Former United defender Michael Clegg reflects on his time at the club and reveals how his new job after he retired from playing football gave him a new lease of life.
Michael signed for the club as a 15 year-old boy but remembers how he almost went down a completely different route to becoming a professional footballer: “I was 15 playing for Tameside, my county team and my local side Droylsden. Every player on my team was an associated schoolboy at a professional club apart from me, even though I was the captain. Apart from some interest from Hull for a short amount of time it looked like I was going to start college in the summer and continue my education.
“But then in November 1992, a United scout named Brian Poole spoke to me and my father and said there might be an opportunity to have a trial game for the Under-16s team if I was interested. I played in midfield but he said the club was short of a central defender for the scholarship for the following year. Even though that wasn’t my current position and that I was quite small he could see that I had the potential to bridge that gap through my grit and determination.
“I made my debut for the Manchester United Under-16s against Blackpool and pretty much took the bull by the horns. I scored, took throw-ins, I was commanding the action and it couldn’t have gone any better for me, a few games later I signed a two year apprenticeship with the club.
“I put my success from then on – winning the Youth Cup in 1995, playing for the reserves and then eventually getting into the first team down to application and dedication to training. I will be the first to admit however that my technical aspect of the game was possibly my weak link.”
Michael was given his first team debut in November 1996, playing in a 2-2 draw away at Middlesbrough, a day he looks back on with fond memories: “My debut came as a big shock because I had never travelled with the first team before and had only trained with them a couple of times.
“My overriding memory is walking into the away changing room at the Riverside and seeing my shirt placed alongside the likes of Peter Schmeichel’s, Eric Cantona’s and David Beckham. Then to make things even more special Bobby Charlton put his arm around me and said ‘Listen son, you go and enjoy yourself today. You’re doing what every lad dreams about in the world, you’re getting the chance to play for Manchester United in the Premiership.’
“The game itself was a blur. I remember getting back to Manchester and it felt surreal. But these things change your life even though I was at United for another 6 or 7 years and made another 20 appearances or so, that day goes down as a special one.”
On Sir Alex Ferguson, the man who gave him his chance in the first team Michael says: “He was an excellent manager who knew how to bring out the best in his players. In my time though it was his way or the highway, I wasn’t allowed an agent for example. I was amazed to be part of the whole experience and there were wonderful times on and off the pitch.”
Michael spent most of his time at the club acting as an understudy for already established right-back Gary Neville, Michael describes the current SKY Sports pundit and England coach as someone that he looked up to and admired.
“Gary was part of a special group of players at a special time,” he says. “That group (‘the Class of 92’) made it hard for anyone after that to break into the first team.
“Gary is very vocal and quite rightly had my respect. I used to learn a lot by watching him and how he conducted himself. It doesn’t surprise me that he was a success at United and I’m sure he will be successful at whatever he turns his hand to, whether that be coaching or media work.”
When asked to pick a highlight from his time at the club, Michael has several moments that stand out: “I think my debut, playing against Liverpool at Anfield and scoring in a friendly against Inter Milan at Old Trafford are three big highlights for me.
“However the best day was when I was a substitute for the first team against West Ham on the last day of the 1996/97 season. At half time I picked up the Reserve Team Player of the Year award and when I got back to the changing room the boss told me I was going on. I played the second half then the team was presented with the Premier League Trophy and I was part of that process. We walked around the pitch celebrating and it was absolutely amazing.”
Michael eventually left the club in 2002 after making 28 appearances but struggling to command a regular place in the first team, he joined neighbours Oldham Athletic but admits that he found it tough and ended up retiring in 2004, at the age of just 27.
“The manager simply wished me luck and told me not to be a stranger,” he remembers. “My Dad had just started as the new first team strength and conditioning coach but as you can imagine I never went back until after I had retired.
“I joined Oldham in early 2002 and it was a sad day for me really. The past couple of years hadn’t gone too well for me at United. I went out on loan to Ipswich and Wigan and both experiences knocked my confidence a bit. So when I joined Oldham I wasn’t happy within myself and right from the start things didn’t go well. The manager, Mick Wadsworth, lost his job relatively soon after I signed and the club went into administration for a while. Owners and managers changed frequently and before too long I was sidelined with a couple of injuries and a loss of form. I decided to retire and quite honestly I’ve never looked back.”
After retiring, Michael decided to follow in the footsteps of his father and become a strength and conditioning coach. His new job allowed him to return to the club where his career began before moving on to Sunderland, where he has now been in the job for the past eight years.
“We’ve had a gym in the family since 1984 and I’ve always enjoyed training and trying to get the best out of myself physically,” he says. “So once I retired I decided that this was the new career for me and I got qualified as a coach as well as undertaking several personal training courses.
I started working with my Dad at United’s Carrington training ground, everyone knew me and it got me experienced working with young players and being in that environment. I actually felt alive again and it went from strength to strength.
“Then in October 2006 Roy Keane rang me and asked if I would be interested in a role at Sunderland where he had just become manager. I took a visit up there and have never looked back. The job is challenging but very rewarding when you see the fruition of your work on a Saturday for example.”
Of the current United side, Michael believes that it is only a matter of time before the team are challenging for honours again at home and abroad: “The current team is going through major changes as is the club as a whole. This teething time will work itself out and I have no doubt that Manchester United will once again be a dominant force in the Premiership and Europe. If they can reach Europe this year and Champions League next year then I’m sure that the powers that be down there will be happy.”