Countdown to the FA Cup fourth round: Forest's well-travelled troubleshooter ready to take aim at Chelsea big guns

John Curtis's Old Trafford career failed to take off but on Sunday he has another shot at top-flight opposition. By Phil Shaw
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The Independent Football

For one mixed-up moment John Curtis wrestles with his memory. Did he once make the substitutes' bench in the FA Cup final? Or was it another Wembley showpiece, such as the Charity Shield? "That's how it was at Manchester United," he explains. "Every year you were involved in massive games."

His voice betrays no self-pity for the Old Trafford career that did not develop as many predicted. Nor is there the self- aggrandisement one could expect from a full-back who patrolled the United right behind David Beckham. At 28, Curtis is too busy getting on with life at Nottingham Forest to look back in anguish or arrogance.

The former European Cup winners and current League One promotion contenders have a big match themselves on Sunday. Forest visit Chelsea in the fourth round of the Cup, before a live television audience, although Curtis admits he would rather be tackling, say, Bristol Rovers at home than the Premiership champions away.

"It's a good tie in that we're pitting ourselves against one of the top teams in Europe," he says. "However, in football your first thought is that you want to win. So you could argue that it's the worst draw we could've had. But it's a fantastic day for the club and we're going to Stamford Bridge to try and win."

Curtis has played there before, of course, accidentally treading on and scarring Adrian Mutu's hand the last time. While only John Terry and Frank Lampard remain from the Chelsea side he faced with Leicester City, his own career has become a textbook example of the uncertainty of the footballer's lot below the superstar level.

Sandwiched between his early days at the FA National School in rural Shropshire and his role as defensive or midfield troubleshooter in Colin Calderwood's team is a succession of upheavals. Curtis has represented no fewer than eight clubs and endured as many frustrations as he has enjoyed successes.

Leaving his family in Nuneaton for the FA "school of excellence" at Lilleshall, he was part of what he terms "an experiment that didn't work". The pupils were supposed to be the England team of the future, and the years either side of him did contain Michael Owen and Jamie Carragher. In contrast, the main successes from his own intake are Neil Clement and Jody Morris, now with West Bromwich and Millwall respectively.

"There were too many variables and outside influences for the idea to succeed. Everyone grows at different rates, as players and as people. Having said that, there's no doubt that it improved my football, especially my technique."

Curtis reflects on his time with United as another experience he would not have missed for the world. "I signed for them because they invited me to the last game of the 1992-93 season when they had just won their first title in 26 years. It was a fabulous night. They beat Blackburn 3-1 - I can remember Gary Pallister scoring with a free-kick - and I thought, 'If you want to play football, this is where to do it'."

After collecting an FA Youth Cup winner's medal while on schoolboy forms, making his Premier League debut in a 7-0 rout of Barnsley and captaining England's Under-21s, he could have been excused for assuming a glittering career lay ahead. In fact, Sir Alex Ferguson dropped him for United's next game, and, like many of his generation, he suffered from following the Neville/Scholes/Beckham class of '93.

"It was particularly hard if you played the same position as Gary Neville, who's not only a great player but also a dedicated pro. When I got to 21 and wasn't playing, I reckoned I needed to go. There's no point, or fun, in being a fringe player, even at United. So I went to see the gaffer and told him I needed to get out on loan."

"With a club at the pinnacle like United are, only a few of the kids they take on are ever going to get through. But they still need a youth system. If I were a lower-division manager, I'd be on the phone to Fergie all the time about his reserves."

Within a fortnight he had joined Barnsley, much as Phil Bardsley has gone on loan to Rangers and Aston Villa this season after failing to dislodge Neville.

The disparity was eye-opening, his new club being a "friendly, homely, proper family club" compared with the "ultra-professional, ruthless" United.

Curtis's form at Barnsley attracted a £1.5m offer from Blackburn, where he won promotion. The move soured when he played in five ties leading to the 2002 League Cup final but was then omitted by Graeme Souness. "I wasn't exactly happy, but he picked a team that won the cup. He's entitled to think he was right."

Off on his temporary travels again, he appeared for Sheffield United in the FA Cup semi-final when David Seaman's miraculous one-handed save from Paul Peschisolido took Arsenal to Wembley. There were further detours to Leicester, Portsmouth and Preston (another loan) before he arrived at Forest on a free two years ago.

The manager who signed him, Gary Megson, could not prevent relegation from the Championship, yet Forest have been at or around the League One summit since Calderwood's appointment last summer. Pressed about the former Northampton manager's qualities, Curtis draws intriguing distinctions with another Scot.

"He and Fergie are not at all alike. If you think of managers as old-school or new- school, the gaffer here is definitely new-school. He uses laptops, overhead projectors, things like that. He's very measured when he talks and a lot mellower and less fiery than Sir Alex, although if you watch him on the touchline, he can lose his rag."

Forest had themselves been prey for smaller clubs in cup competitions, losing to Woking, Chester and Accrington Stanley over the past 18 months. Calderwood has ended the embarrassments, Yeading and Salisbury being dispatched. Then came the third-round defeat of Charlton, a week after Forest had crashed 5-0 at Oldham.

"We had two sent off and conceded two penalties there. It was a bit of a nightmare Christmas, but we're a good side and we can cause any team problems. There will be zero pressure on us at Chelsea. On form, it's a good time to play them, though they have a fantastic squad. We have to try to frustrate them and their crowd. It's the Premiership so they'll have all the prawn- sandwich brigade in their boxes!"

As a graduate of the Theatre of Dreams, Curtis knows all about the latter set. He decides he was not on the bench in the FA Cup final after all, but he does know better than most colleagues what to expect at the Bridge. "Once you cross the white line it makes no difference whether you've played there before," he says, grinning as he ponders the logic of the situation. "Perhaps because I know what to expect makes it worse for me."

A certain former team-mate's sights are set on the West Coast rather than west London, but then nothing about Beckham's career surprises Curtis any more. "It was destined for a long time that he'd go to the US. He'll probably stay a few years and then do it again in Japan."

His own ambitions, at least in the short term, are more parochial. "My contract with Forest runs out in the summer and my aim is to earn a new one. Yes, Chelsea is a huge game for us. But it would help me if we went up - and we can definitely do it."