Curtis savouring new lease of life in United diaspora

The only Premiership survivor of his class in the Manchester United youth set-up is enjoying his new surroundings at promoted Leicester City
Click to follow
The Independent Football

The first time I interviewed John Curtis, he interrupted his GCSE homework, a project on Nuneaton's industrial revolution, to talk. We were on an Athens hotel rooftop and Curtis was squeezing in some study ahead of an England Under-16 international.

At the time it seemed Curtis had more than just the Greek capital at his feet. He was captain of the Under-16s, in the Manchester United team which would lift the FA Youth Cup, and attending the FA National School of Excellence. The future seemed his to grasp.

Eight years on, we speak again in the tidy but less glamorous location of Leicester City's training ground reception. On the agenda is today's visit by Manchester United to the Walkers Stadium but Curtis will be playing against, not for the champions.

There have been no full international caps to follow those gained at schools, youth, Under-21 (16 of them) and B levels. His medal collection is limited to two, from the Worthington Cup - as winners, but he did not play in the final - and the Charity Shield - as losers. One is tempted to ask where it all went wrong.

There is another viewpoint. Of that Under-16 team that I watched beat their Greek counterparts 4-0 in 1995 only Curtis and Jody Morris, now of Leeds, are currently playing in the Premiership. Michael Branch, who had an outstanding match at centre-forward, is at Bradford City; Jason Crowe, then of Arsenal, is at Grimsby.

The rest, well, they are gone, apparently wiped off the landscape of the professional game. Anthony Ormerod, a pacy winger on Middlesbrough's books, is, for example, at Whitby Town. Curtis's partner at centre-half, Matthew Wicks, the son of the former Chelsea player Steve, who had been fought over by Arsenal and Manchester United, had his contract cancelled by Hull City last season.

Curtis, confirming the intelligence that ultimately brought him eight GCSEs ('four As, three Bs and a C'), appreciates his career is more accurately described as a success than a failure. "Obviously it would have been fantastic to have a smooth progression," he said. "Everyone thinks if you're Under-16 captain, you'll go on and be England captain but life's not as simple as that. If it was, the FA School of Excellence would have worked.

"That experiment proved you can't pick 16 14-year-olds and say they are going to be the England squad in 10 years' time. It doesn't happen like that. I'm reasonably pleased with the way things have gone. I've had a couple of good breaks and a couple of bad ones but it is so far, so good."

Curtis' career first began to deviate from its skyward path at Old Trafford. When his growing halted at 5ft 10in, Alex Ferguson converted him to a full-back but he found Gary Neville and Denis Irwin hard to shift. "It was a gradual thing," he said. "The first sign that it wasn't working out at United was probably just getting demoralised through playing in the reserves all the time."

He was not alone. United's youth programme is famous for producing the core of the current side but it is also the biggest supplier of players in the sport. As our table shows, there are 38 former United youth graduates, including the manager's son, dotted around the professional game in the English and Scottish leagues.

Their sales have generated £15m-plus for United, which highlights their quality, but few are Premiership regulars. Of the 1995 FA Youth Cup-winning side, only Phil Neville, two years Curtis' senior, remains at Old Trafford, and no one else is even in the top-flight. Similarly, with Mark Wilson on loan to Swansea, Curtis is the sole survivor from his United year-group in the Premiership.

"I wasn't playing and I was nearly 21," he added. "I went in to see the gaffer and said, 'I've got to get on loan, I've got to do something'. Two weeks later, I was at Barnsley. I played virtually the whole season and we reached the play-off finals. Unfortunately we lost but on the back of that I was signed by Blackburn. I don't think they would have bought me on the back of reserve team performances and occasional Worthington Cup games."

Initially it seemed Curtis's career was back on track at Blackburn. The club gained promotion, coming second in the First Division, and Curtis was an ever-present. Then he fell from favour with Graeme Souness, the Rovers manager. "We got in the Premier League and I played the first three games. Then I got injured. I missed about eight games and I couldn't get back in. They bought Lucas Neill and he played well.

"I knew it was over when I came back from injury, played well in a Worthington Cup game, but got bombed out. That was disappointing. I had done so well the season before. To get injured and cast aside the way I was at Blackburn was ridiculous really. It is just the way the manager does things there.

"If you are not involved, if he doesn't want you, he just pushes you to one side. It's not the way I'd like to treat people if I was a manager. It is difficult to keep people happy when they are not playing but he didn't even try."

It did not help when Rovers reached the final of the Worthington Cup (for which Neill was ineligible) and Curtis, having played the previous five ties, was passed over, the central defender Martin Taylor taking his place. Having been signed for £1.5m, Curtis would have been on good money but he was more interested in playing matches than banking cheques.

"I handed in a transfer request, they refused it. I pestered them to go on loan, nothing happened. Then, last March, they finally let me go to Sheffield United. It was fantastic for me. I played in big games like the FA Cup semi-final and the play-off final."

The loan system has been much-criticised this year but it has twice revived Curtis. His form was noticed by Dave Bassett, his former manager at Barnsley, now the director of football at Leicester. Micky Adams, the City manager, promptly made him one of his 12 summer signings.

"He was brought up the right way at Manchester United, has decent qualities and a proven pedigree," Adams said. "It didn't work out for him at Blackburn so, like everyone else I've brought to the club, he's got a bit to prove."

Not to United. "Playing them is the same as playing any of my old clubs," Curtis said. "They are one of the biggest clubs in the world but I'll treat it no different to any other game."

That said, he added: "The manager has said many times that games against the top five are bonus games. No one expects us to turn over Man United so there is no pressure on us even though we are at home, which is strange."

Ambitions for the season are more optimistic. "The priority is staying up. If we can do that, it has been a fabulous season for Leicester. We'd then look to consolidate. Personally, my ambition is to do as well as I can, to collect a few more medals and do well for Leicester."

It is not what Curtis dreamed of at 16 but the reality is that, in forging a Premiership career, he has already beaten the odds.

Life After Old Trafford

Other United youth products forced to make the grade elsewhere

Still playing in Premiership

John Curtis

Defender, aged 25.

Lge apps at Utd: 13. Left Utd: 2000 (£1.5m).

Career path since: Blackburn, Sheff Utd (loan), Leicester.

Keith Gillespie

Midfielder, 28.

Lge apps at Utd: 9. Left Utd: 1995 (£1m, part-swap for Andy Cole).

Career path since: Newcastle, Blackburn, Wigan (loan), Leicester.

*Jonathan Greening

Midfielder, 24.

Lge apps at Utd: 14. Left Utd: 2001 (£3m**).

Career path since: Middlesbrough.

Danny Higginbotham

Defender, 24.

Lge apps at Utd: 4. Left Utd: 2000 (£2m).

Career path since: Derby, Southampton.

Jon Macken

Forward, 26.

Lge apps at Utd: 0. Left Utd: 1997 (£250,000).

Career path since: Preston, Man City.

Paul Rachubka

Goalkeeper, 22.

Lge apps at Utd: 1. Left Utd: 2001 (£200,000).

Career path since: Charlton.

Robbie Savage

Midfielder, 28.

Lge apps at United: 0. Left Utd: 1994 (free).

Career path since: Crewe, Leicester, Birmingham.

Mark Wilson

Midfielder, 23.

Lge apps at Utd: 3. Left Utd: 2001 (£500,000**).

Career path since: Middlesbrough, Stoke (loan), Swansea (currently on loan).

Still playing in First Division

Michael Appleton

Midfielder, 27.

Lge apps at Utd: 0. Left Utd for Preston: 1997 (£500,000). Now: West Brom.

David Healy

Forward, 24.

Lge apps at Utd: 1. Left Utd for Preston: 2001 (£1.5m).

Shaun Goater

Forward, 33.

Lge apps at Utd: 0. Left Utd for Rotherham: 1989 (free). Now: Reading.

David Johnson

Forward, 27.

Lge apps at Utd: 0. Left Utd for Bury: 1995 (% of future fees). Now: Nottingham Forest.

Ben Muirhead

Midfielder, 20.

Lge apps at Utd: 0. Left Utd for Bradford: 2003 (free).

Phil Mulryne

Midfielder, 25.

Lge apps at Utd: 1. Left Utd for Norwich: 1999 (£500,000).

Alex Notman

Forward, 24.

Lge apps at Utd: 0. Left Utd for Norwich: 2000 (£600,000).

Mike Pollitt

Goalkeeper, 31.

Lge apps at Utd: 0. Left Utd for Bury: 1991 (free). Now: Rotherham.

Mark Robins

Forward, 33.

Lge apps at Utd: 48. Left Utd for Norwich: 1992 (£800,000). Now: Rotherham.

Lee Roche

Defender, 22.

Lge apps at Utd: 5. Left Utd for Burnley: 2003 (free).

Michael Tonge

Midfielder, 20.

Lge apps at Utd: 0. Left Utd for Sheffield Utd: 2000 (free).

Ronnie Wallwork

Defender, 26.

Lge apps at Utd: 19. Left Utd for West Brom: 2002 (free).

Danny Webber

Forward, 21.

Lge apps at Utd: 1. Left Utd for Watford: 2003 (£250,000).

Gary Walsh

Goalkeeper, 35.

Lge apps at Utd: 50. Left Utd for Middlesbrough: 1995 (£500,000). Now: Wigan.

IN LOWER DIVISIONS (fee received by Man Utd where applicable): George Clegg (Bury); Michael Clegg (Oldham); Terry Cooke (£600,000, Sheff Wed); *Nick Culkin (QPR); Andy Duncan (Cambridge); Darren Ferguson (Wrexham, £500,000); Kirk Hilton (Blackpool); John O'Kane (Blackpool, £1m); Kevin Pilkington (Mansfield); Andy Rammell (Bristol R); Ben Thornley (Bury); John Thorrington (Huddersfield); Richard Wellens (Blackpool); Ashley Westwood (Northampton).

IN SCOTTISH PREMIER LEAGUE: Grant Brebner (Hibernian), Colin Murdock (Hibernian).

*Not youth product but signed as teenager from York.

**Combined transfer, total fee £3.5m.