‘I thought I knew best’: Richie Wellens talks Ferguson and almost making it at Manchester United

Andy Mitten sits down for an exclusive interview with Richie Wellens, the veteran Shrewsbury Town midfielder who made his professional debut for Manchester United, ahead of the clubs' FA Cup tie on Monday.

Richie Wellens of Shrewsbury Town during a League One match against Oldham Athletic at New Meadow on January 26, 2016 in Shrewsbury, England. Wellens made his professional debut with Manchester United and will meet his former club in a FA Cup tie on Monday. Catherine Ivill / Getty Images
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"Three minutes against a non-league team," sighs Richie Wellens, the veteran Shrewsbury Town midfielder who made his professional debut for Manchester United.

“My old club Doncaster Rovers were leading 2-0 against Stalybridge Celtic in November when (manager) Darren Ferguson told me to warm up. I looked at him as if to say ‘I’m 35, we’re 2-0 up, it’s nearly full time’. Do you really need me to go on rather than a younger player?”

The second Ferguson that Wellens has played under insisted that he went on.

“Darren is a really good manager who should be in a top two league,” Wellens explains. “I saw a lot of his dad’s characteristics during team talks, but that decision would cup-tie me and mean I’d miss the match against my former club that I’ve been waiting all my career for.

“Darren wasn’t to know it so I can’t blame him, but I was absolutely gutted when we drew United in the cup — though obviously pleased for Shrewsbury.”

A Mancunian United fan, the cup-tied Wellens will watch from the stands on Monday night as Shrewsbury play United in the FA Cup fifth round at a sell out New Meadow stadium. It has been 16 years since Wellens, 35, made his United debut in a League Cup match at Aston Villa, the culmination of years of effort.

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“I came on that night and looked at the scoreboard,” Wellens remembers about his 20 minutes alongside Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the man who had sealed United’s treble five months earlier. “I just wanted it to stop and for that moment to last forever.”

United’s manager Alex Ferguson had high hopes for the local boy who had been at the club since being spotted by Brian Kidd at the age of 10 in north Manchester near his Moston home.

“Football kept me out of trouble,” he said. “I’d been a naughty boy at school and was expelled. Football was what I was good at and I always thought I’d make it at United.”

Wellens had fine technical ability and was soon progressing through the age groups for England and United, who rewarded him with a four-year professional contract.

“Everything came easy to me,” Wellens said. “Too easy. I expected to make United’s first team and play with all the lads from the ‘Class of ’92’ who were in it. My big regret is that I didn’t speak to those lads, people like Giggs, the Nevilles, Beckham and Butt. They were only 22 or 23, but seemed like superstars and untouchable.

“I thought I knew best, that my ability would be enough to get me in the first team with them. But I should have been copying them and asking them for advice to become a better player and a better person.”

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Attention from other clubs also turned Wellens’ head.

“Liverpool and Everton wanted me, Watford too,” he said. “I had ability, but looking back I didn’t have the professionalism and attitude at that stage in my career.”

United tried to keep their young players grounded.

“I used to clean the dressing rooms and I remember (famous youth coach) Eric Harrison giving us the all clear to go home one day. Wes Brown and I walked to a bus stop in Salford and waited for a bus to Manchester. A big BMW stopped and the window went down. It was Alex Ferguson asking us where we were going. We said ‘town’ (Manchester) and he told us to get in. I was reluctant because my trainers were covered in mud and my heart sank when I opened the back doors to see cream seats and plush cream carpets.”

Wellens’ solution was to try keep his feet off the floor for the 15-minute journey.

“Sir Alex was asking us if we knew the music he had on. It was Neil Diamond, but none of us knew it. He loved Neil Diamond. I was more concerned about my muscles, which were hurt from lifting my legs in the air.

“By the time we reached Manchester I was in agony and desperate for the journey to end, but I couldn’t put my dirty trainers on Fergie’s carpets. I couldn’t take the pain any more and had to rest my feet on the carpets.

“When I got out of the car at Piccadilly bus station, I saw I’d left two dirty big footprints. I didn’t say anything and hoped he didn’t notice. He never said anything, but if he reads this, I’m really sorry.”

Ferguson was lenient on Wellens in other ways.

It takes a focused young man to keep his feet on the ground when awarded with a four-year contract by the treble winners. Wellens was not that man.

“I was going out socialising too much and I was convicted of drink driving,” he said. “I was doing my chances of staying at Manchester United no favours at all. Fergie released players for less, but he persisted with me and gave me my debut in 1999.”

Wellens was allowed to leave the following year.

“To Blackpool,” he said. “Who had a ground with two sides and one of the poorest training grounds in football. It was a culture shock; it opened my eyes seeing players walking back to temporary buildings to get changed. I quickly thought to myself, ‘If I don’t put a shift in then I’m going to be out of professional football’. I’d seen so many players leave the game for many reasons and I was on my way to being one of them.

“I took three or four games to get used to the faster tempo of life at Blackpool where you got less time on the ball and the game was played at 100 miles per hour, but from then on I was comfortable in the first team. I knew that only hard work and application could bring success.”

Wellens still wanted to play top-level football, but ended up staying at Blackpool for five years and almost 200 games.

“I was there from 20-25 and I stayed too long,” he says in his north Manchester accent. “I had offers to leave for bigger clubs at 22. Crystal Palace and Bristol City wanted me, but Blackpool had to give 50 per cent of any transfer fee to United and were reluctant to sell me. I also didn’t want to move to the south and I was enjoying my football too much at Blackpool. I was Player of the Year, we won promotion and I was named in the PFA team of the second division. I really liked it at Blackpool.”

The feeling was mutual and Blackpool fans weren’t pleased when he left for Oldham Athletic in the same third tier.

“I wanted to get close to my family in Manchester and I’d just become a dad,” says the father of three who would make League One’s team of the year three times in four years. He then moved to Doncaster and helped them get promotion to the Championship.

“Sean O’Driscoll, my manager there, really made a difference to me,” says Wellens. “He said to me: why are you not a Premier League player?” I couldn’t answer him. The next day he told me why. Not only did he give me guidance tactically and freedom to express myself more, but he expected a reaction when I lost the ball.

“Previously, I thought that was the job of other players, that I didn’t have to get the ball back. I soon changed, chased the balls back and became a better player.”

Like Wellens, Doncaster were enjoying an upwards trajectory.

“We had a new stadium, we’d beaten Leeds United at Wembley in front of 80,000 to be promoted, we had a really good team that would have pushed for the Premier League if we’d had a goalscorer,” explains Wellens. “Ironically, they’d sell me and use the money to buy one.”

Suitors had been calling the Yorkshire club and Wellens was sold to Leicester City for a significant £1.2 million transfer fee in 2009.

“When I arrived at Leicester there were more staff than players and I thought: ‘What’s going on here?’ he says. “But (manager) Nigel Pearson was brilliant with his preparation and the sports scientists were key to it all. They’d even test your urine and because you felt looked after, you were free to focus on football.”

Wellens was there when Jamie Vardy arrived from non-league Fleetwood Town.

“He’s down to earth, the type of lad you’d kick a ball about with your mates in the street,” said Wellens. “He got caught offside too much when he came to us, but he improved and he’s a great lad whose confidence has shot up.”

Leicester were a fast-improving team, helped by strong links with Manchester United. Wellens, Ben Marshall, Tom Cleverley, Danny Drinkwater and Richie de Laet would all play for United and Leicester. The latter pair are still there and integral to the clubs’ rise to the top of the Premier League.

“Danny’s a clever player, probably the best in the Championship when I was there,” says Wellens, who would have success there too. Leicester’s Player of the Year in 2011, he played 129 times for the team in four years until 2013, including in two Championship play-offs. Leicester

finally got promoted to the Premier League in 2014, but, at 33 and having ruptured his cruciate ligament, time was running short on his own career.

“I went back to Doncaster and I wasn’t fit enough after my injury,” he says. “If I had been then we wouldn’t have gone down.”

He left Doncaster last month and joined Shrewsbury via a four game loan spell at Oldham.

“I still enjoy getting up and going to training,” says the man who turns 36 next month and who earned an 18-month contract which means he will still be a contracted professional footballer at 37. “I can play once a week at 100 per cent, it gets more difficult when there are midweek games, but I’ve changed my game to suit my age.”

He is doing well at Shrewsbury, too.

“I can still be that holding midfielder who dictates the game, who passes and moves. We’ve started to edge away from the relegation zone. My manager Mickey Mellon is good with me. He knows I’m 35 with a family. He doesn’t make me drive in for a warm-down day.”

For every other day, Wellens shares a car for the 90-minute journey with three Liverpudulians.

“They can’t wait to play Manchester United,” said Wellens of Monday’s clash. “When the draw was made, I was with Anthony Gerrard, Steven’s cousin who has since left, while Andrew Mangan, another Scouser says he’s going to score against United. I really hope he doesn’t as we’ll never hear the end of it.”

Wellens isn’t the only Old Trafford connection at Shrewsbury. Striker Larnell Cole, 22, is a former United youngster on loan from Fulham, though he’s injured.

“Micky Mellon has a 12-year-old son at United,” says Wellens. “He called us together after the draw. He could see that all the players were talking about United and nothing else, but he told us that we still had very important league games and that they should be the focus.”

Wellens is also looking beyond Monday’s tie, a 10,000 sell out, to his own future.

“I’ll play as long as I can and I’m doing my coaching badges,” he says. Whatever happens, Wellens will have no future part to play in the FA Cup.

“Again, it would be good for the club, but I’d be gutted if there was a draw and a replay at Old Trafford in front of 60,000,” he says. “Just because of those three minutes against Stalybridge Celtic.”

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