Your ability to run box-to-box has always been one of your biggest strengths - is that a genetic gift or the product of hard work?
It’s a combination of both. When I was younger my dad and my coaches on the touchline would always say that my ability to run was one of my biggest assets. You get a lot of modern midfielders play in the holding role or as a No 10, but I was brought up as an old school box-to-box midfielder who can do everything. Hard work plays a part as well. I go for a lot of runs and genetically I’m probably built for endurance and covering a lot of ground. I’m tall, slim and athletic which is a good combination – combine that with hard work and it’s become an attribute.
More after the break
Do you do specific running drills to improve your fitness?
I like to do triple box-to-box runs, where I run from box-to-box to replicate the running you’d do in a game. I also run from the penalty box to the halfway line and back and do that three times. I always like to do it on the pitch to replicate a game.
You’ve played with and against some of football’s greatest athletes - who are the most impressive you’ve encountered?
James McClean blows me away in training. Even at my peak fitness when I was younger it would’ve been a difficult task keeping up with him. Top players like Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane – they were great box-to-box athletes as well. I watched Keane a lot growing up and played with him as well, I learnt a lot from him.
How were players like Paul Scholes able to stand their ground despite being physically small?
Scholes is the perfect example of a player who played with his head. His awareness before people could get close to him was brilliant. He’d play it one touch and wouldn’t let you get near him and if you stood off him he could ping it anywhere. His first touch was that good he’d manipulate or move the ball to an area where you couldn’t reach it.
He was strong as well and wasn’t scared to get kicked. Size is all relevant, it’s about how you use it. If you’re technically good enough players won’t be able to get near you anyway. I’ve experienced that first hand. Scholes, Xavi, Andres Iniesta - their touch and intelligence meant you couldn’t lay a glove on them.
Have you ever had to adapt your game against players you knew were particularly strong or quick?
Yes, all the time. If they’re strong or quick then you have to adjust to it. Sometimes you can go in and be aggressive, but if someone is quick then you can’t dive in because they’ll skip past you. If they’re really strong, you almost have to mentally brace yourself for it. It’s about being more intelligent and picking your moments.
Do you think you can become an elite midfielder now without being an athlete?
Yes. Scholes is the perfect example of that. In the gym you’d probably think no chance, but technically he was too good for everyone else. He was so far ahead of everyone else in areas that are almost impossible to measure – things like reactions and anticipating where the ball was going to go. He could still play today. I’m certain he could put his boots on and play after three years out. I experienced it in a charity game for Unicef with David Beckham. I’m still playing week in week out and Scholes was the best player on the pitch.
Are certain formations and playing styles more physically demanding than others?
If you want to play a high tempo pressing game it’s a lot more physically demanding. If you want to sit deep and compact your movements might be more sideways and there is less space to run. The runs will be longer when you want to counter-attack so it’s all relative to the style of play. Alex Ferguson said recently that he didn't think it was possible to play the pressing game for a full Premier League season and that you need to adapt to different games. You have to have the fitness to play different styles of football.
Was physical strength something you felt you struggled with earlier in your career?
Possibly, but I always felt I made up for it with heart and determination. When I first started playing, upper body wise I was so thin. But I always felt my heart was my biggest strength. I remember when I was 20, skinny and weighed nothing, Alex put me man to man with Patrick Vieira – one of the best athletes in the world. I did well and it gave me a lot of confidence. I felt if I gave it my all and I overcame those physical weaknesses.
I did extra gym work but it had no impact, but then when I was 24/25 I started working a lot with Mick Clegg [former Manchester United power development coach] and things started to happen. I got a bit of definition and put on a couple of kilograms. On the back of that I felt my performances went up a level. Unfortunately I got struck by the illness because in the two or three years before that I was noticing I was getting physically stronger and quicker and it was helping me on the pitch.
How difficult was it to come through that period?
It was difficult because it wasn’t an injury, it was a challenge mentally every day. I didn’t want to give up football – something I’d worked my whole life for. I just got on with it and did my best to come through with it. I had medicine and had to go down the surgery route, which was a risk, and in the end I missed two years of my career through it. But it’s all character building and I’m still here today.