A big-money move to the Premier League champions from the depths of the English football league. Described by Sir Alex Ferguson as an “exceptional talent” at his presentation. A scorcher from twenty yards on his debut in a four-nil rout against Wigan Athletic at Old Trafford.
Nick Powell’s experience of life at Manchester United began as a fairy-tale.
But four years later he had been released on a free, joining the same club he scored against on his debut; the dream over as quickly as it began.
In a wide-ranging and candid interview with Sport Bible, Powell has revealed where things began to unravel after such a promising start.
The forward recounts the elation he felt upon hearing a voice mail left on his phone in the summer of 2012 – a commanding Glaswegian accent telling Powell of his intention to bring him to Old Trafford. “It was an unbelievable feeling,” Powell states.
Ferguson and his scouting team believed the youngster, plying his trade at the time for Crewe Alexandra, was special, capable of traversing the jump in quality to United’s first team.
Other Premier League big-hitters, including Chelsea and Arsenal, had made their interest known, but Powell’s heart was set on United after a conversation with the legendary United manager.
Presented to the press alongside Shinji Kagawa, Ferguson was effusive in his assessment of Powell’s talent. A deal, worth a prospective £6 million, represented a significant investment for an 18-year old from League One and underscored his new manager’s belief.
Powell would more than repay this faith on his debut, scoring off the bench against Wigan and bringing 70,000 fans to their feet in rapturous applause. A “great feeling” Powell recalls, but not one the forward would allow to go to his head.
Six more appearances came after that goal before the cruel hand of fate intervened.
Powell was diagnosed with a non-malignant tumour at the base of his spine by United doctors. His debut season was interrupted by a surgery to remove this. It’s an operation, Powell asserts, which meant he was “never the same again” after.
As the forward awoke in his hospital room following the surgery, a Sky Sports ‘Breaking News’ bulletin flashed out, revealing ‘Sir Alex Ferguson has decided to retire.’ It represented a double whammy moment, in hindsight, for Powell. His physical spine no longer as strong as it was, while the metaphorical spine of his new home would no longer be present.
Powell believes his “career at Old Trafford went downhill from there.”
He does not absolve himself of responsibility however. Powell acknowledges his attitude and mentality were not of the requisite standard to succeed in the ruthless cauldron of expectation that was Old Trafford:
“I wasn’t a Manchester United player…They were a machine. Everyone was a cog and it worked really well. I played football for the fun of it, whereas they played to win and that was probably the biggest eye-opener for me.”
Additionally, his nutrition was poor, having developed at Crewe on a diet of McDonalds. Dominoes was his primary source of food in his early United career, once counting a stack of 15 empty pizza boxes sitting in his kitchen.
Powell’s adherence to a strict fitness regime was similarly lacking. He admits he did not do the “extra running” necessary to maintain fitness during bouts of injury, leaving him physically unable to “handle a game” of football.
The talent Ferguson had identified at Crewe began to slowly dissipate as Powell’s body was not healthy enough to demonstrate it on the pitch. A series of unsuccessful loan spells – at Wigan, Leicester City and Hull – eventually ended in a anti-climatic release by United.
Powell does not look back on his time at Old Trafford with any fondness:
“People say, ‘Oh you played at Old Trafford. You played for Man Utd’ and I just say, ‘Did I really? I made three starts and six sub appearances. It wasn’t great. I just think, because it’s such a big club people sort of go, ‘Well most people don’t get to do it’ but I didn’t really get to live it.
“I really appreciated the opportunity. I just didn’t take it as seriously as I should have.”
There is undoubted regret on the opportunity he failed to capitalise upon. “I’d change everything [about my time at United], especially my attitude towards it,” Powell reveals.
The old adage of hard work beats talent feels apt, but does not factor in the unfortunate sequence of events that led to the forward learning of Sir Alex’s retirement fresh from a debilitating spinal surgery.
Powell is now playing for Stockport County, hoping to help the team achieve promotion from League Two. He’s described as an “influential member” of the team and is a consummate trainer. He is married, with children, to a partner who runs a Financial Services business, through which Powell is studying to become an advisor for.
He plans to then “provide support” in this role to fellow professional footballers who may otherwise struggle with balancing their finances – an all too common problem in the industry. Powell’s experiences over the past decade, both on and off the pitch, ensure he will be an excellent source of advice for these players.
It may not be the career, or life, he’d envisioned as Old Trafford roared its approval on his debut, but the manner in which Powell’s time in football has unfolded illustrates success comes in many forms.