Football: Butt ready for England spotlight

Euro 2000: After missing out on the World Cup, the United midfielder is prepared to work hard to make his mark
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The Independent Online
THEY GREW up together, four kids in the park, kicked a ball around, until it was dark, Gary, David, Paul and Nicky.

They all played for the same local under-16 team in Manchester, all went on tour to the Isle of Wight. They joined United together, won championships and cups together and, last May, went off together to La Manga with England.

But Nicky, that's Nicky Butt, came home early, one of the six players rejected by Glenn Hoddle when he named his final World Cup 22. Gary Neville, David Beckham and Paul Scholes, his former team-mates at Boundary Park Juniors and current ones at Manchester United, went on to France.

This week they are united again, training together at Bisham Abbey. But they will not play together in Saturday's European Championship qualifier against Bulgaria: Beckham is suspended and Scholes has a foot injury, though he is training. This is always the way. Between them, the quartet of 23-year-olds (there is less than six months between Scholes, the oldest, and Beckham, the youngest) have won 66 caps, but they are yet to play for England at the same time. The nearest they came was at home to Moldova, when Butt came on as a late substitute after Beckham had already come off.

The main reason for this is that Butt has won only six caps, four as substitute. Now, despite a mixed start to the season, during which he has been in and out of the United team and been sent off in consecutive games, he may profit from his friends' misfortune.

"With the injuries and suspensions I do have more chance than usual," he said after training at Bisham Abbey. "I have to be positive and take it if it comes. I want to prove to Glenn Hoddle and England supporters that I'm capable of playing at the top level. I know I am and hope United supporters agree I am.

"Not that it's been frustrating. An England career is important to me, but I'm already playing for the club I love, England is a bonus. It wasn't a problem the others going to the World Cup, I was pleased for them, we're friends. Now I hope I can join them in the team."

Butt - who went on holiday to Barbados with his girlfriend while the World Cup was on, for a holiday rather than as a conscious effort to get away from it - made his England debut as a substitute in March 1997 and had his first start 11 months later against Chile. England's patchy performance then probably cost him the place that went to Rob Lee.

Butt's subsequent sang-froid is not for show. He may drive a Porsche and live in a new luxury house, but he is a phlegmatic individual, confident in his ability but not one to seek attention. As a youngster he was caught by his team-mates practising his autograph for when he was famous, but he said of the profile accorded to Beckham: "I wouldn't want that - he can't even go for a meal with his girlfriend without people taking pictures."

His recent spell in the spotlight followed his dismissals against Barcelona and Arsenal. "I couldn't have much argument about the first one," he said. "I tried to get my body across and it hit my arm. I didn't think the second one was a sending-off though. I was trying to get the ball. Until then I hadn't even been booked this season. Sometimes you do mis-time tackles - people should take that into consideration."

As a boy, Butt admired Bryan Robson and Mark Hughes but did not consciously model himself on anyone. Rejected by United after a trial at 13, he persevered and was taken under the wing of Brian Kidd, then the youth coach. Though he made his debut at 17, he first got a run in the first team towards the end of the 1994-95 season and then stepped into the void left by Paul Ince.

The emergence of Scholes, arrival of Jesper Blomqvist and return to fitness of Roy Keane means his club place is now under more threat than at any time since. "No one's sure of a place at Old Trafford," he said. "But I know if I'm playing as well as I can I'm worth one."

A free scorer at youth level, Butt is yet to do so regularly in the senior side though United still hope he will. "He has," Alex Ferguson has said, "the same kind of vision Bryan Robson had. He used to score around 15 goals a season and with maturity that may come again."

Ferguson believes Butt is still a couple of years off his best. "We always felt, from the age of 15, that he was going to be the one. He has all the qualities, courage, stamina, a terrific tackler with good pace and aerial ability. He's also a learner, an improver."

And a stayer. Suggest to him that a move might ensure first-team football and you get the cool response: "I've signed a seven-year contract and Old Trafford's where I want to spend the rest of my career. It's a matter of working hard and getting into the starting line-up."

This, you can be sure, applies to England as well as United.

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