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Chris Eagles talks growing up at Man Utd, his time at Burnley and what he’d say if he was approached by Bolton

| 29.04.2021

Chris Eagles knows Manchester United well. He came through the academy system at Carrington, making several appearances in the Premier League, and has gone on to play in the top four divisions of English football.

We caught up with the midfielder to discuss all things Man Utd, playing without fans, what he thinks of his time at Burnley and what his next move could be.

Keep an eye on our social channels over the coming days to see who Chris picks in his Burnley v West Ham 5-A-Side team.

On Man United’s season

It’s tough for any manager in this day and age, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer knows Manchester United through and through which definitely favoured him when he first took the job. I don’t think the team he inherited was necessarily the team he wanted, and you can see that with some of the changes he’s made to the starting line-up over the past two years or so.

The big positive for me this year is that they’re picking up results in games which they’ve struggled in over the last four or five years. They’ve had so many results in the past which just haven’t been good enough, so a big plus for me now is that we’re seeing them winning a lot more at the moment.

Man City are always going to be right up there, but we’ve seen Liverpool drop the ball this season so if United can keep picking up points the way they have been doing this season, and they bring in a couple of new signings, you never know what could happen.

I think people can get carried away at times because they’ve improved year on year and that leads to people thinking they can go and challenge for the title next year, but it’s not about that.

It’s about building on this year and taking it one season at a time, taking the small positives. There’ll be questions around who comes in this summer, but Ole deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done with his backroom staff. He’s brought some great names in like Fletch [Darren Fletcher], people that know the club.

On Man United’s transfer targets

Regarding signings, you never know who Ole might turn to. He might fancy someone that fans might not agree with.

They’ll be happy with where they are in the league at the moment. The focus has to be on bridging that gap with Man City. I don’t think you can sit here and say United are going to go and win the league next season just because they’re the best of the rest this year.

It’s important they balance the books and let a few players go this summer, though. You can’t just keep bringing players in without letting others go, because you’ll end up with so many players who are unhappy about the lack of game time. So there has to be that balance.

I do like the look of Erling Haaland, though. There are a few names I’d like to see at the club and he’s definitely one of them. We just don’t know how achievable a move like that is – we don’t know whether United could actually afford him or whether Dortmund would be willing to sell.

I think Harry Kane could be a good signing for United, too. They need a couple of defenders as well. It’s going to be an interesting summer in terms of arrivals at Old Trafford.

It would just be nice to see managers give us a list of who they like and who they want. You tend to just hear through the press, so sometimes it would be nice for a manager to come out and be up-front about it and say ‘I want x, y and z.’ That would be brilliant.

I remember going to see managers in their offices at some of my old clubs and you’d see lists of players’ names on the boss’ whiteboard – I never really knew why they were there but obviously looking back now they would’ve been potential signings. We probably weren’t supposed to see that sort of thing, but managers must always have an idea of the type of players they want to bring in the through the door.

I remember when I was at Burnley, Everton were sniffing around me quite a lot. The first I heard about it was when a press guy asked me. I wasn’t aware of the interest; I knew David Moyes would come to watch us at times, but then it was in the paper they were interested and a couple of weeks later my agent said contact had been made.

It was a bit of a bizarre way round for me as a player because I’d have expected to have heard from it before anybody else, but it literally came from the press and turned out to be true.

On playing without fans

I’m glad in a way that I’ve not had to play in stadiums without fans [Chris last played for Oldham Athletic in 2019/20]. From a personal perspective I think I really would’ve missed the fans being at the games – certainly at a higher level. I’ve not spoken to a lot of lads still playing this year but I can imagine the crowds have been a big, big miss.

On a Saturday afternoon when you’re heading into the stadium as a player, even at half 12 for a 3pm kick-off, you could hear the fans around the stadium talking. It was the best time of the day for me, to see the fans getting ready for the games, it was part and parcel of the matchday, seeing the fans. You could smell the food outside the grounds, all of that must be a huge miss. Hopefully things get lifted soon and we’re back to normal next season.

I don’t know how it’s going to work though – you’d imagine it’s going to be a gradual thing over the summer because surely you can’t just go from making sure there’s a two-seat distance between fans to filling out 60,000 seater stadiums. It’s been a really big miss, though. I imagine it’s just like a training game most of the time for players at the moment.

The prime example for me in the Premier League who have missed fans more than anyone would have to be Sheffield United. They were frightening at home with their support last season, but look at the difference with no crowd.

On joining United and working with Fergie

When I was 12 or 13 I realised I had a real talent. You know at that point you’ve got something. When I was 13 a lot of clubs came in for me. West Ham, Tottenham and Arsenal were among them, and my dad was a season ticket holder at Tottenham so I used to go and watch them when I was younger. So my dad was pushing me towards Spurs.

In the end it was between Tottenham, Arsenal or Aston Villa – that was when I met Gary Cahill actually, because he was at Villa at the time. It was between those three teams, then at the last minute my mum got a call from Malcolm Fidgeon, who was David Beckham’s scout, and he said Man United were interested in me.

I remember my mum telling me because I was 13 at the time and I had to wait until I was 14 to leave. I didn’t believe her when she told me, it was only when Malcolm came to visit me and my heart was set on joining United.

I went up there for a game and just fell in love with the club. I moved into digs at 14 and at first I was obviously excited because it was like a holiday to me. I loved Manchester, I love northerners. School was difficult because I was a southerner, but training-wise we used to train on Tuesdays and Thursdays and play on Saturdays.

My youth team was frightening; we didn’t lose. In the old days we had myself, Phil Bardsley, Luke Steele, Kieran Richardson, Tom Heaton, Paul McShane, Gerard Pique, Giuseppe Rossi – it was frightening.

School helped me a lot; I got much better results because I was away from home and my friends which meant I just concentrated on getting good results. At Man United made sure we worked hard and got good grades. The only time I’d have off to come home was in school holidays, but it would never be for a long time.

In digs I started off living with a family on my own – I still see them now actually, four times a week, they look after my kids! Then I was with Fraizer Campbell who stayed for long weekends because he was only from Huddersfield. But I was there more or less on my own.

My digs was unbelievable; everyone loved it there so they all used to come round to mine all the time and they’d take me and my mates out everywhere. I was lucky enough to form a relationship with my digs family which has lasted forever, and I know Frazier still speaks to them as well.

Sir Alex Ferguson had a lot of involvement with me as a kid because he knew I’d moved away from home. I wasn’t too dissimilar to David Beckham in that respect; we’d both moved from London to Manchester as youngsters. Sir Alex had his certain players like me, Darren Fletcher and Kieran Richardson who he had soft spots for. If I was ever trouble he’d tell me off, though.

I drove a car somewhere when I was 15 and Sir Alex found out about it and called me in his office. I was petrified. It’s the worst experience ever because you don’t know what he’s going to do. I can remember standing outside of his office, sweating, going red.

He used to have a folder where he used to keep his notes. It was a hard-back. Every time he walked past me he used to just slap me on the head with it – all in good humour obviously. He was just a great manager, a great guy, and that’s how he got his respect.

Scoring for United on Saturday, in college at Fergie’s demand on Monday

The most nervous I’ve probably ever been in a game would’ve been on my debut for Man United, when I scored at Everton late on. I only played for about three minutes and I wasn’t even expecting that; it was just that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had gone down with cramp, so the gaffer turns to me and goes ‘you ready, son?’ I just went ‘yep’.

I was just petrified. The worst thing was, if you look back at the goal, I ran through and my studs got stuck in the ground so my legs just started to wobble so I had to reset myself. That’s why I stepped back and chopped it inside; because I needed to reset myself. But I remember thinking when I was about to shoot, just miss the defender’s legs and it’ll go in. I knew if I could just whip it round the defender it would go in, and it did.

I wasn’t expecting to get on the pitch at all, and within three minutes I’d scored for Man United. It probably was a good thing that it happened the way it did because if the gaffer would’ve told me to have warmed up 20 minutes beforehand, I’d have been a lot, lot worse.

But it was the fact that Ole went down with cramp, I didn’t even have time to warm up properly. I think Chelsea were drawing in their game and we had to win. It was 3-2 at the time but we were 2-0 down earlier on in the game so my goal made it 4-2.

Sir Alex just threw me on, and when I got on there I was completely taken aback. You can’t prepare for the reaction you get from the fans. They knew who I was because of the things I’d done with the youth team but with five minutes to go in the game everyone was interested about the result and biting their nails because of Chelsea.

Wayne Rooney put me through, actually. I made a run and Wayne spotted it and put me through. When I scored I just ran towards the fans – I would’ve jumped into the crowd but for one of the players pulling me back.

None of my family were there on the day, actually, they were all back down south! They would’ve all been watching back home. I just remember scoring, I kissed the badge and jogged back to our half for Everton to kick-off and the fans were singing my name. It was a real bizarre feeling, because you’re used to them singing at Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, players like that.

I couldn’t really do much in the way of celebrating after the game though. I had to go to college on the Monday. The gaffer sent me. I was like ‘gaffer, come on’, but he wasn’t having it. I had to go to college on the Monday, and then I was back training with the youth team in the afternoon.

Youngsters should go out on loan more, like we used to

When we were youngsters at Man United, we’d all be going out on loan to get experience before making it into the first team. I think it’s different now and the youth team players get more of a chance because of the difference in the team. When I was at United the first team were winning everything, competing in every competition, so we were never going to just get straight into that team.

We had that winning mindset drilled into us from a very young age. A draw is nothing, we need to win. Regarding the players going out on loan, I think it’s a great idea. When I was 17 or 18, I went out into the Championship – Sir Alex wouldn’t let me go anywhere else in the Premier League.

If you look back at the majority of loan deals he oversaw, it’s rare you’d see him let a youngster leave and go straight to a Premier League team. He wanted me in the top end of the Championship. There must be a reason, and for me it was tough as a teenager in that division. It took a few games to really start to get settled in.

We were always very good on the ball and we could adapt quite quickly. If you look at this who U23 thing they’ve got going on now, if you’re 23 years old and you’re at Man United, Man City or Liverpool and you’re not sniffing around the first team, you’re in a difficult position. When I was there, you had your under-17s, your under-19s and your reserves, and that was it.

At 17 years old, you’d be sent out on loan from Man United to a Championship team and you’d be given this great chance to really go and impress at such a young age. You look at the new model; could youngsters in this day and age go and do it now? I don’t know. They tend to knock around these big clubs until later on in their careers and then we never seem to see them.

Owen Coyle’s reserve team cameo

I still talk to Owen Coyle to this day. He’s such a great guy, very family-orientated and loyal – which you don’t see a lot in football. I remember when I signed for Burnley, I arrived at the stadium, there were some fans outside and I was taken aback – I just felt wanted. I just had that feeling from the place the second I got there.

I walk into the room where I’m meeting Owen and Sandy Stewart – his assistant – and I thought I’d be sat down talking about the contract and money, whatever it was. And Owen just turns around and goes ‘right, these two can talk, me and you can go and play two-touch tennis’. So we go next door, set up a little football tennis court and play for about an hour – and that was it!

I couldn’t tell you why a bigger club never came in for Owen Coyle. The way he manages players was perfect for me; he’d give you a cuddle, he’d tell you off. He’s encouraging, he’s always positive. He’s loyal, he’s a family man – so I don’t know why no bigger clubs ever took a punt on him.

I remember at Burnley – this is a great example of the kind of gaffer Owen was – I don’t know how many people know this. He was very involved in the reserves as well as the first-team. They had a game one night and he played himself ahead of a couple of the other strikers in the team at the time.

Not only did he start himself ahead of his own players, he scored as well; he chipped the keeper. And he wouldn’t stop going on about it for ages. In a proper game for the reserves, he started himself up-front and got a goal. When Owen does that, you don’t hear the end of it. He got the video out as much as he could afterwards. He wasn’t trying to prove a point; it wasn’t like he was annoyed with his players, he just loved the game. Everyone loved him. He’s just a really nice, happy, positive guy.

He was a big plus in my decision to move to Bolton, because there were a few other clubs interested in me like Fulham and Aston Villa. Everton were sniffing around as well as Bolton. I was in pre-season with Burnley at the time so I didn’t have a clue what was going on. I remember we were in Torquay one night, we had a game the following day, and I got a call from my hotel. Eddie Howe was the Burnley gaffer at the time, and he told me I’d be getting a move, he said he wouldn’t stop me.

That night, someone from the hotel reception came and got me and told me my agent was on the phone wanting to speak to me. My agent told me there and then that Burnley and Bolton agreed a fee for me and that I wouldn’t be playing for Burnley again. I decided to finish the trip with the lads but I didn’t play. By the time our next game came around all the fans obviously knew something was going on and that was it.

It did hurt, leaving Burnley, because I know it’s a big rivalry up there switching to Bolton. I’ve never spoken about it publicly but it did hurt. I’ve got massive respect for Bolton and Burnley and I love both clubs. Burnley could cash in on me so I was pleased they could raise funds for the club with me moving on. I’d never ever change my time at Burnley. It would’ve been nice to play there but sometimes we just can’t pick our paths.

If Bolton called, I’d play for them next season

I’ve been very, very blessed in my career to play at the highest level. I wished I could’ve done for a longer period but I went through some personal issues when I left Bolton. I just love football, though. Anyone that knows me will tell you the same.

I’ve never really been into watching back videos of myself; I’ve always been a bit embarrassed, I don’t really know why. It’s silly, really. But I’d always watch Spanish games when I was growing up. I used to love watching Ronaldinho.

I actually played abroad out in the Netherlands for a while earlier on in my career which was a great experience. The football out there was brilliant, it was all one-touch stuff, very sharp and skilful. I remember one game I played against Jaap Stam when he was at Ajax. The gaffer played me up-top for some reason, against Jaap Stam. Christ. He was an animal; he was a joke. He was a beast.

I wouldn’t say I have any regrets from my career, but I wish I could’ve stayed at that Premier League/Championship level for a bit longer. Even now at 35 I know I can still play. It’s just a lot harder to work yourself back up the leagues once you do start dropping down the divisions.

I’ll see what pre-season brings. I’ve always done my best for whoever I’ve played for. I look back at my time at Bolton and when we got relegated, I was always going to stick around and try and help the club get back into the Premier League. Even to this day, if they came in for me I’d go to them, just to try and help them. I believe I’ve got the experience, I’ve played there before, it’d be nice. I just love football.

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