Manchester City fans must be revelling in their sudden elevation to the footballing elite off the back of all those petrodollars, but for some at the club the arrival of those riches was not entirely welcome. They’re the youngsters coming through what has long been a highly regarded youth system at City.
Paul Marshall Interview, by Dave Bowler:
Paul Marshall is one such player whose path to the first team has been blocked off by the superstars City can now attract. Fed up of waiting for his time to come, the England under 20 international has severed his ties with City and gone off to play for Aberdeen. His story could well be something of a morality tale for the English game. For while he’s clearly grateful for all the work that Manchester City have put into his game over pretty much a decade now, it’s equally apparent that for Marshall, leaving Eastlands for the north-east of Scotland is one of the best decisions he’s made in his young career. And there’s not much sentiment when it comes to his former employers!
“I grew up in Manchester and I always followed United as a kid, but I’ve had to keep that a bit quiet over the last few years! The big players that I used to watch as a kid were people like Steven Gerrard, David Beckham and Ronaldo – the one that played up front for Brazil, not the one who left United! They were the people that I used to pay the most attention to.
“I can get back to supporting United again now! To be fair, I think City will challenge United over the next couple of years because they’ll just buy everybody, all the best players and throw money at it. I think United need to get some more investment, they need to bring at least a couple of big names players in to get back to where they were I think because they still haven’t replaced Ronaldo yet.”
The very fact that City are now on the big stage and pushing their near neighbours harder than at any time for 35 years is, of course, the reason why Paul needed to study his options and get away from the club that has been part of his life since he was a nine old year. The millions that City can splash in the transfer market mean that for up and coming footballers, chances are few and far between and there comes a time when you need to move on to further your personal ambitions.
Not that it was always like that because even just a decade ago when Paul was first getting involved with City, breeding their own youngsters was, it seemed, their only hope of salvation.
“I went there when I was nine. The Saturday league team that I played for had a good reputation and we had a friendly game against the City team from the same age group and we just battered them, we really took them apart and it ended up that City offered to sign up six of us from that Saturday team.
They asked me to go for a trial to start with, but they heard that I’d been offered trials at United as well, so they said they’d sign me without a trial, and that was that. I wasn’t always a midfield player, because I started out at centre-half because I was quite tall, but then I moved out to left-back, forward onto the left-wing, and then eventually shifted into the centre of midfield.
“All the kids in Manchester are mad about football and United and City both had really good youth systems because there were a lot of kids to pick from. Everybody knows about the time United brought Scholes, Beckham, the Nevilles and Butt through all at the same time, but City have given a lot of kids a chance in the past as well.
“But Manchester City in 1999 was very different to what it is today with all the money that’s come into the club. The money has completely changed everything, there are lots of foreign players come in, coaches and staff from abroad as well, even the training complex, new buildings – and the new ground as well, although that was there before the new owners came in. Everything is massively different which is great for the supporters.
“When I joined, and through the first few years, City was all about giving young kids a chance in the first team because they didn’t have the money to go out and buy the big names. The only reason that Micah Richards and Nedum Onuoha are in the first team is that they’re that bit older, so they had the chance at a time when City were still the poor relations, they had no money and they got in by default in a way.
“I’m not saying they’re not good players because they are, and that’s why they’ve stayed in the first team squad, but there are players two or three years younger who are just as good and who don’t get the chance because City can go and buy any player they want instead now.
“It’s a shame because the youth system at City is really good, the coaches, the facilities, everything. They helped me become a better player over my time there, and that’s why they have brought so many good players through. But the last couple of years, it’s been frustrating for all the young players because even though it’s been exciting for the club, you can’t see any way that you’re ever going to get a chance to play. You see all these big money players arriving and you know that you won’t get in the team ahead of them. With every player that comes in, you go further and further down the pecking order.
“In the end, it’ll be English football that suffers because it isn’t just City that’s like that, a lot of the big Premier League teams are the same. I was at the Under 20 World Cup last year, we had some really good lads in that squad, but there aren’t many of us who get much first team football.
“There’s too much money about in the league and you know that rather than take a chance on a kid, they’d rather spend money on an experienced player instead of giving a young player time to develop. You get the feeling that if ever a midfielder got injured, they’d put a centre-half with a name in there instead just because they’re not sure about trying a younger player.
“It’s good that you get to work alongside the big names in training, you can learn a lot from them, but it gets really frustrating because you know that however well you do in training, you won’t get to play in the first team. There’s not enough reserve football either, you only get a game every couple of weeks, and you stop developing and it gets to be boring to be honest.”
Like most Premier League sides, City look to send their younger players out on loan to gain experience, but that in itself can drive them to distraction. In the timeless words of Jim Bowen on “Bullseye”, let’s have a look at what you could have won…
“I played a few games at Port Vale last season and once you’ve had that taste of playing first team football, playing for points, you don’t want to go back to the reserves. Playing for the fans, the crowd, even in League Two, it’s a completely different thing, a total different feeling. I just wanted more of that”.
That opportunity came over Christmas as Aberdeen moved in to take over Paul’s contract through to the end of the season. It was exactly what he was waiting for.
“When I got the chance to come to Aberdeen I was really pleased with it because it’s a great opportunity to play some football. I drove up with all my stuff and it took ages, about six and a half hours. It was in the middle of the really bad weather, the snow, there was loads of traffic, it was a nightmare. Aberdeen is much further than you think! It took me a while to get to Carlisle and then you start thinking that it won’t be that far away after that, but it is! It’s like the other end of the world! But it’s been great since I’ve been here even with the weather. I’ve settled in really easily, it’s a nice place to be and the players have been good with me. I’m still struggling with the accent a bit though! Some aren’t too bad but some of the older people, I can’t understand a word yet!”
On the field, there’s been no language barrier. Paul has slotted straight into the side and has looked the part from the off – it’s surely no coincidence that the Dons have started to string results together since his arrival.
“I’ve had a good start since I’ve been here, we won three out of the first four games and we shouldn’t have lost at St Mirren either really, we should have won all four to be honest. I think I’ve made a contribution since I got here – I don’t think they’d won that many all season before I got here! The next six weeks are massive because we’ve got so many games coming up which is good. We need to catch up on the games in hand and win the points to push us back up the league and start putting pressure on fourth place in the table. We’ve got the cup game coming up as well, and if we can win that, we’re in the last eight. With it being a lower division side, it gives us a great chance to go through and those are the things we’re aiming for this season.”
Paul’s aims also include a return to the international scene after going to Egypt with the England Under 20s for the World Cup last year, probably the pinnacle of his career to date.
“Going to Egypt was great experience and to play in a tournament like that was a real opportunity. It was disappointing that we couldn’t go further and got knocked out in the group round, but to play for your country in front of 40,000 people or more at every game, that was special.
“It was a big challenge with the climate and with teams more used to it. We had Uruguay in the first game and Ghana in the second and it was two totally different style of football, complete opposites because Uruguay pass it around where Ghana are just very, very physical.
“The next thing to do is try and get in the Under 21s, and that’s one of the reasons for this move. Brian Eastick who’s the Under 20s coach said that if I play regularly and do well, Stuart Pearce will call me into the Under 21s, because he already knows a bit about me from his time as manager at City.”
And as to his club future? Paul’s keeping an open mind.
“I think the big thing at the minute is just to see how this season goes at Aberdeen, and see if they want to offer me a new deal for next year, it’s all about doing as well as I can and playing as many games as I can in the rest of the season. There’s a lot of football left so I just want to play games now – I’ve been waiting a long time for the chance.”
Paul Marshall was talking to Dave Bowler for First Touch.
Reprinted with the express permission of our friends at First Touch Magazine