Football / FA Cup Countdown: Flitcroft masters his roles: City whiz-kid is ready to dominate Spurs: Derek Hodgson on the England Under-21 midfielder with the richly glittering future

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The Independent Online
ON KIPPAX Street they call him Purdey because of his fair, floppy hairstyle. The Manchester Evening News named him Gary Glitter. An old Manchester City fan smiled nostalgically and added: 'The best we've had at Maine Road since Colin Bell.'

When Spurs visit Manchester on Sunday, for the FA Cup quarter-final, they will be without their prodigy Nick Barmby, who is with England Youth in Australia. After the match they may be wishing that Garry Flitcroft, 20, had gone with him.

When comparisons are being made, at Old Trafford between Ryan Giggs and George Best and at Maine Road between Flitcroft and Colin Bell, when Malcolm Allison pops up in town to reminisce about the Sixties with Best, the Prime Minister can be reassured that one city in the country that does not need talking up is Manchester.

At this point it is necessary to point out that neither Giggs nor Flitcroft regards himself as Mancunian. Giggs comes from Salford and Flitcroft from Bolton. The Flitcroft family loyalties are spread over Lancashire, for he has a brother with Preston North End and another with United. While Giggs has attained such prominence that the BBC complains publicly because an interview has been refused, Flitcroft's rise, in one sense, has almost been more sensational.

Giggs's talents were, in fact, heralded first in the Independent in March 1989, when he was known as Ryan Wilson. Flitcroft was recommended to City by Eric Mallander, a Bolton schoolteacher who had also sent them Paul Moulden and Ian Thompstone, both of whom have moved on.

Flitcroft attended the FA School of Excellence where his gifts - pace, balance, vision, a strong tackle - were more obvious than his best position on the field.

Last season he went on loan to Bury and first appeared before City's crowd when he came on as substitute against Oldham last August. His progress since has been phenomenal, recognised last month when Graham Taylor nominated him as Young Player of the Month for January and chose him for the England Under-21s after 17 senior appearances.

He has played right-back, centre-back and midfield - and scored four goals. Taylor said of him: 'The fact that he has already played in three positions is a hallmark of the boy's ability.' City's manager, Peter Reid, added: 'I don't like singing the praises of lads who are just starting but Garry is level-headed and we'll make sure he keeps his feet on the ground.

'I've seen a lot of kids come through the ranks to become big names and Garry has to be ranked with the best. If he continues to watch and learn the only limit for him will be the sky.'

Reid - like United's manager, Alex Ferguson, with Giggs - has treated Flitcroft carefully. He gave him a rest after a six-match spell in September, another, for one match, in the autumn, but by December Flitcroft was simply too powerful and influential a player to be left out.

Reid added: 'If anything I owe Mike Walsh (the Bury manager) a couple of drinks. We sent both Garry and Mike Sheron to Gigg Lane for a spell and both came back the better for the experience.' Sheron won his first Under-21 cap alongside Flitcroft.

The only note of disagreement about Flitcroft's future is as to his best position. He says that he would play goalkeeper if it meant he got a first-team place. 'Beggars can't be choosers. I'll play anywhere but I feel more comfortable in central midfield. Steve McMahon was a big help, talking me through games and giving me the confidence to go upfield without worrying about leaving a gap.'

With McMahon injured, Flitcoft and the 23-year-old Fitzroy Simpson, had to hold the fort against Nottingham Forest, winning more praise as a partnership with Flitcroft poaching the second goal.

But is midfield his best position? He stands just under six feet, times the ball superbly with head or feet and looked very good at right-back, even better at centre-back. A fortnight ago another name was put, as a comparison, to Graham Taylor and the England manager did not disagree: Bobby Moore.

(Photograph omitted)