Football: United's quiet man steps out of the shadows

Nicky Butt may not be a favourite with the paparazzi but the midfielder is due to play a key role tomorrow.
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The Independent Online
WHEN MANCHESTER United flew to Barcelona yesterday the cameras did not, at first, seek him out. He did not cost a small fortune, he does not have a pop-star girlfriend, he does not score hat-tricks for England, he does not have a brother alongside him for club and country and he does not score incredible goals in FA Cup semi-finals. Of all Manchester United's famous young men, Nicky Butt is the least known to a wider public.

Not that Butt is complaining. He has managed to win a clutch of winners' medals, be capped by England at every level, drive a Porsche and live in a pounds 700,000 house without making much of an impression on the tabloid news pages and he is happy to keep it that way. When I asked him, as David Beckham went by surrounded by microphones and popping flashguns, if he was envious of his team-mate's profile, he replied: "I couldn't handle that. I admire people who can, because I couldn't."

Eventually, however, the spotlights were turned onto Butt because tomorrow he takes centre stage and, he says, he is ready to embrace it. The absence, through suspension, of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes from the European Cup final means Butt will have to boss the midfield if Manchester United are to impose themselves on Bayern Munich. He could have Ronny Johnsen, Ryan Giggs, Phil Neville or Beckham alongside him against Stefan Effenberg and Jens Jeremies but, whoever is his partner, he knows the onus is on his shoulders.

"I know what my responsibility will be," he said. "We're young men now, not kids, we've got to stand up and be counted. It is time to be a man. We have got to stand up and say: `This is our time now'. We are not 18 or 19 years old, we are 24 and 25. We know we have got to perform well for the club. It doesn't bother or daunt me: it excites me."

Butt's anticipation was tinged, though, with sympathy for the players from whose misfortune he will benefit. "I felt for them [Keane and Scholes]. When it gets to the final they should just cancel [suspensions] out. It's so harsh to miss the biggest game of their lives because of a mistimed tackle.

"When they were booked [in the second leg of the semi-final in Turin] I didn't think about it at the time but then I realised if I was fit I would be the only regular centre-midfielder available. But that's not a problem for me, I believe in my ability and that I can play in the big games."

That belief was tested earlier in the season when Butt had spells out of the team and was linked with a move to Middlesbrough, Sunderland and, after Brian Kidd's move, Blackburn. Not that the suggestion came from him.

"I would never turn my back on Manchester United," he said. "There's no chance of that. I'm not like a big superstar who would say: `That's it, I'm not in the team so I'm going'. There is no way I would do that to the team that gave me a chance."

All the same, having begun the season playing the first four matches, he was then dropped for Paul Scholes. When he returned he was dismissed in successive matches, against Barcelona and Arsenal, then played twice in the next 10. Having fought his way back into the side, he had another spell on the sidelines in the spring.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think that maybe my time was up," said the Manchester-born 24-year-old, "but I didn't start moping about the house thinking I'll never play for United again. I thought: `I've got to work hard and get back in the team and hopefully get in on my own merit. If you work hard the manager will give you a chance and, hopefully, I can say that I've worked hard for the latter stage of the season and have performed well."

In total Butt has featured in 45 of United's 61 matches, 13 as substitute. The figure just puts him in the top XI appearance-makers this season, though no outfielder has played in more than 54.

"The manager likes swapping people around and keeping it fresh," added Butt. "You just hope it's not you getting the knock on the door. If it is he always has a comforting word, he explains he's giving you a rest or just freshening it up."

Butt got the knock before Saturday's FA Cup final, in order to ensure he was fit for tomorrow. He also missed out on both matches with Bayern in the autumn. Suspended for the first, he made a late appearance as substitute in the second match, at Old Trafford.

He added: "They are a very powerful team physically, they all look massive, about 6ft 2in. They have talent as well. But we are a fit side. Maybe that is underestimated, but the manager and Steve McClaren put a lot of emphasis on it and we always seem to be able to run and run. Maybe that is why we get a lot of late goals."

Having been a prodigious scorer at youth level, Butt has only scored twice himself this season. A third tomorrow, especially a late winner, would bring the full glare of fame upon him. For once, he might not mind.