How NOT to be a Football Millionaire

By: Keith Gillespie

By the time I turned 12, teams from Bangor and beyond were regularly approaching Dad to ask about my availability. Joe Kincaid, a scout for Glasgow Rangers, came forward with the most attractive offer. He was part of a group that had set up a schoolboy team in Belfast called St Andrews. Joe knew where the best young players in the country were, and wanted to bring them together. I agreed to come on board, and linked up with a group of lads that would dominate the local scene all the way to U-14 level. It was the perfect way to get noticed.

One weekend, Dad was standing on the sideline watching us rack up another win when a guy sidled over and introduced himself as Eddie Coulter, a scout for Manchester United. He asked Dad if I would be interested in coming along to the Manchester United School of Excellence – a group of 16 to 20 players from Northern Ireland who trained together in Belfast every Wednesday night. It was a no-brainer – I think Dad was more excited than I was.

When I turned 13, Joe fixed me up with a week at Rangers, where I did enough to be asked back, but I eventually said no to that offer. That’s because I spent the following week at Manchester United. No other club mattered.

The climax of my week in Manchester was the moment when Alex Ferguson called me into his office. I was terrified. It was during the school holidays so there were loads of us there trying to impress, plenty of games for the coaches to look at.

The first team were knocking around the place and I got to meet Norman Whiteside and have a treasured photo taken. But the most exciting part was looking over in the middle of a match to see the manager of the club standing on the sideline. Back then, Fergie was under pressure, with a winning reputation from Scotland that had failed to immediately translate to his new job. That didn’t bother me. All I knew was that the manager of Manchester United was looking at me play, so I’d better do something.

He had watched me before, a specially arranged match involving the lads in the School of Excellence. I’d met him, and posed for a pic, but this was a completely different scenario. I was surrounded by top kids from around the UK, all of whom had the same ambitions. I concentrated hard. And I felt I was doing well. Dodging the tackles, scoring goals. Just like the Rathmore playground.

Still, when the week ended, and everyone was sat in a canteen waiting to go into the manager’s office for an assessment, nerves crept in. Part of me couldn’t believe that the first-team boss would have time to speak with every kid on trial, but he was very much involved. And the first thing that struck me was that he knew everybody’s name.

“Come in, Keith,” he said, with that familiar Glaswegian twang, as I gingerly pushed open the door after my name was called. He continued speaking, but the words were going over my head. All I wanted was the verdict. “You’ve done really well,” he declared, “And we want you to come back.” I walked out feeling ten foot tall, and desperate to tell everybody the news.

The process sped up from there. Eddie, a lovely man who sadly passed away in 2011, arrived at my house with a pre-contract agreement and a pen. Then, I was flown over with my folks for a game with Middlesbrough, where they gave us the red carpet treatment. The night before, Fergie and his wife Cathy came to our hotel to have dinner. That was intimidating. I can’t imagine what it was like for my Dad, a lifelong Manchester United fan, but the grown-ups seemed to get on well and chat politely. I just tried to mind my manners and say very little. I can’t even remember too much of what the conversation was about. What I do recall is Fergie reaching into his pocket at the end of the meal and producing a crisp £20 note for the waitress. I’d never seen a tip like that before. We knew that by coming out with us, he was obviously making a big effort and when Dad mentioned that we liked to go and watch Northern Ireland in Windsor Park, he promised to sort us tickets for the next home game. “Let me know if there’s anything else you need,” he stressed.

The following day, he allowed me into the dressing room before the match, and I was introduced to the rest of the players. Maybe new recruits were brought in all the time but, to this bright-eyed kid, it was the biggest thing in the world. Bryan Robson scored the winning goal, and I went home awestruck by the experience.

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