for Rene to say I was capable of playing in another position but I was honest and said although it was a privilege and honour to play at right back, what I really wanted was to play up front. Rene said to me that it might be best to have a think about it, as there weren’t that many players demonstrating the flexibility I was, so it might be best to keep an open mind. I think he said I was a blessing in disguise.”
With the encouragement and reminder about determination from Ferguson and the blatant ego-stroking from Meulensteen, Marsh was understandably in such high spirits that he carried on with the wish of his coaches and continued that professional sacrifice of what he preferred doing in order to help out his team. It might have helped somewhat that the team were doing so well. “It was such a good team, the reserve side had so many quality players who were doing so well. Not many teams got near us because we were so talented,” says Phil of the side that swept the board at reserve team level in 2006.
Marsh’s progression since his return from the accident had accelerated since his positional shift. As the 2006/07 season began, and a couple of dark years at the club finally seemed to be over, Phil’s star appeared to shine brightly too. “After being with the reserves for a while, I was now training with the first team on a fairly regular basis too,” Phil says. “When you’d be told that you were training with the first team again, it’s a bit of a weird feeling. You’re thinking and hoping that you’ll get involved, even on the bench.”
In late October in 2006, with a League Cup tie at Crewe Alexandra on the horizon, Phil’s hard work, determination and sacrifice was about to get the ultimate reward – a first team appearance, and better still, a start in his favoured position. “I was training with the first team again and going through the drills when Mick Phelan called me over to one side and said ‘You’re going to be starting this week.’ I don’t even know what the word is to describe how I was feeling. I was like, ‘Oh, right’. We carried on training through the week and I had that on my mind. It was an odd feeling, I really can’t describe it.”
At Gresty Road, United had their fair share of debutants – five, in total – and complemented that with some fine experience. Wes Brown and Mikael Silvestre had played over five hundred times combined, with Gabriel Heinze, Alan Smith and Kieran Richardson all having a fair amount of first team experience too. Marsh was to partner a real club legend up front. “I was in attack with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer,” he recalls with all the eagerness as if he’s just been told for the first time. “Getting on the coach was again a weird feeling. Amazing, weird – you get to the ground and the dressing room and you see a Manchester United shirt hanging from the peg with your name and number. It feels like you’re dreaming, but I’ll never ever forget anything from that day because it was amazing. The fans were great.”
The start was most certainly a symbolic reward for the incredible spirit shown by Marsh but, more importantly, it was a stunning achievement and example of overcoming adversity. “Honestly, I don’t know if it felt like it was a reward to me,” he admits. “It just felt as if all of that hard work had paid off. That was my ultimate goal when I first signed for United, so all of the hours I’d put in before, and then all the hours to get myself back, had made it all the more special before kick off.
“Sir Alex said ‘You lads have all got this chance to play because you have been doing so well for the reserves. You’ve earned the chance, so there’s no pressure whatsoever. You just go and play your game, that’s all you need to do.’ No matter what anyone says, when you’re about to play for one of the biggest clubs in the world for the first time you do have a few butterflies but his words of reassurance in that way took a big weight off of our shoulders. I felt like I could go and enjoy myself, and I really made sure I did, it was one of the best days of my life.”
United won 2-1 at Crewe, Solskjaer’s early goal had United ahead at half time. At the break, Marsh was substituted for Michael Barnes to give Barnes his debut out wide and tighten it up. Crewe levelled to take the game to extra time but a goal from another debutant, Kieran Lee, in the last minute of extra time sent United into the next round and another away tie at a lower league ground, this time, Roots Hall and Southend United. Marsh was pencilled in for involvement. “I think I was going to play because before the game they said that although they were taking more first team players, they were also going to keep some of the younger lads too. I picked up an injury, nothing serious, the weekend before, and because I didn’t train I was one of those that had to drop out. I was obviously gutted but that was just how it was.”
As it turned out, Marsh’s instincts in the box might well have been necessary against Southend, as United looked poor despite only one outfield player having played less than fifty times for the club. An experienced side went down 1-0 and were eliminated from the competition.
Fergie’s Fledglings is published in paperback by Ruling House on October 21st. You can pre-order it now. The Kindle edition is available now by ordering here.