A plunderer of goals at all levels beyond the first team, yet unable to make that all important breakthrough at senior level due to the quality and experience of the strikers available at Sir Alex Ferguson’s disposal. Yes, it’s Will Keane last season, but the same description applies to a member of United’s mid 90s, post-”Fledglings”, Alex Notman.
I was delighted to be able to have a chat with Alex in Christmas week of all weeks, as he currently recuperates from a long term injury. Alex is back at Norwich City, who are looking after his recovery – Norwich were of course the club that signed him from Manchester United, and the club where Alex was forced to retire from the professional game due to injury problems in 2003. He has made a few comeback attempts semi-professionally, and signed for Highland Football League side Formartine United in 2010, the team he currently plays for.
Even though he eventually became a fully fledged Red, his boyhood club were Rangers. “Ally McCoist was my hero growing up, as he used to score all the goals, and that’s what I loved to do!” says Alex.
And Alex got the opportunity to get some time at his boyhood club, however brief – was he holding out hope of signing for them? “No – because I had been training with Rangers since I was 10, maybe even younger. I still remember the first time my dad told me Manchester United wanted to take me down and have a look at me, now this was a dream come true to have a trial with United! The United scout at that time was the late Andy Perry – the same guy who brought Darren Fletcher to the club. At first I would go down in the school holidays and have trial games with all the other lads from all over the country that the other scouts had brought in and Andy would obviously come and watch me playing for my club each week. As I got older it was clear that United wanted to sign me but at that time I could have had my pick of clubs to sign for! But I always knew that I wanted to sign for United from the very first time I arrived at the place.”
And it’s a familiar tale to anyone interested in how Sir Alex approaches signing young players. 7Cantonas contributors Kevin Pilkington and Alan Tonge have shared their stories on these pages, while most are familiar with Fergie turning up at Ryan Giggs’ house on his birthday! And with Alex being so sought after (rightly so, as his goal record as a youngster would justify), it was that personal touch that swung it for him. “The gaffer even took time out to come over to the hotel to have a meal with me and my family as he wanted to sign me… that’s the difference, he was prepared to do that extra little bit and it told me that the decision I had made to sign for United was definitely the correct one!”
The 1995/96 season is famous for the coming of age of the 1992 FA Youth Cup winning team, but it was also a very successful one for Notman in the A team and the B team – breaking through alongside players like Wes Brown, Alex was making a name for himself. With 21 goals in 26 games for the B team, and 3 in 7 for the A team, Alex was not only enjoying success but playing alongside legends like compatriot Brian McClair. “That was a great season for me – to score 21 goals in 26 games is a great return, but that’s what I love to do is score goals and obviously with scoring so many goals, people began to take note! As I was doing so well in the B team, I got my chance in the A team and the reserves with the more experienced lads who you look up to and want to learn from. But it also proved that I could handle the step up no problem.”
He certainly could – and the following season, Alex proved his worth with goals all over the place for whichever team he was selected to play in. A diminutive forward with an eye for goal (aside from the A team, he scored more goals than made appearances in every team he represented), he was already drawing comparisons with Paul Scholes. No pressure to replicate that success then? “To be honest I wasn’t really modelling myself on anyone, I was just going out there to do what I do best and that was to score goals, and as any striker will tell you when your confidence is high you feel like you are going to score every time you go on to the pitch. I had read a couple of things at that time with people comparing me with Paul which was great to hear as in my opinion he is the player I rated the most from my time at United.”
I’m tempted to jump right in and ask about training with the likes of Eric and Giggsy, having heard great stories from others in the past. First I consult my trusty handbook (the official review of the 96/97 season), and throw a couple of references at Alex. In the review, he’s described as a hero for his equalising goal at Anfield in the FA Youth Cup. Not bad going! “Yeah I remember the game well, Liverpool had Owen and Gerrard in their team that night. We knew it would be a difficult game at Anfield but we knew we could go there and win and to get a goal there made it even more special!”
I’m reminded of the famous FA Youth Cup game last season, where United overturned a 2-0 deficit in front of the Kop. The rivalry around the clubs has been white hot over the last few years as United chased down the league title record, but in the mid 90‘s the Scousers were in a slump. Alex is quite quick to point out that it was still spicy! “Oh yes, even at youth level we are well aware of the rivalry that exists between the clubs and to beat them at Anfield made it even better!” Also in the review, Eric Harrison refers to a performance earlier in the Cup run, where Alex scored 4 and created another in a 7-0 rout of Wrexham at Old Trafford, saying he “couldn’t speak too highly” of the performance. Praise indeed, and unsurprisingly, Alex remembers it well. “I had a great relationship with all the coaching staff. All I wanted to do was learn and develop as a player so I got my head down, listened and worked hard so I think I was an easy player to coach. You never messed with Eric anyway as he was as scary as the gaffer!! I remember that game well getting 4 goals at Old Trafford was a dream and I had my family there to see it too!”
His memory is a little bit more hazy when recalling the celebrations at the end of that season. The Reserves, A & B teams all won their respective leagues, and Alex’s goals were vital for all sides, to make it a clean sweep and a proud year for the club as the first team also won the league title in 1997. And, I imagine, a very proud year personally. Plenty of champagne? “Yeah, that’s probably why I don’t remember much! No… obviously for the three teams to win their leagues is an amazing achievement at any level. But that is what is expected at United and just shows the depth of talent that was there at that time.”
Alex might be forgiven for thinking that was his year to break through. Eric Cantona retired, and with the clubs’ policy of giving the kids a chance, surely he expected to get some time after such a successful season? It certainly wouldn’t have been unreasonable, would it? “No, I always thought that I would get a chance. I felt at that time I was good enough you just have to keep working hard and try to impress the gaffer when you are playing. With so many class players there it was always going to be difficult but I always believed I would get a chance.”
He persevered – although he never got a chance in the 1997/98 season, he was now a firm fixture in the reserve side, scoring 11 goals. With the injuries that befell the side in the second half of that season, Alex can only repeat what he just said when I ask a similar question about whether he was thinking he would be getting a chance at that time. “Yeah, I always thought that if I could keep playing well and scoring goals every week then I would get my chance, but with so many world class players there at the time it was always going to be difficult.” Did playing and training with those kind of players, the likes of Scholes and Giggs, motivate Alex, or make him think he wouldn’t make it? “It was amazing to see these young guys come through from the youth team into the first team playing week in week out only inspires you to try and emulate what they have done. For a young lad just to be around these guys and training with them can only make you a better player. It certainly never made me think I couldn’t make it, and if it never happened at United, the experience I would have gained would have been invaluable to take to another club.”
Such a philosophical outlook would serve Alex well further in his career when he faced the ultimate disappointment – but before that, he was about to finally get his opportunity around the team, ironically at a time when the club were arguably at their strongest for centre forwards. Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer all made headlines in 98/99 – Alex’s senior debut (and, as it transpired, his only senior professional performance for the club) came in the League Cup defeat at Tottenham Hotspur in the December. On the eve of the season, though, he played with the seniors at Old Trafford in a match to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Munich disaster, and scored twice. What does he remember of those games? “Yeah I remember both games well… to score twice at Old Trafford with so many people there was an amazing night for me. And to finally make my debut against Tottenham was a dream come true… that is why I signed for United, I always believed I could play in the first team.”
The defeat did not damage his reputation, and he was encouraged by Sir Alex afterwards. “Even after that game the gaffer said to me I had done well and if I kept going I could get in front of a few people, but for one reason or another it never happened… But just to get one appearance for United is a real honour”.
That taste of first team action certainly whetted his appetite for senior football. I tell Alex the story that my best friend shared with me, about getting the train back from the 1999 FA Cup Final, and sharing the same carriage as him. Alex shared the story of his loan spell with Aberdeen with my friend. When I ask if the Sir Alex connection helped him out, I’m surprised to hear that Notman was in fact the instigator of the move. “Well, it was actually me who went to see the Gaffer about going out on loan as I wanted to get some first team football under my belt.” If Alex’s forthright attitude surprised me, the story of Fergie exercising his contacts certainly doesn’t. “He said he thought it (the loan) was a good idea and that he would contact Aberdeen to see if they were interested and within a couple of hours it was confirmed that they wanted to take me on loan. Things never really worked up out there as I think the manager was told I was coming rather than him wanting me! So I went there for 3 months but only ever made 3 substitute appearances and I think my time there stalled my progress a little”.
It’s a fair comment. Alex transferred to Norwich City a year later, after a short but successful loan spell at Sheffield United. “Yeah, I went to Sheffield United for a couple of months with Neil Warnock which went really well, but at that time they didn’t have the money to buy me. I then signed for Norwich City which I have to admit at the time I wasn’t sure about as it was so far away!! Phil Mulryne was also there so he helped me to settle in and I absolutely loved my time there, I liked it so much I still live there now! It was a family club just like United and they liked to play football so I fitted in really well.”
Recently I talked to Darren Eadie, the Norwich City legend, for 7Cantonas. Eadie too had his career tragically cut short by injury, and Alex endured the same fate, after suffering a knee injury in the East Anglian derby. He was only 24 when he had to retire from the professional game, but like Alan Tonge who has shared many of his experiences and thoughts on these pages, Alex is thankful for what he did achieve rather than lament what he never managed to. “Yeah… I was obviously upset at having to retire at 24 but fortunately I am quite a positive person and I never really sit there and think about what might have been. I have played for United, Aberdeen, Sheffield United, Norwich City and represented my country at every level apart from a full cap. I’ve also had some of the most memorable experiences through football, so in some ways I’m pretty lucky to have had the chance, as it is most young lads dream nowadays to become a professional footballer.”
Back when I spoke to Darren, Owen Hargreaves had recently signed for Manchester City. I asked him the question of whether he would have signed for Ipswich Town if they’d have offered him a contract when he was forced with the decision of whether to retire or not. I put the same question to Alex, with City as the potential suitors. “No – I think I would rather have retired!”
Alex is a self confessed United supporter these days. What does he think of our chances this season, and how the season has gone? “I think they are playing really well at present… obviously going out of the Champions League was a big blow but I’m sure that has spurred everyone on to go on and finish the season on a high. I do think United will win the league with one or two additions in January… I think they will have enough to take the title from City in second! United have gone through their sticky patch and generally get stronger after Christmas.” Any favourite players? “I really like the look of Cleverley, I think he is going to be a top class player… just a shame he got an injury when he did! Jones has also been an excellent signing, he’ll be in the United team for years to come.”
And the striking set up? It looks similar to when Alex was at the club, with the team spoiled for choice… “I think United have got a lot of fire power at the moment, obviously Rooney is one of the best players in the world and i think Hernandez is an out and out goalscorer. Welbeck has been the one that has surprised me, and for him to be in front of Berbatov just shows how highly the gaffer rates him. To have Owen as back up is not too bad either! I still think he has so much to offer if he can stay injury free he is a born goalscorer, with Rooney, Hernandez, Welbeck and Macheda all being relatively young I think United are fine in the striking department.” His opinion of Will Keane, a player who had a similar year to Alex’s 1996/97 season last year? “I haven’t seen anything of the lad but I have heard his name being mentioned. To get into any United team is going to be difficult but I feel it is a little easier now than it was back then. But I would say that!”
Alex still manages to get Old Trafford regularly as a supporter. “I normally try to get to a few games every season, I have a mate who also a big United fan so normally go with him. I was at the Wolves game a few weeks back.”
Though United were blessed in the striking department in the 90s, Alex’s contribution in 1996 and 1997 was crucial to the club’s progress in all levels beyond the first team, and he certainly earned all of the accolades that he got at the time for his fantastic record. A victim of circumstance, and then a cruel victim of injury, Alex’s story is not too dissimilar to that of Gary Walsh, Ben Thornley and Ben Collett, United youngsters who never got to fulfil their vast potential.
Thanks to Alex for his time and sharing his story.
Alex’s current club, Formartine United, are inviting commercial sponsorships, which include the opportunity for businesses to sponsor players, the match ball, and the club on match day. Please go to the official website for further details.
We’re also delighted to announce that in 2012, Alex will host the popular “Press Red” feature, becoming the fourth former United player to be a 7Cantonas contributor.