Oliver Rathbone: Quitting Manchester United for Rochdale was the best thing I have done in my life

Ahead of taking on his former club in the League Cup on Wednesday, the midfielder talks about getting advice from Giggs, training with Rooney and why Pogba is 'on another planet'

Oliver Rathbone playing for Manchester United U18s in the FA Youth Cup against Hull City in 2015. Getty
Oliver Rathbone playing for Manchester United U18s in the FA Youth Cup against Hull City in 2015. Getty

They are different worlds, but if different worlds rarely collide, they can often overlap, and in ways that give men from the shadows a first-hand view of those who live their lives in the sporting spotlight.

League One Rochdale only have to travel 12 miles to Old Trafford for tonight’s Carabao Cup tie against a rather more famous Greater Manchester club.

Dale have never been in the top two divisions, Manchester United never dropped beneath them. Rochdale’s average attendance is 4,042, United’s 73,587. Near neighbours have only met once, in 1986, but there are common denominators.

“Scott McTominay is one of my best friends, not just in football, but outside it,” said Oliver Rathbone, the Rochdale midfielder. “We played many games and spent a lot of our journey together.”

Their paths diverged then. Rathbone, 22, was released by United in 2016 after eight years on the books and one season with, though not always in, the reserves. He could testify to football’s domino effect.

When Louis van Gaal sent Adnan Januzaj and Memphis Depay down to the reserves to get game time, the regulars became substitutes. Rathbone lost his place on the bench.

He is steeped in Old Trafford tradition, courtesy of Paul McGuinness, son of the club’s former manager Wilf and the long-time coach of the Under-18s. “We used to have a classroom in the afternoon and do history lessons on Man United,” he said. “It was amazing, really.”

Rochdale may not have changed the footballing world, but they know those who did. Rathbone consulted one of the Class of ’92, Nicky Butt, about his eventual exit. He thinks of the time Ryan Giggs passed on advice, or the day Wayne Rooney asked to join him in a shooting drill after training. “Bizarre and natural at the same time,” Rathbone said.

ROCHDALE, ENGLAND - AUGUST 20: Oliver Rathbone of Rochdale during the Sky Bet Leauge One match between Rochdale and Sunderland at Crown Oil Arena on August 20, 2019 in Rochdale, England. (Photo by Ian Horrocks/Sunderland AFC via Getty Images)
Oliver Rathbone is enjoying life playing for League One side Rochdale. Getty

His senior football has all come in Rochdale’s colours. Joining them, he said, is “the best thing I have done in my life.” But he has been a team-mate of Axel Tuanzebe, Andreas Pereira and Marcus Rashford. If he did not expect McTominay’s emergence, Rashford’s progress was no shock.

“I was always playing catch-up and Scotty was the same,” Rathbone said. “He had loads of difficulties with injuries. He had a tough couple of years. Maybe Scotty was surprised he was given the chance when he was but I am not surprised he has taken it so well.

“They won’t admit it but in every [youth] team, they have the ones that they think they could be ‘the one’. I definitely wasn’t one of those players, for a variety of reasons. Marcus wasn’t just the mark in his age [group], he was the mark of the academy.

"I remember signing when I was 11, there was always talk of: ‘Oh, Marcus is a player.’ He's grown into an incredible footballer and an incredible athlete. It is tough with the pressure he has had to handle.”

His manager had his own brush with the stars. Brian Barry-Murphy is a Cork native, hailing from Roy Keane territory. He spent much of his playing career in the shadow of the Manchester giants, playing with Bury and Rochdale. He acted as a mentor to Dale’s youngsters in their second-string side.

Now, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer considering picking a fit-again Paul Pogba, his charges could emulate him. “I played against Paul once in a Rochdale reserve game,” he said, thinking back to a Manchester Senior Cup tie in 2011. “He is the best player I ever played against. He was on another planet.”

Now comes his players’ once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “We will never get this chance again,” Barry-Murphy said. “It is everything we want. It is a brilliant day for everybody.”

Rochdale's Oliver Rathbone might be going up against one of his best friends in Scott McTominay, left, when the League One side take on Manchester United on Wednesday in the League Cup. PA
Rochdale's Oliver Rathbone might be going up against one of his best friends in Scott McTominay, left, when the League One side take on Manchester United on Wednesday in the League Cup. PA

Published: September 25, 2019 09:58 AM

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