Young still has the hunger to drive to next level
“I don’t think words can actually describe what it’s like to play for Manchester United. As a kid, you always want to play for the biggest teams in the world, and there’s no one bigger than Man United.”
Ashley Young has come a long way since the early days at Watford, where teammates would call him ‘Peahead’.
Young outlined his career ambitions to FourFourTwo in 2006. Back then, he was a bright-eyed 20-year-old for whom even playing in a televised game was a novelty. “In five years time I’ll be playing in the Premiership and for England, and hopefully I'll have a few medals,” he said.
Granted, the latter part of this career goals triumvirate took slightly longer than the five-year deadline, but the point remains: this is a man living his childhood dream.
It’s fitting, therefore, that our meeting with the Manchester United star takes place at Wright Robinson College, an upwardly mobile school in Gorton full of children with hopes and dreams of their own.
As we sit down in a quiet room next to a crowded PE hall full of kids eager to get a glimpse of one of England’s finest players, reminding Young of his 2006 comments prompts immediate laughter.
“It’s been quite a ride from 2006 to now! I said I wanted to be playing in the Premier League, to have won trophies and represented my country, and I’ve managed to do it.
"I’m an ambitious person that always wants to win trophies and win medals. Hopefully that can continue, for the national side as well as at Man United.
"Fingers crossed you’ll come back to me in a few more years' time and I’ll say I’ve added a few more to what I’ve got so far...”
The road to the top
It's this single-minded ambition that has seen Young go from rejection at Watford to winning a Premier League winner's medal at Old Trafford.
The Stevenage boy was spotted by Watford scouts at the age of 10 and signed up to their academy. Initially he was refused a full-time football scholarship, and there were serious doubts as to whether this tiny kid had the physique to make it professionally.
Inwardly, however, Young had no doubts. He kept at it. Eventually, Hornets boss Ray Lewington gave him his chance. Young took it immediately, making a goalscoring debut at 18 after coming on as a substitute against Millwall.
From there Young’s career trajectory soared. His speed, trickery and creativity helped Watford win promotion and earned him a £10million move to Aston Villa. Young won PFA Young Player of the Year and was twice named in the PFA Premier League Team of the Season - "a sensational player", as Villa manager Martin O’Neill raved. But it was the move to United, and a Premier League winner's medal last season, that take pride of place at Casa Young.
“Winning the league was an amazing feeling,” Young beams. “There’s quite a few players at United who have won it a few times, but if you were to ask them, they would say the first is the most important. That was the biggest thing for me.”
Hunched forward in a blue Playstation Schools Cup hoody, jeans and extraordinarily chunky, branded club watch, Young cracks a huge smile when discussing being part of United’s record 20th title – a momentous occasion for the club made poignant by Sir Alex Ferguson’s surprise decision to retire.
“It was amazing to see so many fans,” enthuses Young. “It wasn’t until we turned onto Deansgate - we were coming up the road and you just had to pinch yourself. To realise how many fans had turned out and how excited they were, how excited we all were on the bus. I think you could tell by the way we were on the microphones, singing and getting everyone going. It was a fantastic day and a great feeling.”
Young was one of the chief ringleaders on United’s trophy parade in May; watching the players celebrate together, the level of camaraderie at Old Trafford was obvious, something Young confirms.
“There’s a lot of people that like to joke and the banter’s always flying. It’s just constant, every day there’s jokes going on.
"I think if you've got that off the pitch it’s fantastic. It shows – the way we went about our job last season and the way we’ve started this season... having our team spirit always helps.”
New manager, new methods
Despite picking up his first league title, Young didn't quite hit the heights he might have liked. He had scored eight goals and managed seven assists in his debut season as a Red Devil, but followed it up with a goalless campaign and only three assists from 17 league appearances last year, in a season hampered by injury.
There are times when there’s so many cones and poles laid out it can look like a landing strip!"
He’s also had high-profile criticism to deal with after accusations of diving, which recently prompted the ire of his new manager David Moyes. It’s a subject that isn’t up for discussion here, but Young does provide interesting insights into the training ground differences between Moyes and his predecessor.
“With David Moyes, he’s the one who takes the training, he’s more hands-on, whereas when the old boss was there he had his assistant Rene [Meulensteen], who took pretty much all the training sessions.
"Obviously the manager was out there, but he didn’t really take the sessions. So there’s a difference now with the gaffer taking training more than the old boss, and that's totally different.”
Has Moyes altered things significantly?
“He’s changed a few things,” Young admits, “which was obvious because he’s a totally different manager. But he hasn’t changed too much. He’s just come in and made a few tweaks. Obviously with the success we had last season he just want to add his own points, and they’re coming across really well.”
ASHLEY YOUNG: SEASON BY SEASON
- Watford 2003/04 - Games: 1 (5 sub) Goals: 3
- Watford 2004/05 - Games: 18 (20 sub) Goals: 0
- Watford 2005/06 - Games: 42 (1 sub) Goals: 15
- Watford 2006/07 - Games: 23 (1 sub) Goals: 4
- Aston Villa 2006/07 - Games: 11 (2 sub) Goals: 2
- Aston Villa 2007/08 - Games: 38 Goals: 8
- Aston Villa 2008/09 - Games: 47 Goals: 8
- Aston Villa 2009/10 - Games: 48 Goals: 9
- Aston Villa 2010/11 - Games: 38 (1 sub) Goals: 9
- Manchester United 2011/12 - Games: 27 (6 sub) Goals: 8
- Manchester United 2012/13 - Games: 18 (5 sub) Goals: 0
Moyes’ meticulous nature on the training ground is often discussed, particularly since he took the Old Trafford hotseat. Is it true, then, that one of his more scrupulous training sessions involves dividing the playing area into 24 equal squares, using cones in which players must stay, to replicate the rigid defensive organisation he seeks in-game?
Young laughs. “There are times where you come out and there’s so many cones and poles laid out it can look like a landing strip!
“It’s different for every manager. They all have their own ways of how a team needs to play. I think all managers use cones and poles, so you just get used going out there and working hard. And that’s exactly what the manager wants us to do.”
Twitter... and City
With some of the criticism that has come Young’s way of late, one might feasibly wonder why he chose to join Twitter now of all times. So why did he join, and is he ready for the inevitable invasion of keyboard warriors that comes with the territory for a famous footballer?
“Quite a few of the players are on there, and when they talk about it non-stop and are always tweeting... your ears perk up and you think maybe it’s time to join,” says Young.
“Obviously everyone’s entitled to their opinion on there. There’s going to be things that are said on there that you don’t like, but you have just got to get on with it.”
For now, however, Young’s focus is firmly on Sunday – the Manchester derby – and picking up more silverware at United.
You want to be able to say this is our city"
“It’s Manchester – you want to be able to say this is our city. We know it’s not going to decide the league, but it’s one of those games that you want to win. It’s a derby, it’s a massive derby, and we want to win it.
“For me, when I look back on my career, when I get to the end of my career, I can put the medals on the table and say that’s what I’ve won – and that’s more important than cars or houses to me.”
PlayStation’s new partnership with the English Schools’ FA has increased boys’ and girls’ football tournaments for the secondary school age categories, attracting close to 2,000 schools entries and 100,000 participants throughout England. This grassroots programme will help nurture stars of the future, creating more opportunities for children to represent their school football team. See PlayStationSchoolsCup.com or Facebook.com/PlayStationSchoolsCup