I Promise You Never Read a Story Like This, Mate
We got chewed out. I’m talking a proper hairdryer.
Listen, I know everyone talks about Sir Alex’s hair-dryer treatments. I’ve heard all the stories from back in the day. They were legendary. But you’ve never seen a beasting until you’ve seen my grandad doing his thing.
This was a different level, mate.
This was in my academy days at Manchester United. I think we were like 11 years old or something. We were playing at Stoke. You know, rain coming down and all that, and it was just one of them days. We weren’t playing well, and tempers were flaring a bit. And the funny thing was, the Stoke parents and the United parents were sitting right next to each other.
So this one Stoke Dad is shouting to the referee about something or other, and I can hear my grandad starting on him like, “Oi, sit down. Sit down, son.”
You’ve gotta understand, my grandad is proper old school. He wasn’t even a football man, really. In his younger days, he was a rugby player and a powerlifter for Team Great Britain. He didn’t go full-on into football ’til after I was born and I started kicking about with my little ladybug floater football. We got pictures of me at 14 months with the red-and-black floater. Was still in my nappies. Could barely walk. But I was banging ’em top bins in the brown suede sofa in his living room.
It was always me and my grandad. Every day. Him and my nan helped raise me. I actually used to sleep on a mattress on the floor of their room.
My grandad didn’t know a whole lot about football, but he could see I loved it, so he just started grafting. Literally, when I was four years old, he bought these footy training tapes on VHS, and for whatever reason they were from Japan. And you know, just the sight of this. Imagine. This big, hard English bloke sitting in front of the telly every morning with his tea, watching the Japanese football lesson, taking notes. Then after nursery, he’d take me down the park and teach me how to do a new skill. But I was so small that the ball was literally up to my knee. So I’d be like jumping over the ball to do step overs — hopping left and right.
I think we were out there nearly every day.
He was so passionate. He wanted to help me. But we were in rugby league country up in Warrington, so he couldn’t really know for sure how good I was. The way he tells it, he took me over to the United academy for a trial when I was seven, and one of the coaches pulled him aside and said, “Where you been keeping him?”
From that day, when I joined the academy, it kind of became our dream, you know? You don’t get there alone, I don’t care who you are. You need people to back you. And he backed me every single day.
So anyway, back to my story. We’re up in Stoke, struggling in the rain, and he’s yelling at the Stoke Dad, proper straightening him out. Tensions are high, and we’re out there on the pitch losing our heads. I think we ended up losing by a few goals, and when you’re at United, that’s a big deal. Even when you’re 11. So the whistle goes, and we’re walking off the pitch, expecting to get an earful from the coaches on the ride back home.
But we don’t even get as far as the dressing room.
My grandad walks straight out onto the field. He’s like, “You lot! Oi! Come here.”
We’re all looking at him like ?!?!?!
And he’s jabbing his finger, and he’s shouting, “Disgrace! Proper disgrace out here today. Unbelievable. Go and look yourselves in the mirror, lads. You let your families down. You let yourselves down. You let the badge down. You’re not fit to wear the shirt! YOU’RE NOT FIT TO WEAR THE SHIRT!”
We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
I think he ended up getting a four-match ban for having a go at the Stoke parents, and after that he was a legend. It was coming from a loving place, you know what I mean? He’s just a character.
Without him, there’s no way I’d be where I am. You gotta think of the odds.
When I first got to the academy, I ran into Sir Alex in the corridor one day, and I got a photo with him. Proper photo. Kodak. I’m beamin’. We kept the picture in the house and my grandad would pull it out and say, “There he is. The main man. You’ll be playing for him someday.”
The main man. That’s what he always calls him.
You gotta hear it in his accent. The meyne mun.
The problem was that I was so, so small. I couldn’t put on weight. I was banging down the Maccies, and I was still so skinny. My grandad would always say, “When you coming out to the garden with me? You need to put some muscle on.”
He had paved the whole garden over with cement, and he’d built this wooden shed that was like his little gym. The vibe was raw. This was not fit for the ’Gram, man. No music, no radio. Just old-school iron plates bangin’ around. Deadlifts. Bench press. Raw.
Well, actually, there’s a ceramic plate above the shed door. It’s got a cheeky little pink flamingo on it, and it says, WELCOME.
That was my nan’s touch. But other than that, it’s raw.
I remember when I was like nine years old, I went into Tony Whelan’s office and I said, “Um, sir, can I start doing some weights? My grandad wants to know.”
And Tony was like, “No, son. You can’t.”
I said, “Oh, how come?”
He said, “Because you’re nine.”
I always knew my size was going to be a challenge. Even as I got older, I was still swimming in my kit. There’s this photo of me from the Nike Cup, and my brother always laughs about it.
We’re playing A.S. Roma.
I’m 15, looking like I’m 10.
And these Italian lads are 15, looking like they’re 25.
I remember walking out and seeing these boys had proper stubble, and I was thinking, Sheesh. You gotta find this photo. I look like a mascot who just run out onto the pitch for laughs.
Funny thing is, we won that match. We won a lot of matches back then, and I was playing well ― but I still wasn’t growing. When I turned 16, I seen a lot my teammates get pro contracts, but I wasn’t offered one. I was gutted.
Honestly, I don’t think I’d be here if it weren’t for Sir Alex. If it weren’t for the main man. One day, he had a meeting with me and my family. He sat us down in his office and he said, “It’s going to take a while for you, Jesse. We believe in you. But you’re going to have to be patient. You’re not going to be ready for the first team until you’re 22 or 23.”
I can’t even tell you how massive that was for me and my family. You’d think I’d be disappointed, but when an absolute legend like Sir Alex says they believe in you, that means everything. He didn’t have to meet with us, and he didn’t have to say that to me.
But that’s why he’s Sir Alex, and that’s why Man United is Man United.
I’ll never forget this one day, I was still at the academy, and I was walking the corridors at Carrington. I think maybe I was having a bad day, to be honest. I was in my head. So I’m just walking the halls, and all of a sudden I feel a boot clip the back of me head.
I turn around, like, “Bloody … Who done that?”
And it’s Sir Alex, and he’s got a little smirk.
He says, “How you beehavin’, bwoy?”
He knew what it meant to do something like that. That’s how you knew he liked you, when he’d have a bit of banter with you.
I was buzzing for days after that. The main man. Gonna play for him some day.
I’ll never forget the day Sir Alex called me and Pogba up to the bench, away at Newcastle. We were 18, 19. I just remember looking around the dressing room and seeing all the legends preparing, pulling their socks on. Scholes. Rooney. Rio. Giggsy.
Me and Pogs take our spot on the bench, and you know, we were used to playing in reserve games in front of 200 people. This is 50,000. I remember looking up at that massive glass stand at the one end, and it was shaking. And I looked over at Pogs like, Oh my gosh, if the gaffer actually puts me in, I might wet meself.
Lucky for me, we stayed on the bench that day. But that was such a big moment for me. Just to be thrown into the fire like that, and to get to wear the shirt for Sir Alex, it was massive for my belief.
Oh my gosh, if the gaffer actually puts me in, I might wet meself.
The truth is, I probably wasn’t ready. I can see that now. Sir Alex was bang-on about what he told me in that meeting years ago. I don’t know how he could see it, but he was right. I had to spend the next three years grafting, taking my lumps. I went on loan at Leicester, Birmingham, Brighton. I think those experiences were necessary. When you make it to the top, people see the glitz and the glamour, but they don’t see everything that went into it. They don’t see you living out of a Marriott in Leicester, eating room service for dinner every night, missing your family, doubting yourself, wondering if it’s ever gonna happen for you.
It’s funny, certain people will criticize me now because I’m always smiling out there on the pitch. But I’ll never stop being myself. I’ll never stop enjoying my football. I’ll never take the smile off my face when I step over the line, because I know what it means to wear this shirt. I know how lucky I am to do what I do for a living, and to represent this badge, and I’m never gonna stop enjoying it for a minute.
Because it all could’ve gone another way. Easily. When I finally got my debut in a United shirt against Swansea back in 2014, that was supposed to be the payoff for all the grafting, all the pain, all the years away from home. My whole family was in the stands at Old Trafford. I was 22 years old, just like Sir Alex predicted.
This was it. We’d made it.
Then I did my knee after 20 minutes.
Heard it pop, and I knew right away. I remember seeing my brother after the match, and he had tears in his eyes. Because he knew what it meant. It wasn’t just the injury. It was the timing. It was everything.
I was on the shelf for about 6 months. Couldn’t train. Couldn’t walk. Couldn’t do anything. Just laying on the sofa seeing United on Match of the Day, gutted. It was probably the lowest point of my life. I was genuinely depressed. That was rock bottom, really. I was literally picking my hair out I was so frustrated. But that’s also when I had time to think about my life, and I realized that all of this can go away so quickly, you know what I mean? Even if you work hard, and you have the talent, nothing is guaranteed.
It took me hitting rock bottom to really appreciate the opportunity we all have every time we pull on that United shirt. It can all go away in an instant.
It was a full 14 months before I had the chance to put on the United shirt again.
I haven’t stopped smiling since.
If you don’t like it, sorry. I’m not gonna change.
We all got different paths in this game. There’s so many things you don’t see. You know what’s so crazy to me? I was sat in that Marriott back in 2012, eating my room service chips, and I was barely getting a run out for Leicester. And in that same dressing room you had Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane, and they were going through the same struggles. We were all just trying to get a game in the Championship.
Six years later, we’re all walking out for the World Cup semifinal, representing England.
How do you explain that?
You know, last summer in Russia was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire life. And might sound strange to say because of all the pressure involved in a World Cup, but honestly, I laughed every single day. With Gareth Southgate and his staff and his waistcoat, it was positive vibes only. We were extremely well prepared. Just look at our set pieces and penalties. We were drilled. But we also could express ourselves and be free. We were like a family, and the banter was just a 10 out of 10 with those lads. I’m talking funny, funny guys.
Kieran Trippier … TRIPPS …. BANTER.
Danny Welbeck … WELBZ … BANTER.
Marcus Rashford … BEANS … NO BANTER.
With Welbz … I can’t even explain it. He doesn’t even have to say a word. He’ll just be standing around pulling his daft faces, making you laugh.
I’ll always remember every single match from the World Cup, but I think the one memory I’ll take to my grave is the Russian Roller Coaster. I nearly wet myself every time I think about it.
We were kind of isolated in our camp, so the staff would arrange these days out to keep us loose. One day, we went to this theme park ― the whole squad. It was like them days you have as a kid with your friends, just pure banter. So we’re standing in line for this roller coaster, and it looks proper scary. And there’s this big horn that blows right before the thing takes off, right?
Like one of them big factory horns. Just to warn you, like, We’re off.
So we get to the front of the line and we climb into the seats, and they’ve got these big metal harnesses that come down automatically and strap you in.
But for whatever reason, Welbz’s harness wasn’t clicking in.
He was sitting right behind me, and at first it was a joke like, “Haha, yo, my thing isn’t clicking. Tell the guy. Where’s the guy?”
But then a few more seconds go by, and everybody else is strapped in, and he starts panicking a little bit like, “Yo! Get the guy! Oi!”
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, the HORN goes off.
And Welbz is SCREAMING, like, “Yooooooooooooooooooo! YOOOOOOOOOOOO! YOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
He literally got up and jumped off the ride.
I guess the horn was for something else, because nothing happened. The ride was just sitting there, chilling, and Welbz was running round, panicking, screaming. The park workers were just looking at us like, Yo, pathetic.
Ahhhhh, we were wetting ourselves.
His face, mate. He thought he was a goner. It was unbelievable. I’ll remember that forever.
The ride was just sitting there, chilling, and Welbz was running round, panicking, screaming.
I don’t think I’ve had that much fun playing football since I was a kid. And the best part for us was seeing the videos of how much joy we were spreading back home. It was funny to see the whole It’s Coming Home thing. Because, obviously, we knew it started as a joke. And then it was like kind of still a joke, but maybe not? And then it was like ― yo! ― it’s really coming home.
We believed it 100%. And honestly, to this day, I feel like we could’ve done more. I still feel disappointed in the Croatia match. We weren’t just happy to be there, you know? We were devastated. But, at the end of the day, I think what we accomplished last summer was bigger than just the results.
Football is about winning trophies. Always will be. But I hope we changed the attitude around the country a little bit. I hope we showed that you can play with passion and play with positivity and play with a smile on your face, and still get results.
You look at that squad, and we had a lot of young lads. A lot of players who had been doubted. A lot of players who took the long way to get here.
I think we proved to everyone that we’re fit to wear the shirt.
Unfortunately, my grandad couldn’t make the trip to Russia. But he was following every minute from home, and he had my nan saving all the newspapers. After I scored against Panama one of them had a big spread of me celebrating, and the story mentioned how my grandad had helped raise me.
He’s still got the paper saved in the living room. I was over there for tea the other day, and he pulled it out. He was leafing through it, remembering little moments from the World Cup, and then he says, “Would you look at that … it says here, Jesse’s grandfather, Ken, a former Team Great Britain strongman….”
So he starts laughing, and then he points out toward the garden shed.
“Former strongman, eh? Former …. Nonsense.”