I was England's next big thing. Some say I failed. I disagree - Ex-Manchester United, Portsmouth and Blackburn man John Curtis

The Valley provided the stage for John Curtis’ farewell, an exit from the Premier League at the age of 25.

Thursday, 4th June 2020, 5:30 pm
Updated Monday, 8th June 2020, 12:35 pm

Unbeknown to the man once feted as a future England captain, a 20-minute cameo from Pompey’s bench at Charlton would signal the end of his top-flight presence.

There were more matches, other clubs, even a spell at Gold Coast United in Australia’s A-League. Curtis’ career did not disintegrate on that August afternoon in 2004.

Yet the Manchester United FA Youth Cup winner, who graduated to feature in two Premier League-capturing campaigns under Sir Alex Ferguson, never fulfilled the mighty expectations lavished upon him.

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He departed the Premier League that day – and within six years had been released by League Two Northampton.

Curtis told The News: ‘I am sat here in America, overlooking the garden and will get a glass of wine in a minute – I don’t have regrets.

‘How do you even measure success? One person’s gauge will be entirely different to someone else’s. I consider myself a success and that’s really all that matters.

‘You can look back on any situation in your life and think about going back in time to change things, to do things differently.

John Curtis shadows Michael Owen during Pompey's March 2004 trip to Liverpool. Picture: Jonathan Brady

‘No doubt you could be much better with the ladies at school if you went back. As ever with hindsight, you would improve the past.

‘Cristiano Ronaldo would say the same thing, Lionel Messi would say the same thing. They could analyse a game and say “I should have been better, even though I scored a hat-trick”.

‘These are two greats. Could they have improved? When looking back they would say “Yes, absolutely”.

‘I loved my career as a player, I had a great time, I met a lot of good people and got to play with a lot of greats – and against them too.

John Curtis enjoyed a successful spell at Preston after loaned out by Pompey. Picture: David Hurst

‘Do I regret anything? No. Would I change things if I could go back in time? Yes, but who wouldn’t? Everybody would.

‘I don’t look back and think “If only I had done this, if only I had done that”. Not at all. Those lessons I didn’t learn aged 23-25 were learnt at 33-35.

‘Everybody else’s perspective is irrelevant, but most people remember John Curtis as the next big thing and say “What a failure. What a lot of potential gone to waste”.

‘That’s not how I see it, not at all.’

John Curtis made just seven appearances during a 12-month spell with Pompey. Picture: Steve Reid

Today Curtis lives with his family in Fairfield, Connecticut, and oversees a thriving coaching business braced for further expansion.

As a youngster, such was his immense potential, he attended FA’s School of Excellence at Lilleshall and proceeded to represent England at every age level from the age of 15.

Coveted by Blackburn, Leeds, Arsenal, West Ham, Liverpool, Everton and Villa, he was eventually lured to Manchester United after attending their title-clinching victory over Blackburn in May 1993.

Within two years, he featured in Eric Harrison’s side which claimed the 1995 FA Youth Cup, defeating Spurs on penalties in front of 20,190 at Old Trafford.

Skippered by Phil Neville, the triumphant team also consisted of Ronnie Wallwork, Terry Cooke, Phil Mulryne, David Johnson and ex-Pompey assistant manager Ashley Westwood.

By the time he departed for Championship Blackburn in a £1.5m move in June 2000, the 21-year-old Curtis had made 19 appearances for the Red Devils and represented England at B level.

‘Looking back, I was a very good Championship player and thoroughly average Premier League player,’ he added.

‘If you don’t improve, you go backwards, because the level of the game increases. My rate of development wasn’t as fast as the games, so I went backwards as a player.

‘I was a better player at Northampton in League Two at the end of my career than a 19-year-old playing for Manchester United in the Premier League. The difference was, I hadn’t developed as quickly as the game had developed. I had actually gone backwards.

‘As a coach, that’s the lesson I teach players – you must continually grow to actually go nowhere.

‘Watch the footballers from the Harry Enfield sketch running around, then watch the 1966 World Cup final. Then watch the 2018 World Cup final – the game changes. So it’s common sense that players must also. Not all players see that.

‘You have to train even harder, become more dedicated, push yourself to get better. If you can’t maintain that weight of improvement then you go backwards. The players which embrace that development go on.

‘There are very few footballers which feature in the Premier League for 15 years. You can count them all, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard come straight to mind. That’s how difficult it is to continue improving and evolving.

‘My time at United was fantastic, I absolutely loved it, and, looking back, the skills I learnt in that environment completely shaped me as a person. The attention to detail and the quality of the environment that Sir Alex and his henchmen created was brilliant.

‘However, I almost had it too easy coming through. I was captain of England at youth levels, doing all that jazz, but didn’t really face many challenges as a player until later.

‘If you are not challenged then it’s difficult to build those skills you need to develop. You need to be taken well out of your comfort zone and be able to come through that – that’s development.

‘Even being around the United first-team, you were protected. As a young lad coming through, you almost have ready-made excuses.

‘It probably wasn’t until I got to Pompey that I started coming out of my comfort zone – and at that point you haven't got the coping skills to be able to deal with it. You don’t know what to do because you’ve never been there before.

‘I had never been somewhere where you’ve been dropped and not played, that's tough. It happened to me a bit at Blackburn when we were promoted to the Premier League and signed Lucas Neill. That would probably be the first time and then Pompey the second.’

The circumstances of Curtis’ first-team entrance into Manchester United corroborate his belief that featuring in successful sides at a young age inhibited his own development.

The defender was handed a Premier League debut a month after his 19th birthday, starting against Barnsley in October 1997.

The outcome was a 7-0 Old Trafford success, with Andy Cole’s first-half hat-trick driving the victory.

The following match, Curtis appeared as a substitute for Nicky Butt in a 6-1 home win over Sheffield Wednesday.

He continued to be given sporadic outings and, in February 1999, featured in an 8-1 triumph at Nottingham Forest, when fellow substitute Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored four goals in 10 minutes.

Winning was a habit ingrained within Curtis and contemporaries David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Gary Neville and Phil Neville.

Yet he is convinced a lack of insight into the game’s lows impacted upon his own career progress.

He said: ‘When I was pushed, I was successful, I didn’t fail, but you almost want that failure to come early. You need to lose, you only learn when you make mistakes.

‘Ultimately you lose and suffer bad things, but that didn’t really happen to me.

‘Look at Jamie Vardy. You can argue that doing things the hard way is better because they will have developed the skills needed to overcome challenges during their career.

‘Lads who get let down by Premier League clubs at 16 can fall out of the game, others react by fighting back. I definitely believe my career would have turned out better if I had gone through those challenges early at another club.

‘People may look at it and say “No way, I would much rather be at Manchester United coming through the best youth team, with the best couches and the best players”. That’s true, but everybody is different, you have to be challenged.

‘I never want my players to be comfortable or to plateau. You want them to be constantly stretched, having to think “How do I get out of this?”. That is how you develop resilience and determination – character traits which are vital.

‘If you take all those magazine and newspaper predictions about me being the next England star, I wonder how many have proven accurate?

‘The reason why some don’t come through is because those players are in the comfort zone, they have not been tested. They have a closed mindset. There are lads who, when they come to a challenge, don’t know how to beat it.

‘Even when I was at Blackburn, I started our opening three games back in the Premier League and injured my calf. Lucas Neill came in from Millwall and I never really got my place back, but it didn’t matter because I had doubled my money having just won promotion.

‘It was “Fine, I’ll sit here for three years on twice the money I was expecting to earn”. You are in a comfort zone and not taken out of it.

‘Thousands and thousands of players have gone through this. For me that is the real cause – that is how people don’t develop.’

Recruited by Pompey from Leicester in January 2004, his 12-month stay on the south coast would consist of just seven outings – and none following that 2-1 Premier League defeat at Charlton.

A loan spell at Preston was initiated 19 days later, succeeded by moves to Nottingham Forest, QPR, Wrexham and Northampton, before ending his career in Australia in 2011.

Since settling on the east coast of America in 2013, Curtis has created NCE Soccer, a training programme designed to prepare elite players aged from six to 16 for their next challenge.

With centres in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland and Virginia, and autumn ambition to break into Florida and Delaware, his coaching career is thriving.

There was also a spell as assistant manager to former Bolton and Southampton centre-half Radhi Jaidi at USL Championship club Hartford Athletic.

However, Curtis last month decided to quit, following the realisation his role was impacting upon NCE Soccer expansion aspirations.

With no desire to return to England, the 41-year-old is passing on life secrets honed through his footballing mistakes.

He added: ‘That Manchester United group which came through around my time worked incredibly hard.

‘In terms of effort, the Nevilles epitomised that, they were two highly-dedicated pros, completely focused and overcoming any obstacles which got in their way.

‘My son, Tom, plays rugby union and has just signed his first contract at Sale Sharks. I tell him to outwork people, don’t give yourself any excuses, don’t let anyone outrun you, don’t let anyone outlift you, just do it. Do what you need to do.

‘I definitely didn’t push myself enough. To do that would have admitted that I wasn’t naturally gifted, it’s a Catch-22.

‘I was laid back and, should I make a mistake, I wouldn’t stay out there practising hour after hour until I got it right. It wasn’t like that.

‘You are talking about drive and motivation – yet I wasn’t motivated in the same way as others were, particularly that Class of 92.

‘These days my advice to everybody is to work hard, never stop improving, never stop thinking you can improve, don’t stop growing as a player, don’t stop growing in your head.

‘You have to keep getting better – otherwise you slip backwards.’

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