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'Who asks to leave Manchester United? I look back and wonder if I was insane. Did I go mad?'

Mark Wilson was on the fringes at Old Trafford and left under a cloud. Up until recently, he was still anxious about ever going back.

Image: EMPICS Sport

MARK WILSON STILL thinks about what might have been.

It’s inching closer to two decades since he left Manchester United and as much as he’s moved on from that period of his life, the circumstances of his departure are difficult to fully exorcise.    

It was the summer of 2001 and Juan Sebastian Veron had just arrived. Staking his claim on a first-team place – already a tough ask – had just got a lot harder for the 21-year-old. Middlesbrough, with former United assistant boss Steve McClaren newly appointed, came in with an offer. It was a significant pay bump. So, he took the money and ran to the Riverside. And the decision still rankles. 

“I left United for the wrong reasons,” he admits. 

“I had just signed a four-year deal. I was six months, maybe eight months into it. We’d be around other lads with England Under-21s – John Terry, Joe Cole – and players would talk about money. They’d say, ‘You lads at United must be on a lot, we’re on 15/20/25 grand a week.’ Sometimes you get caught up in the material, stereotypical bullshit of the game. It’s not really who you are but you start to play up to it. I lost sight of the fact United were my boyhood club. I was there, in and around the first team, I had three years left. If I’m honest, I forced my way out for material reasons. Who asks to leave Manchester United? I look back and wonder if I was insane. Did I go mad? I was impressionable, focused on the wrong things. And my highest-earning years at Middlesbrough were probably my most miserable.”

I left the club I’d supported all my life. I left the best manager in the game. It wasn’t about football. And that’s disappointing. I accept it now, of course. The stereotype ran away with me for a little while in my career and that shows in my inconsistencies as a player. I loved my seven years at the club but it wasn’t the right thing to do. I should’ve made a better choice, even though I was a young kid. Instead of putting my faith in the gaffer, I challenged him. I challenged his decision, his opinion. And who was I? I was 21 years old, still a kid. Granted, there’s a double standard because we’re expected to act like adults and be men. But we’re not. Categorically, I can say – looking back – that no 18-to-23-year-old is a man at that point. You’re still impressionable and not totally mature in every aspect of life. And that led to me leaving for the wrong reasons and under somewhat of a cloud.”

Wilson enjoyed an excellent career, eventually. But he’s the first to admit an immaturity cost him dearly and it wasn’t until a move to Doncaster in 2006 that he stopped pointing fingers and began to look inward. He became a collaborative presence, appreciative of his team-mates. And after a stop-start few years, he revelled in his new-found consistency. After retiring, he forged a new life in the United States and has cofounded a data-driven company, Beyond Pulse, which helps various football clients from around the country better understand players’ health and performance.

And still, up until the end of last year, he was anxious about ever returning to Old Trafford.

“I was always conscious of going back after leaving the way I did,” he says.       

“But, I covered the Tottenham game for MUTV in early December and I spent some time with Mick Phelan and I saw Ole too. I didn’t leave in the way I would have liked but it’s nice to draw a line in the sand. And it was nice to be welcomed the way I was by people who really knew me and didn’t just remember me for one decision I made when I was naive and thinking about material value. United will always be my club and a place that always feels like home.”

Wilson was part of an underage group that came through at United in the late-1990s, with some – John Curtis, Michael Clegg, Ronnie Wallwork, Terry Cooke and Philip Mulryne – having been part of the 1995 FA Youth Cup success. 

Wilson, who played as a striker initially, followed a year later and has mixed memories of the competition. In March ’96, United faced Liverpool in the 5th Round and were leading 2-0. Then, at half-time, a 16-year-old Michael Owen, who Wilson knew from the National School of Excellence at Lilleshall, was introduced off the bench.

“He scored a hat-trick, the little shit,” Wilson says with a hearty laugh. 

soccer-fa-carling-premiership-chelsea-v-manchester-united Mark Wilson in action against Chelsea in September, 1999. Source: EMPICS Sport

“He ruined that night for me and also ruined my career as a centre forward. Eric [Harrison, youth team coach] pulled me in the following week because I missed two 1-v-1s that would have put us further ahead. He said, ‘Look, I don’t think you quite have the killer instinct to be a striker’. And I was saying, ‘But I’ve been doing this for eight years. I’ve scored a ton of goals’. But he told me that I was technically good, that I could run all day and said I’d score a lot of goals as a midfielder. I walked out a bit perplexed but at the same time I trusted Eric implicitly.”

“I did have to re-learn the game and I’d sit on the bank at The Cliff and watch the senior midfielders – Beckham, Butt, Scholes – and look at how they’d strike the ball, how they’d move and Kiddo [Brian Kidd] would always be there offering some wisdom. The first time I was invited to train with the first team, I remember him walking onto the pitch during an 11-v-11 game. I was running around like a headless chicken, still trying to figure the position out. He came over and stuck his hands on my shoulders. He said, ‘Willo, stand still’. And I’m actually trying to run away from him as the ball is moving around the pitch. He said ‘Stand still – watch’. He says, ‘What do you see?’ I told him, ‘I see the ball moving, I see my team-mates moving’. Then he asked me, ‘Do you see space anywhere? When you get the ball, all I want you to do is look for space. And guess what? I bet you – more often than not – the ball will find you.’”

But Wilson needed to grow as a footballer and it was no coincidence that his first-team opportunities at United started to come only after a loan spell at Wrexham. He pinpoints his time there as a massive moment in his career and remains eternally grateful for manager Brian Flynn and a collection of experienced pros who handed him much-needed responsibility during games.  

“I had a great spell at Wrexham and Flynny had the same kind of mentality as the gaffer [Ferguson],” Wilson says. 

“‘Play with freedom’. ‘Go and express yourself’. ‘I wouldn’t have picked you if I didn’t believe you had the ability to play’. That year, we won the FAW Cup and I managed to score in the final against Cardiff. It was a great experience, being a first-team player. I loved it. It was different from United. We had our kit and had to bring it home and wash it. And that humility is important. But it was going out and playing in front of six or seven thousand fans too. And I was being told, ‘Willo, go win us the game’. ‘Willo, we need you on the ball’. And what that does for your confidence is incredible. Grown men, who’ve been in the game a long time…people like Brian Carey who had been at United. Bri would say to me during a game, ‘Willo, we need something from you – get on the ball’. You grow ten feet taller. I was the type of player that loved that responsibility. And that was a catalyst for me coming back, getting a new deal and making it to the first-team.”

Wilson’s chance came during the Champions League group-stage campaign in what proved to be United’s treble season. Away to Brondby in October 1998, he replaced Dwight Yorke for the final 24 minutes as the side romped to a 6-2 victory. The following month, Wilson was on the bench again as United visited the Nou Camp.     

“You’ve got the cage in the middle where the teams come out,” he says. 

“And there’s Rivaldo. I remember thinking, ‘Shit, right. We’re here. I’ve arrived’. Butty [Nicky Butt] went down in the first few minutes and the gaffer turned around and said, ‘Willo, go get warm’. And, my God. My heart was in my mouth. My stomach. ‘Shit, the Nou Camp’. But after I did a few sprints and settled my nerves, I was praying I’d get on. ‘Get me in the mix’. I just wanted to be on. I was stretching and looking around the stadium. Wes [Brown] was on the pitch and he’d just put [Boudewijn] Zenden into the stands. When he came to Boro, I reminded Zenden of that. He was saying, ‘Here was this 18-year-old and I thought I’d have him on toast’. He went down the wing a few times and beat him. But after the third or fourth, Wes just stuck him in the boards and he didn’t get a kick for the rest of the game. There was a little bit of a ruckus in the dressing room afterwards because some of the boys were in the wrong places in the wall for Rivaldo’s free-kick that made it 2-2. And it reminded you that the little things make a difference in winning and not winning.”

There were nine more appearances for the club, including a Premier League debut the following season in the 5-0 defeat to Chelsea while Wilson’s final outing came in a 3-2 league win over Watford in April, 2000. But, the experience went far beyond game-time. And he only fully appreciated the environment at United once he’d left.

“When I signed for Middlesbrough, you looked at the dressing room – Juninho, Boksic, Ince, Southgate, Ehiogu, Schwarzer,” he says. 

soccer-axa-fa-cup-fourth-round-middlesbrough-v-manchester-united Wilson, seen her battling Nicky Butt, moved to Middlesbrough in the summer of 2001. Source: EMPICS Sport

“But the first day I went in there, Steve McClaren said, ‘This ain’t United, boys’. And I didn’t really know what he meant by it. And I was saying, ‘Look at the squad – it’s incredible. The stadium. The training ground.’ Now, for the record, I love Incey [Paul Ince] – phenomenal player, great guy. But this first morning, we’re all down in the boxes waiting to go at 10.30. Then at 10.35, the gaffer is looking at his watch and Incey comes running down the hill with a cup of tea and a piece of toast. You can see the gaffer is fuming. And Incey is saying, ‘Hold the boxes, I’m not there yet’. And he comes into the box and starts popping a ball around with the cuppa and the toast in his hand. And that would never have happened at United. We went into a possession game and the difference with United became even more apparent. At United, the speed the ball moved around, the pressure you were put under…and it was sink or swim. It wasn’t like you had five minutes to get into it. The gaffer would be naming you, Scholesy would be naming you. Even other young players, your mates – Johnno [Jonathan Greening] or Wes [Brown] – would be on you if you had a few bad touches. You didn’t want to be on the revolving door in the boxes. You’d give the ball away and you’d get in the middle. Sometimes you’d get out and somebody would fizz the ball at you just to test you because you were knackered. And if your first touch wasn’t good then you’d be back in the middle.”

At United, everyone was held to the highest standard. Training sessions were tests of character. And in Roy Keane, the team possessed an intense, ferocious figure who didn’t suffer fools gladly.    

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“I remember Keaney smashing me a couple of times,” Wilson says. 

“One time, I accidentally nutmegged him. The ball was fizzed into me and it kinda bounced off my right foot and went through his legs but, as you do, I ran the other side of him to get it. And the worst thing that can happen in that scenario is that someone laughs. And Scholesy laughed, because he had that little mean streak in him. And a few minutes go by and I remember getting the ball and passing it on. You could’ve counted to three and next thing – smash! I’ve literally lost both my legs and I’m in a crumpled heap on the floor. Denis Irwin comes over, ‘Willo, you alright mate?’ And I’m saying, ‘My fucking leg! My fucking leg is gone’. And the gaffer goes, ‘Right, training’s over’. And that was Roy. Half an hour later he’s chatting to me about us having the same tattoo and asking where had I got it done. He was a tough, tough character. They don’t make them like him anymore. He was the only captain who – through sheer will, grit, determination – I’ve seen drive a team through an entire game. He was a remarkable individual. Volatile sometimes? Yes. But love him or hate him? I loved him.”  

“I snapped my Achilles when I was 21 and I think we had that in common because he went through the ACL injury in 1997/98. He saw me come back from that in five months and he saw me in the gym. There was something about it that resonated with him. My only regret is one moment I had with him.”

We were walking out at the training ground one day and I’d scored a few on the bounce and I was making my way back and had just signed a new deal, something Keaney had arranged. He was good like that. I was unhappy with what I’d been offered and I was in the dressing room afterwards. Keaney asked if I was alright and I said, ‘Yeah, fine’. He said, ‘What’s that?’ I told him it was the new deal. He said, ‘Well, you deserve it. You’ve come back from injury, you’re looking sharp, you’re scoring goals’. And he took it off me. He went upstairs to see the gaffer and came back down with a better deal for me. That’s the type of guy he was. He says, ‘You happy with that?’ And I was like, ‘Shit, yeah. That’s significantly more than what I had in the first place. I’m delighted.’ But going back to the day we’re walking out together…he said to me, ‘Willo, you’re after my spot, aren’t you?’ And there’s a big part of me that wished I’d said, ‘I fucking am, Keaney. I’m on your tail’. But I didn’t. Instead I told him, ‘Nah, we’ll play in the middle together’. And I wish I’d said the first thing. Maybe I didn’t quite have that mentality at that point. I should have said it to him out loud. Because that’s what drove United. ‘I want your place and I’m going to take it from you’. ‘No you’re not – come and show me out here now as we walk to training’. That was the unique environment we were part of.”  

Wilson speaks of Ferguson in reverential terms. But, they had their run-ins too. In his eighth appearance for the club – another Champions League tie, this time against Sturm Graz – Wilson experienced the famous hairdryer at half-time and learned never to cross his boss.   

“I remember I was trying to thread a ball through and it got caught out, they countered and Keaney nailed me for it,” he says. 

soccer-coca-cola-football-league-championship-doncaster-rovers-v-derby-county-keepmoat-stadium Wilson, who's now based in the US, enjoyed his most successful time at Doncaster Rovers. Source: Nigel French

“We went into the dressing room at half-time and the gaffer lays into me. ‘If you give another fucking ball away…’ And I say, ‘Gaffer, I’ve given three balls away’. And he’s like, ‘Shut up, don’t answer me back. One more pass…’ And I say, ‘But gaffer, what about this pass? What about that pass? I’m trying to unlock the door and not just play it square’. We go back and forth. But he stares at me dead in the eyes and says, ‘One more bad pass and you’re coming off’. So I shut up.”

“What I should have done is kept it nice and simple and played myself back into the game. But we kick off, the ball comes back to me and I see Giggsy make a run down the left. And I’ve zipped a ball, connected clean, it’s travelled 40/50 yards and the right-back jumps and flicks it out for a throw. It gets a little clap from Giggsy and I’m thinking, ‘Right, feeling good. That was an inch from dropping on his foot’. I look over at the bench and the subs go out. Ten minutes later, I come off. And that was the gaffer making a point. As pissed off as I was, the next day or the day after, he was waiting for me at the training ground. I was expecting us to go at it a little bit. But he put his arm around me. He said, ‘Look, I know what you’re trying to do. I respect you’re trying to play passes. But I want to help you understand the rhythm and flow of a game. What’s done is done. Don’t worry about it. I wanted you to learn your lesson.’”

It took him a while but Wilson finally did. 

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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