David Platt: 'I wanted to turn Robbie down, but of course I couldn't say no'
City coach tells Ian Herbert about United rejection at 17 and how his friendship with Mancini lured him back into the game
The footballing journey of David Platt has been a long and cosmopolitan one but the club name at the top of the opposition team sheet at Wembley tomorrow evening will take him back to where it all began.
Manchester United also happened to be the opponents in the late summer of 1981 when Platt, turning out for his home-town team of Chadderton, impressed so much that the club invited him to train with them two nights a week, for a year. It was the beginning of a playing career that would take Platt to Aston Villa, England and on to the Italian career in which he formed the 20-year friendship with Roberto Mancini which brought the two men back together last May.
As a then United-mad 17-year-old, an Old Trafford career would have done nicely in the early Eighties. "When I joined United, it was the first year of the YTS scheme, so that enabled me to go in outside the usual apprentice route," Platt recalls. He is pausing at City's Carrington training base, amid the rigours of a week in which his and Mancini's training sessions have included a substantial focus on the preponderance of United strikers – the self same challenge Platt faced at Old Trafford in 1981. "There was [Frank] Stapleton, [Norman] Whiteside, Mark Hughes, Alan Brazil, Garth Crooks, who had come on loan," Platt recalls. "It meant I wasn't even a regular in the reserves at that time."
When he was sent out to Crewe Alexandra on loan and they sought to make the deal permanent, it brought an important conversation in the office of United manager Ron Atkinson, whose words were: "We're not sure whether to keep you," as the City coach recalls it. "I now know that he really meant it – that he didn't know what the next six months would bring. But I wanted to play so I left."
There are no regrets. "It was Crewe who got me playing league football. It was the old fourth division but light years from the Lancashire League with United." Some of the City message-boards were full of negative sentiments about Mancini's appointment of a perceived United man last year, though he can't change a career opportunity that any 17-year-old would have seized. Anyway, the fire in Platt's eyes ahead of another titanic battle with United should dispel any doubts.
The contact with United has been minimal since Platt left for Dario Gradi's side and Platt doesn't recall encountering Sir Alex Ferguson in a competitive environment until he resumed his coaching career this season. But the improbable relationship between Platt – a printer's son from north Manchester – and Mancini – a teenage footballing prodigy from a devout Catholic family on the Adriatic – has been a remarkable one.
Almost from the moment Platt – the 1990 PFA Player of the Year at Aston Villa and one of Bobby Robson's shining lights at the World Cup finals of the same year – left these shores in a British transfer-record move to Serie A club Bari, Mancini saw the asset he would be at Sampdoria, where the Italian was captain, chief cook and bottlewasher. Platt's first telephone call from "Robbie" – as he knows Mancini – came out of the blue, in January 1992. "We'd played Sampdoria a few times and I'd faced Robbie," Platt recalls. "But I didn't know him and he'd tracked my number from somewhere. He said: 'I know you've got a good relationship with your president, I'm sure you could push through a move to us.'"
Platt kept his options open. The lure of Juventus, who were also interested in him, would ultimately prove irresistible, though Mancini persisted. "Every two weeks he would be on the phone, pressing me." When things quickly failed to work out in Turin, the move Mancini wanted finally did happen. "Juventus played Sampdoria, Robbie was playing, so I was marking him and hovering around him, hoping he would say something," Platt remembers. "I've always suspected I wasn't on Sampdoria's list that summer, because their president wanted to sign Marco Osio from Parma but he ran the transfer list past Robbie, who had much of the say. I soon made the move."
The two men began management careers within three years of each other but their destinies were to be radically different from then on. Mancini found success at Lazio, Fiorentina and Internazionale before moving to City. Platt's short periods at Nottingham Forest and with England Under-21s were not successful, with Forest's slide down the leagues continuing after he had left. "People say it was a disaster at Forest," Platt reflects now. "I wouldn't agree with that, though looking back I made mistakes."
The lessons he says he has learned are "not to jump into an immediate thought and go and buy someone because you think 'I need him'" and also to put more trust in players. "At Forest, I would change a player because he hadn't played well for a few weeks but someone just beneath him who hadn't done anything to justify his place. I was chopping and changing, chopping and changing and the players were going into a game worried that they were going to get left out because they are not playing well."
After slipping out of the game, following his Under-21s spell, Platt had no reason to believe that he would have the chance to learn from his mistakes. His applications for several jobs included a summary of how he thought clubs should be run. There was one interview and a few phone calls but Platt threw himself into another life. He is one of the few footballers to have written his own life story and he established a business setting up executive golf trips across the world. This was initially to keep himself busy but he found that he was seeing far more of his young son, Charlie, now four, than he would have done in football. The family were able to travel with him on some trips. Then, last May, came a telephone call and a familiar voice on the line...
"Eight of us were in Turkey, playing golf," Platt recalls "It's baking hot, I'm on the 16th, playing quite well and it's Robbie saying, 'will you work with me?' My family is around, life had a perfect balance. 'No,' I said to myself! 'No, no, no!' But of course, I couldn't say 'no'. If I hadn't taken it I would always be thinking 'what if?'"
Platt believes he and Mancini complement each other. "Things come into his mind sometimes and he'll go off on a little tangent with things," he says. "I might want things to be more planned. Maybe there's something English about that." Platt also knows that if the new adventure is over, he may not be able to step back into obscurity. "Once you are in it you get that taste again. It's like a drug." And an immediate part of the addiction is serving a reminder to United about the teenager they once let go.
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