From left: Glenn Whelan, Paddy McCarthy, Stephen Elliott and Willo Flood.
Derby Day

Life in a different City: A band of brothers who became men in Manchester

Paddy McCarthy, Glenn Whelan, Stephen Elliott and Willo Flood played almost 1,500 games between them in British football. Their early years at Maine Road was the reason for the longevity.

THE £40 WAS burning a hole in Stephen Elliott’s pocket.

He probably still had a few bob left over from his 16th birthday, too.

No sooner had the young Dubliner reached that milestone than he was leaving home to begin his new life at Manchester City.

He landed in January 2000 and was quickly embedded in a youth set-up in which head coach Frankie Bunn fostered a unique spirit.

At its core were a handful of Dubs, not to mention a livewire Scouser by the name of Joey Barton who had just been released by Everton.

Elliott came just after Clondalkin’s Glenn Whelan – a week older than his new teammate who arrived from Portland Row via Santry.

Paddy McCarthy, another northsider from Edenmore, was a year older and already established in the academy alongside centre back partner Stephen Paisley, a graduate of St Mochta’s and Cherry Orchard, as well as Waterford native Brian Murphy in goal.

Then Ballyfermot’s Willo Flood completed the pack, a group described by Bunn as “a load of absolute lunatics who drove others on with their intensity”.

But before all that, Elliott still had to spend his first week’s Youth Team Scholar wage of £40.

soccer-fa-barclaycard-premiership-manchester-city-v-southampton Neal Simpson City fans leave Maine Road for the final time. Neal Simpson

“I don’t remember my first match for City but I remember the first night out I ever had in Manchester,” he laughs.

“The match was over and the lads turned and said, ‘Right, we’re going out tonight.’ I was like, ‘What? We’re going out?’ I looked about 12. I had 40 quid wages and bought a new pair of jeans and shirt.

“Piccadilly 21s was the name of the club we went to. This felt like being out in the big bad world now, I wasn’t a little boy anymore.

“It felt dangerous. The rule we had was we’d make our own way home if we didn’t get in somewhere. We had no I.D. I didn’t get in, I had to make my own way home and I was the youngest and the smallest at this stage.

“I ended up getting chased by this group of older lads who were out looking for trouble. They were calling me an Irish so and so. Thankfully they never got a hold of me because I legged it away and managed to get in a black cab.

“My heart was going, I can only imagine what they’d have done if they got me. I was cacking myself and told then lads when they all came in. I suppose it’s just one of those things and all part of growing up.”

Welcome to Manchester.

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A new Millennium and most definitely a different time, especially when it comes to football. Ahead of the derby today it will be difficult for the youngest generation of City fan to comprehend a time when they were not the dominant force.

Elliott, Flood and McCarthy can.

They trained at Platt Lane which was surrounded by the terraced houses of inner city Manchester – Moss Side and Fallowfield.

They went to college a couple of times a week in nearby Rusholme, most notable for the city’s Curry Mile. “The most enjoyable hour of the day there was going for a curry or a burger on the break,” Elliott recalls.

soccer-barclays-premier-academy-league-manchester-city-u18-v-manchester-united-u18-platt-lane EMPICS Sport City fans show support during an academy derby with United at the club's old Platt Lane complex. EMPICS Sport

A 10-minute walk from Platt Lane, the old Maine Road, with its four contrasting stands, rose above the red brick two up, two down homes.

When the Dubs first started coming, City were in the old Second Division – England’s third tier. United were the kings of Europe, winning the treble in 1999, the Premier League by 18 points in 2000 and then 10 in 2001.

City, under Joe Royle, reached the top flight but in their first season back – 2000/01 – Alex Ferguson skipped the return of the Manchester derby at Maine Road to attend his son’s wedding in South Africa.

David Beckham scored the only goal and City were relegated at the end of the campaign, which ushered in the Kevin Keegan era – bringing with it opportunities for the new crop.

“You go over to Manchester and you don’t know what you will become,” Flood says. “Yeah, you might become a footballer but you also know it might not happen. For us it felt like playing with your mates, you looked out for each other and drove each other on. You kicked each other too, but there are people you trust in football and they are four I would trust forever.”

soccer-fa-barclays-premiership-manchester-united-v-manchester-city EMPICS Sport Flood makes a tackle during a senior derby appearance at Old Trafford in 2004. EMPICS Sport

Flood, Whelan, McCarthy and Elliott stay in touch through their WhatsApp group, their lives taking them in different directions but remaining in football.

Flood is an agent, Whelan is still fighting the good fight on the pitch with Bristol Rovers in League Two – former midfield partner Barton now his manager. “They used to kick lumps out of each other in training,” Flood laughs.

Elliott dabbles in media work while overseeing Darlington’s academy, and McCarthy is U23s manager for Crystal Palace, the club at which he went on to spend the majority of his playing career after leaving City for Leicester in 2005.

Flood and Whelan shared digs, where the latter taught his young teammate how to shave, as well as splitting their Sky Sports bill. “I think we had to give Willo the birds and the bees chat at one stage, too. But that’s another story,” Elliott jokes.

soccer-fa-barclays-premiership-middlesbrough-v-sunderland-riverside-stadium EMPICS Sport Elliott left City for Sunderland, here tackled by current England manager Gareth Southgate. EMPICS Sport

“There is that bond still there with all of us because we were together when transitioning from boys to men. It probably sounds cheesy but that’s the best way I would describe it.”

McCarthy and Whelan’s circumstances sum up that evolution. They became fathers within a week of each at the age of 19 while still forging that early path in the game.

“It came soon in our lives but it felt natural,” McCarthy says. “It was crazy for us to be going through the same set of circumstances at the same time but it proved to be good support.

“Our families supported us too and now we are lucky to have two great families around us. We left home at 16 so we always had that sense of needing to make it work.

“Having a child so young, at any age really, opens your eyes to a different responsibility, a different kind of love and different kind of worry. They are the kind of emotions I’d never experienced and I think it made me stronger. It would change anybody and becoming a father is such a positive part of my life to this day.”

All four are now fathers, some of their kids approaching the same age they were when they left Dublin. “I couldn’t imagine it,” Flood insists.

“My nerves would be gone,” Elliott adds.

They were a Band of Brothers, but there was an edge. “We weren’t all happy campers and a load of jolly boys, we fought and scrapped,” McCarthy says.

“Willo had a temper on him,” Elliott continues. “Whelo would carry a bad training session with him for a couple of days.”

McCarthy adds: “First time I experienced Willo, he smashed into my ankles. He was tiny so I steamed into him thinking he would be done and dusted. But he didn’t fold.

“It wasn’t the Irish lads against the rest, it was City against the world for us. We kicked lumps out of each other and drove each other. There were a lot of bruises that would need to be healed.

“For me, I never felt satisfied where I was. Looking back, to be knocking on the door looking to play as a centre back in the Premier League at 19, not many did that. I always wanted to know what was next, next next. We all had that as a group.”

soccer-pre-season-friendly-crystal-palace-v-chelsea-selhurst-park EMPICS Sport Paddy McCarthy went on to captain Crystal Palace, where he is now their Under-23 manager. EMPICS Sport

It’s why Elliott turned down a new deal from Keegan aged 20 to go to Sunderland, becoming a senior international in the process, why McCarthy departed for Leicester, and why Whelan headed to Sheffield Wednesday before going on to have the longest Premier League career of the quartet with Stoke City and Aston Villa, not to mention almost a century of Ireland caps.

Flood was the last to depart but only after a breakthrough into the first team under Keegan which saw him play 18 times, including a Premier League start away to United for a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford in November 2004.

“I wasn’t one to give it the big licks after one game, I went back to the digs for a Chinese and was more worried about doing what I needed to stay in the team, that is what I wanted,” Flood recalls.

“Kevin Keegan was so infectious, he was desperate for his players to have a career in the game. I remember he made sure the club brought my mam and dad over for my debut. He wanted to know about them, where we were from.

“He came up to us after the game to have a chat and I think my dad felt more at home talking about fishing with him than football. Keegan just had a real love for the family. He wanted you to be OK and would done anything to help.”

soccer-fifa-world-cup-2010-qualifying-round-group-eight-republic-of-ireland-v-italy-croke-park PA Glenn Whelan celebrates a goal against Italy during a distinguished Ireland career. PA

He joined in with games of head tennis, shooting drills and his attention to detail with the younger players extended to explaining the different parts of the foot to try and connect with when playing the ball.

It was only recently, though, that Elliott was able to properly sit down for the first time with Bunn, the man who oversaw their academy education and, as McCarthy puts it, “allowed unpolished professionals to thrive”.

Bunn was pivotal in the foursome amassing close to 1,500 appearances in senior football. “He was an inspirational person for us,” Elliott continues.

“In his words, and this what he told me a couple of weeks ago, we were absolute lunatics who drove others on and brought an intensity level which helped lads around us.

“It was great to have his perspective on that time in our lives because we hung on his every word and it was the most fun time of our careers.

“We won’t speak to each other all the time but when we do, it’s like we were all together yesterday. A lot of players come and go in your career but these boys will always be your mates. You have that bit extra inside you that wants to see them do well in the game and be happy in life.”

They’d all give each other the £40 shirt off their backs if it came to it.

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