David Mannix: 'I block out a lot of the memories'

David Mannix was compared to Wayne Rooney as a kid,  played for England Under-20s and was in Liverpool’s squad in Istanbul... but injuries denied him a shot at the big time.  As his Warrington side aim for another FA Cup upset on Saturday, he tells Simon Hughes why he refuses to dwell on the past

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The Independent Football

It is painful for David Mannix reflecting on the past – what might have been, the dreams touched but not lived because of rotten fortune.

Only when he really has to will Mannix catch sight of his younger self as a junior member of Liverpool’s Champions League-winning squad on arguably the club’s greatest night, in Istanbul in 2005. Look at the photographs and he is there, wearing a tracksuit and garlanded in red and white tickertape just yards away from Steven Gerrard – the midfielder he was often compared to – as Europe’s most illustrious trophy is hoisted into the air.

“I could run, I could pass with both feet, I could shoot with power and I flew into tackles,” Mannix says. “But I never thought, ‘Oh yeah, I’m the next Steven Gerrard.’ I wanted to be me. I didn’t want to be someone else. I was desperate to prove myself and have my own identity.”

Travelling further back in time, Mannix can remember rooming with Wayne Rooney on international duty when the pair were England youths and considered almost as equals by those in the know.

“I was Liverpool’s main player and Wayne was Everton’s,” Mannix says. “I’d back myself against anyone. But he had what I had plus some. I was strong for my age; he was stronger. Wayne was the only lad that I came across who was better than me.”

While Rooney now captains England and has 100 caps, Mannix – also 29 – leads Warrington Town, who are in the First Division North of the Northern Premier League, the eighth tier of English football, and who face Gateshead on Sunday in the FA Cup second round, having beaten League Two’s Exeter last time out, the shock result of the first round. It was Mannix who delivered the corner for Craig Robinson’s match-winning header.

But why is he setting up Robinson, not Gerrard? Five knee operations, a broken leg and a ban for breaching betting rules are partly to blame.

Mannix with one of his England Under-20 caps

And yet it had all looked so promising when he was a teenager with talent so obvious he was often selected to perform five years above his natural group. After his parents separated when he was 13, he became the first player at Liverpool’s Academy to be allocated a personal counsellor so that he could try to deal with the emotional difficulties. At 15, he made his debut for the reserves with Steve Heighway, the winger-turned-academy director, insisting he be offered a long-term deal, so certain was he that, barring demons taking control of Mannix’s mind or him suffering serious injury, the player would establish himself in the first team.

Heighway paid Gerrard and Jamie Carragher the same compliment and they proved his judgement correct, amassing more than 1,400 appearances between them. Mannix, however, never made it to one.

He arrives for our interview carrying, scrunched-up in an orange supermarket bag, his England Under-20 caps and creased Liverpool shirts with his name and the No 38 on the back. He rarely looks at them. They live with his mum, Donna, in the Merseyside overspill town of Winsford, Cheshire, where he spent his childhood before Liverpool brought him to the city where his grandparents originally came from.

“I block out a lot of the memories,” he says. “The positive ones lead to thinking about the negative and I’m not ready to deal with them just yet. I had full-time football every day since I was 14. Everything was given to me. I had boot deals with Nike and then went to adidas, where I was an elite client. David Bentley, Darren Bent and Kieran Richardson were in the same group. There were big contracts. I had an agent. But by the time I was 25 my professional career was over. I’m not into psychology. But when I was banned and not knowing what was going on in my life, there were signs of depression. That period is a blur.”

Mannix’s medical history is so agonising that there is not enough space here to detail all his body’s failings. On first cracking his right knee aged 17, he was told by several specialists that he would not play again. Eighteen months later, the assessment of renowned Colorado-based surgeon Richard Steadman was more hopeful, suggesting a 60 per cent chance of recovery. After three years of rehabilitation, when he regularly discussed his problems with Jamie Redknapp, a sufferer of the same injury, Mannix was fit again. “I felt like a new player, I was flying,” he recalls. Liverpool rewarded him with a three-year contract. “Then I jumped into a 50-50 tackle in a reserve match against Newcastle and snapped my leg.”

The drive, which once helped him determine the outcome of matches, dissolved. “I never allowed an opponent to dominate me. But after working so hard to get back to that level, it killed me off.”

Mannix recovered in time and resumed playing – but not at the same level. He won a promotion to the Norwegian First Division with the curiously named Ham-Kam, then found himself at Chester, then Accrington Stanley, where he ran into further trouble. He placed a £4,000 bet on Accrington to lose their final game of the 2007-08 season at home to Bury, a breach of FA rules. He was banned for 10 months. If people are prepared to listen, there is an explanation for what he considers at worse was a misunderstanding of the guidelines.

“It’s much clearer now but back then it was a grey area. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I went into the shop and put the bet on myself. I wasn’t hiding anything. I wasn’t in the squad, the next day I was leaving Accrington and the team wasn’t as strong as it usually would be. It was a case of seeing A playing B and A not being better than B.

“Three other players got done as well but there was no conspiracy, nothing was fixed. Accrington hit the woodwork a few times and gave it a real go. On another day, the result might have been different. The authorities wanted to send out a message. Because we weren’t high profile, we were made an example of.”

Mannix retired as a professional through the PFA, meaning he could claim his pension earlier than usual. Entering non-league, he joined Vauxhall Motors, then Colwyn Bay – the team Warrington knocked out in the third qualifying round of this season’s FA Cup run, before Exeter were beaten in front of the BBC cameras.

Mannix, who is a qualified Uefa coach and runs his own football school in Liverpool, believes Exeter underestimated Warrington by travelling on the day of the game. “Six hours on a coach can’t be good preparation, can it?” he says. As captain, it was Mannix’s responsibility to arrange celebrations the next day. “We met for a pizza and did a good shift on the ale. People were stopping us on the street and offering their congratulations. It was a brilliant feeling.”

Warrington will train at Everton’s Finch Farm complex on Saturday before staying overnight in the North-east. Gateshead, three tiers above Warrington, are vying for promotion to the Football League.

“Gateshead are supposedly the Barcelona of the Conference but that doesn’t bother us,” Mannix says. “We’ve got good footballers, too. I was brought up at Liverpool playing the right way. But in our side, that goes out of the window. You’ve got to earn the right to win any match. We’re a tough bunch, physical – a bit of a throw-back. It comes from our manager, Shaun Reid [Peter’s brother], who’s the maddest fella I’ve worked for. He won’t mind me saying that. The mentality is about intimidating the opposition, getting in their faces, tackling hard and winning the ball high up the pitch. We start games in a whirlwind. I’ll be honest, we’re horrible.”

Due to the pain in his knee, Mannix believes he has no more than three seasons left. Yet he harbours no bitterness. “I wouldn’t still be playing with a smile on my face otherwise, having that determination to prove myself every week.”

And what if Warrington were to upset Gateshead and draw Liverpool in the next round? There, Mannix would be lining up against a midfield that, in another life, he might have been part of. “Any Premier League team would do,” he says with a grin. “I’ll always be a Liverpool supporter. After everything that’s happened, it’d be some sort of miracle.”