The Manchester United and England defender talks about constant pressure, why Robbie Fowler was the best finisher he has seen and how he'd love to see if Obama is just a puppet...
Ever since you were described as the next Bobby Moore aged 15, you’ve been constantly encumbered by pressure. How do you deal with it?
“For a start I’ve always had good people around me; my Mum and Dad, other family and friends, I’ve had huge amounts of support off these people. I think it’s also down to a personal determination to fight and overcome, you can either sink or swim, and I prefer the latter. Fortunately for me, whenever I’ve faced adversity, or been burdened by hype or a huge transfer fee, I’ve managed to come through. I thrive in high pressure situations.”
A lot of high-profile players from the past have dealt with pressure by turning to the bottle. Do players now get better education?
“I can’t speak for other clubs, but at United the kids get huge amounts of schooling in what it’s like being a professional footballer. Lots of help with the media in their growth process and a support network of people they can talk to if they face any problems. They definitely have much more of an awareness now then we had coming through the ranks…”
How did you feel when you walked into the United dressing room for the first time, there was some big characters in there …
“I definitely felt the pressure in training, there was Keane - huge personality and club Captain - then massive world stars like Veron and Van Nistelrooy, and you know they are looking at you thinking, “so what does £30 million buy us then?” So the pressure is undeniable. Luckily for me they made me feel incredibly welcome, and that is one of the best things about playing for Manchester United, it’s such a big club, but humble at the same time.”
How different did it seem on first impressions compared to the other clubs you had played for?
“I remember speaking to Nicky Butt at the World Cup in 2002, and he said ‘listen, if you come to Man United you’ll see it’s bigger than even England in terms of the attention you receive.’ Then on my first trip to Aarhus in Denmark it was like being in The Beatles, there were fans camped on the road outside the hotel, people screaming and shouting at the hotel 24/7. It just illustrates what a juggernaut Manchester United is, but, at the same time, it still has that family feel that sets it apart.”
Who are the best club side you have encountered as a professional?
“It’s difficult to say. Barcelona gave us a bit of a lesson in the Champions League final and I played for Leeds against Valencia when they beat us in the Champions League semi-final in 2002, and they were a very, very good side. They didn’t have the individual flair of Barcelona, but they were incredibly difficult to play against. The Madrid ‘Galactico’ team I played against with Zidane and Raul, when Ronaldo scored the hat trick and was giving a standing ovation at Old Trafford, were pretty special too. So Barcelona are probably in the top three club teams I’ve faced.”
How do you feel when you see Leeds now?
“It’s disappointing, no-one likes seeing their old teams in trouble. But I think if you asked Leeds fans now, they would understand the move a bit more. If they hadn’t sold a lot of the players they had bought in, there’s a chance that the club wouldn’t be anywhere now.”
You’ve been at a few clubs with very talented players and have also spanned three generations with England, who has been the best finisher you’ve seen close up?
Robbie Fowler, Ole, Ruud and Ian Wright are the best. I’d say Robbie was definitely the most natural, he could do it from anywhere, inside the box, long range, headers. It’s a huge shame that he had so many injuries because he was a great striker and a great lad. He came to Leeds and settled straight away, and was good fun to be around when we went away with England. He’s not known as God for nothing…”
Raul and Zidane were difficult because of the positions they took up, it was hard to know whether to track them or wait for them to come on.
“Paul Scholes. He can do it all, short, long, cross field, reverse passes the lot, no-one comes close as an all-round passer of the ball in my eyes.”
“Roy Keane, Wayne Rooney and Ronaldo for different reasons. Keane could do it by playing and talking, Wayne’s combination of skill and passion is inspirational and Ronaldo does it through his deeds on the pitch.”
“ (Laughing) Scholesy.”
“Raul and Zidane were difficult because of the positions they took up, it was hard to know whether to track them or wait for them to come on. Physically, I’d say Mark Hughes and Kevin Davies. With Hughes the ball would be running towards the touchline, I’d be looking to clear down the line and if he was steaming over, I knew I’d be heading into the crowd with a few stud marks for good measure. “
Best you’ve played with?
“Ronaldo is my favourite player of the current era by a mile. If he stays clear of injury I think he’ll be up there as one of the best of all time.”
Is seems to be a thankless task doing charity work as a footballer as people will always point to your wages, how important is it to give something back?
“As a footballer, I have a high-profile and this gives me the leverage to make others aware of a charitable cause, so I see it as a responsibility. People are bound to look in the paper and say, 'he’s always doing something for charity that geezer, he must be doing it for personal gain'. But I’m not, you have to do PR to get exposure for any causes you are involved in, that is the way it works. When I was growing up I always thought that, if I was ever in a position to use my status to have a positive effect, then I would. And it’s not about attaching yourself to any old charity, I only do things that I have a genuine affinity with. I think if you just attach yourself to anything, then it will come across in interviews and people will be able to point the finger and say that you are making it up.”
You interviewed 50 Cent for your magazine, were you nervous beforehand?
“Unbelievably so. It was the first interview I’d done for the magazine, and he is also someone that has made a huge success of his life. Not just in his comfort zone though, he has shown that he is highly entrepreneurial. So to have access to him for my first interview was tremendous, and once we got into it he was cool and relaxed and I think it came across on camera.”
You’ve recently spoken about management, how likely is it?
“If the opportunity comes along then I’ll definitely have a look at it, but I’ve got a while left yet before I have to contemplate it.”
Who would be your ideal number two?
“Gary Neville, he’d be perfect. He’d cross the Ts and dot the Is”
And will there be a sojourn in the sun before you retire?
“I won’t be playing abroad, this is me. I am at Manchester United and I love it here. Why take a step backwards?”
So where will you be in ten years?
“I’ll either be managing a club or will be doing the school run and working on my magazine and charities.”
What keeps you awake at night?
Anyone that you would like to swap lives with for a day?
“Barack Obama to see if he is really the decision maker or if he is a puppet for the administration.”
Ok, I'm buying, what are you having?
“A Yacht… or a beer”
Then it’s back to yours for a bit of food, what are you cooking?
“Sea bass and an avocado salad.”
Best thing about being a footballer?
And the worst?
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