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Dublin: 7°C Sunday 18 April 2021

‘When I think of Man United I think of Paul McShane and his Dad singing Irish songs and playing the guitar’

Sylvan Ebanks-Blake learned his trade at Old Trafford but became a man at Wolves. As they face off today, the retired striker reflects on the influence of the Irishmen closest to him.

Sylvan Ebanks-Blake during his Wolves days.
Sylvan Ebanks-Blake during his Wolves days.
Image: PA Archive/PA Images

Updated at 10.57

“AH MAN, I’M sitting here right now and I’m smiling just thinking about those days.”

Sylvan Ebanks-Blake is a kid again. In the blink of an eye, the retired 33-year-old striker, one of those former players who flashes across your consciousness before disappearing again, has returned to Moss Lane in Sale.

It is the road where he lived in digs just a few doors up from Paul McShane during his four-year apprenticeship with Manchester United.

“The best time, the happiest times in football,” Ebanks-Blake beams. “You know when people tell you that their schooldays were the best time of their lives? Well I can understand it, because that was the best time of my football life.”

McShane was a major reason for that.

Ebanks-Blake joined United at the same time as the former Republic of Ireland international back in 2002. The neighbours drove to training together, went to the cinema together, ate in the Trafford Centre together, and passed their driving tests together.

They grew up together in a city that was alien to them, McShane arriving from Wicklow, Ebanks-Blake leaving his home in Cambridge at 16 after impressing in a two-week trial.

“My mum thought nothing of it at the time but I literally left that day and never came home, I’ve always lived away since.”

manchester-united-youth-team Manchester United's FA Youth Cup winners from 2003. Ebanks-Blake (back row, second left) struck up a bond with Paul McShane (back row, fourth left) Source: PA Archive/PA Images

McShane and Ebnaks-Blake would eventually go their separate ways in football and in life, making careers for themselves away from Old Trafford after being part of the club’s FA Youth Cup winning side in 2003.

Ebanks-Blake did manage to make the leap into the first team, his two appearances coming in the League Cup in 2004 and 2005 against Crewe Alexandra and Barnet respectively, finding the net against the latter opponents.

“You get a taste of it and what it could be like, at the time you are brought up in that environment to have the belief and confidence that you will make it, it’s only when you have time to look back on it that you realise how hard it is really.”

A broken leg didn’t help his progress but that was not the reason Alex Ferguson pulled him into his office one afternoon following training to inform him that a deal had been agreed for him to go to Ian Holloway’s Plymouth Argyle.

“He told me that I would definitely have a career in the game but that I just wasn’t ready for United. He said they would have a buy-back clause. It was heart breaking to leave. It was like leaving my family. I cried in the car afterwards, I called my mum and she said ‘right, now you go for it somewhere else’.”

It was at Wolverhampton Wanderers, who United host in the Premier League this evening, that Ebanks-Blake eventually became a man. But it’s those formative years in Manchester, alongside McShane, that are cause for even greater reflection now that he has hung up his boots. “When I think of those days at United I think of Paul and his Dad singing Irish songs together and playing the guitar,” Ebanks-Blake laughs.

Ah man, I’m sitting here right now and I’m smiling just thinking about those days. Our families would meet up at a hotel when the club brought them for visits. The songs would be going, Paul’s Dad would have the guitar out, his sister would be there, my Mum and brothers would be there and we would have a drink.

“That’s what life is about isn’t it, moments you have like that. When you get a chance to speak about them it makes you realise how special they were.

“Me and Paul were very similar, strong-minded and strong-headed,” Ebanks-Blake continues. “We would come in together early before training and work on one-v-ones against each other. I would be holding the ball up, trying to protect it, and he would be coming through the back of me snapping at my heels.

“It helped drive each other on. You can look back at it now when it’s over and get a real sense of what you went through, when you’re in it and going through it every day, every week, every game and going through the seasons, you get wrapped up in your own world. You do what you have to do.

“But coming through at Man United together, we were young and had no real responsibilities other than football. If you had a car you had to pay for that, you might have a mobile phone bill too. But that’s it.

“They were innocent times. Everything was all in front us then and you don’t know how it’s going to go. You don’t know what’s ahead of you in your career and your life.”

By the time Sean McShane passed away suddenly soon after ankle surgery in 2010, Ebanks-Blake and his son had drifted apart as their careers took different courses. The striker was with Wolves and the memory of a distraught Andy Keogh breaking the news in the dressing room remains a vivid one.

soccer-barclays-premier-league-wolverhampton-wanderers-v-stoke-city-molineux Ebanks-Blake hailed the influence of the 'good cop, bad cop' partnership between Mick McCarthy and Terry Connor Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“He was very upset, it was shocking really,” the forward recalls. “They knew each other even longer than we did, they went back further so that hit him really hard.

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“It was sad, I remember him (Sean) being such a happy man. Me and Paul don’t really speak now and we haven’t for a while. It’s a shame really because we were so close growing up. I guess you just drift away from people in your life and in football it’s hard to stay in touch properly. But when I think about it now, and I remember those days we had, they are the best of my career.”

Life at Wolves was a rollercoaster, Ebanks-Blake helping the club gain promotion to the Premier League under Mick McCarthy and then losing his regular place in the starting XI when club record signing Kevin Doyle joined from Reading.

“It wasn’t hard to take because Doyler was such a great fella. Maybe it would have been different if he wasn’t, but you knew straight away that he was a top player and a great person.

“It’s funny, but there are connections there that stays with certain people, I think. The best people I’ve come across in my life have been Irish and that just doesn’t leave you. I wouldn’t have many mates from football that are true mates, but there are some now who, if you put is a room together, we would just click straight back like it was Day One.

“Why? I honestly think it’s because of a cultural connection. I’ll tell you what I mean, they used to put up those signs in windows around England – ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’ – and I think we can relate to each other.”

A case in point, Ebanks-Blake’s mother moved to the south of England from Jamaica when she was six. “She was put on a plane by herself, can you believe that? There was family waiting on the other side but she was sent on her own to have her life in England.”

soccer-npower-championship-wolverhampton-wanderers-v-crystal-palace-molineux Ebanks-Blake insists there were no hard feelings with Kevin Doyle (right). Source: PA Archive/PA Images

One of Ebanks-Blake’s closest friends in football is former Wolves teammate Kevin Foley, the son of Irish immigrants in Luton, and he will soon visit him in Florida where he is beginning life after football as a coach.

And just before Christmas, another of his Irish friends, Stephen Ward, arranged for a closeknit group of ex Wolves players to go for a meal and reconnect. Ebanks-Blake lives nearby one of them, ‘the crazy man and a great man’, Stephen Hunt.

“You know, we’re all at stages in our life where if we didn’t want to see each other then we wouldn’t. We all have our own stuff going on but we will always have football and those Wolves lads are the closest thing I ever had in senior football to what we had at United.”

Ebanks-Blake wil have divided loyalties today, but shared memories to last a lifetime.

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