How NOT to be a Football Millionaire

By: Keith Gillespie

There were always stories about Brown going around the school, with other lads saying he was one to watch, but I’d never had a problem with him, although I only went to those religious camps once. I thought all the rumours were just kids spreading crap and having a laugh. In prim and proper Bangor Grammar I’d never have imagined that a teacher could get away with such despicable behaviour. A special report commissioned after the case found that Patton had failed to take complaints against Brown seriously. Imagine living with that on your conscience.

Despite the school’s best attempts, they couldn’t halt my path. The countdown to my departure from Northern Ireland was under way and my face was starting to pop up in the local newspapers. The real catalyst was the Milk Cup, a youth tournament that attracts top teams from all over the world to the small town of Coleraine, just 40 miles outside Belfast. It’s a big deal. In 1989, St Andrews were unable to participate and a team-mate from Northern Ireland, Rodney McAree, asked me to play for Dungannon Swifts. His father, Joe, was their manager. Nobody gave us a chance in the U-14 competition, but we progressed to the final, where we encountered a selection from the Dublin and District Schoolboys League, the biggest league in the Republic, who were the hot favourites to win the competition. We surprised them; I got the winner in extra-time. A local team winning made plenty of headlines, and a fair share of them were devoted to me.

The trips with Northern Ireland also helped my profile. Our U-15 group was decent, managed by the late, great Davie Cairns. We should have won the Victory Shield, the marquee tournament for the Home Nations, after beating Wales and Scotland and then leading England into injury time of a game that was played at Hillsborough in driving sleet and snow. Everyone was going down with cramp, and our legs went. They scored twice. I later heard that one of their goalscorers was over-age.

Still, it was a good platform for us, and the major clubs were represented. I received approaches too, even though the Manchester United deal was common knowledge. Liverpool made an enquiry, but it was politely refused. I belonged to United and, from afar, they were playing a bigger role in my life. It was set in stone that I would be going over in the summer after I turned 16. I spent all my holidays there during my final year, and was often flown in for games at the weekend. In the 1990 Milk Cup, I was in Manchester United colours, part of a team where the starring member was a winger called Ryan Wilson. I was still at school when he made his senior debut the following March under his mother’s maiden name – Giggs.

For Dad, that tournament was a special thrill. The head of the youth set-up, Brian Kidd, and his assistant, Nobby Stiles, were legends he’d watched from afar. He was particularly excited about meeting Nobby, one of his favourite players from the 1968 European Cup-winning side. We stayed in Harry Gregg’s hotel in Portstewart during the tournament. Harry is a Manchester United legend from Northern Ireland who survived Munich, and he loved catching up with Nobby and telling stories from the past. It gave us a sense of the club’s history, but we didn’t bring the magic onto the pitch. We exited at the group stage.

When I wasn’t needed in Manchester, I lined up for Linfield Colts, the youth side of the most successful club team in Northern Ireland. Linfield had an arrangement with United which was convenient when I became too old for St Andrews.

This was a jump up to U-18 level and a physical test. My first appearance against Ballymena went so well that the Linfield first-team manager enquired about bringing me into their ranks. The Irish League was a demanding place and I’d have been coming up against hardened semi-pros 10 or even 20 years older than me. United got wind of the idea, and vetoed it straight away. I was only small at that point and fairly slight. The experience could have broken me, so it was the right decision, although the idea did make me curious.

So, I stayed with the Colts and waited for the summer. The coverage increased in the final months. From the day the United news went public, the local papers were constantly on the phone. Inevitably, they trotted out the ‘next George Best’ line, a tag that was also attached to Whiteside in his youth. That’s the thing about being from a small country. The spotlight comes earlier than England, where promising kids can stay under the media radar until they reach the first team.

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