Dead Mad

Tommy Milanese/The Players' Tribune

Alright, picture this: We're at the Etihad playing Burnley. It’s the 90th minute. Pep grabs my arm.

“If I put you on now, are you sure you can still play later?”

This was last October. I’m about to make my second-ever Premier League appearance, but I’m thinking about the next game.

The Under-23s have got a late kickoff against Leicester and I reckon I can get over in time to play in that too.

So, we’re on the touchline and Pep’s asking me, “Are you sure? There’s no rule that says you can’t?”

By the way, it’s still mad that I get to train with and be around Pep every day. I grew up watching his Barça team. The best to ever do it.

In real life, he’s pretty much as you’d expect. Always on about football. Proper mad for it. Crazy details on another level. He’ll just say something, whether it’s tactics, movement, technique, whatever, and it’ll completely change the way you think. 

It’s like, Ah, right, why have I never thought about it like that before?

There’s nothing he doesn’t know about football. Except this. Except whether I can play two games in one day.

Cole Palmer | Manchester City | Dead Mad | The Players' Tribune
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

I’m standing there like, “Err … yeah, I think so.”

Then, the assistant manager, Rodolfo Borrell, comes over. He knows the rules. He’s like, “Yes, Cole can play both games, if he wants to.”

To be fair, no-one asked me to play both games. I’ve just seen the fixture list. I know I can make it in time. The Under-23s only play over the road at the Academy Stadium. It’s a two-minute drive. If I’m only getting a few minutes here against Burnley — even if it is the Premier League — why not?

Pep puts me on for the last few minutes of the game, and we close it out 2–0.

In the changing room after, I don’t even take my socks or shin pads off, I just whack a tracksuit over the top, eat something quickly and get ready to head over the bridge.

I see Jack Grealish and Phil Foden looking at me like, What is he doing???

I tell them what’s going on, and they’re just staring back at me surprised …  like I’m a bit mad haha!

(Maybe they’re a little bit impressed too.)

I just have loads of energy. I’m ready to do all sorts. I’m so buzzin’ I end up scoring twice in the first half against Leicester. Second half, I’m desperate to take home that match ball, but it’s not coming. Then in the 85th-minute, I get it on the edge of the box, and I just whip it. 

Top corner. 

Hat trick.


Good day, that. Haha!

Afterwards, the media made kind of a big deal about the two games thing, but to me, I dunno … it just seemed natural. I even think a couple of other lads have done it since (minus the hat trick).

The thing you’ve gotta know about me is, if there’s a game happening anywhere, I want to be playing in it!

Back when I was at school, the teachers used to tell my parents that when I was acting up or being naughty, there was one promise they could make to get me to behave: They’d offer to give me a ball. 

Even my first memories are of football. Like I know a lot of players will say that, but it’s true!

I actually have two “first” memories. They both involve football. And they both involve my dad. 

One is watching him play Sunday League every weekend for his pub team, Blackboy FC, in Manchester. He used to sit me down on the bag of balls on the sidelines, wrapped in one of his rain jackets. I would just take it all in — the crunching tackles, the shouting, the arguing.

Dad doesn’t play anymore since he done his knee, and I don’t really remember any specific games, but he’ll tell you how good he was! He fixes dental equipment as his real job, but to listen to him you’d think he’d had a 20-year career in the Premier League! 

“Top scorer from centre back, one season.” That’s what he says, anyway. I reckon he’s lying. Sorry, Dad. Hahaha!

His big claim to fame was when his team made a cup final at Stalybridge. They went 2–0 down but came back to win 3–2 … and who scored the winner? Dad, of course. Not sure anything I achieve in my career — Premier League debut, scoring in the Champions League, etc. — will ever top that moment for him!

I don’t like admitting it to him, but Dad taught me everything about football growing up. He was Pep before I met Pep.

You see, the other really early memory I have is when I was like four or five and my dad used to take me over the road to the park opposite our house in Wythenshawe.

I remember walking with him through the gates, past the cage and skate ramps to this little patch of grass. He would throw the ball up and I would just control it, over and over again. Control it and then protect it. 

He used to say, “No point trying to shoot if you can’t keep hold of the ball in the first place.”

We would do that every single day whatever the weather — and my dad’s family is from St Kitts and Nevis in the Caribbean. He hates going out in the cold. But he’d do it for me anyway.

That’s why I got the St Kitts flag on my boots, as a little tribute to him and his family.

As I got older, I was always one of the smallest in my age group — I can show you photos where everyone else in the team looks giant and I’m dead small. It always frustrated me. I was like, “I want to be big and strong,” but Dad was like, “Nah, you don’t. You need to be small to learn how to use your skill.”

These days whenever I’m dribbling and using my body to protect the ball, his advice pops into my head.

He brought out that obsession in me when I was little, but it’s weird, I didn’t ever think, I want to be a footballer. I was just so focussed on playing for fun, just being me. 

The reason I actually ended up joining City’s academy was because they recognised that I wanted to play all the time.

Cole Palmer | Manchester City | Dead Mad | The Players' Tribune
Courtesy Cole Palmer

I’d been to see a few clubs in the North West: Manchester United, Liverpool, Bolton. United said I could take part in training sessions, Liverpool wanted to put me in a “shadow group,” but City? City said I would actually get to play actual matches on Friday evenings. That was an easy decision, then!

After that, everything became organised around football. I have this mental image of stuffing my face with Weetabix in the car after school on the way to training ’cause we didn’t have time to go home and eat.

School, train, home, sleep, repeat. That was it.

Still is in a way. Playing those back-to-back games brought those memories back. I’m still that kid who is just dead excited for football, because it’s the best way I can be me. 

It’s always been like that. Off the pitch, I’m not really the loudest guy. Maybe I don’t say much. I’m pretty chill. So sometimes when people see the way I play, they’re surprised. It’s like my true personality comes out. Like I’m free.

I’ve had some incredible times with City already — scoring my first goal against Wycombe is up there with the best moments of my life, to be honest — but I’m constantly thinking: What’s next? 

My heart jumps every time I hear my name read out on the team sheet with all those big names.

Kevin De Bruyne.

Jack Grealish.

Riyad Mahrez.

… Cole Palmer

I do feel like I fit in with the first team now. Like I belong here. Which is dead mad when you think about it. 

Cole Palmer | Manchester City | Dead Mad | The Players' Tribune
Tommy Milanese/The Players' Tribune

I remember the moment it clicked for me. It was about a year ago in a training session. Everything was just going well. Years ago, I used to watch the first team with Aguero and Kompany and think they were these superheroes, but suddenly … I felt comfortable. Like I could actually play and show my personality. 

We were doing this 11-a-side game, and the ball just dropped for me. I was far out but I felt confident, so I just whacked it. It ended up smashing off the corner where the bar meets the post. Riyad got it, crossed it back to me and I scored.

I remember that day everyone was praising me, telling me how well I was doing.

I told my dad in the car on the way home, “Y’know, I think I can do this.”

And all he said to me was, “I think you can too.”

I’m here now and I feel good, but I’m never gonna take that for granted. The dream is to really make it at City. 

I’ve seen the amazing things Phil’s done here under Pep and I want to follow that example. But I’m in no rush either. Pep didn’t throw Phil in straight away and I trust the process.

When I was small for my age and struggling in the City academy, Dad always used to joke that I just needed Pep to come along! Now he’s here and I actually get to work with him, I need to make it count. I want to prove my dad right and be that next local lad playing regularly and winning trophies for this club.

More than anything, I still just want to play.