Think Manchester United’s Class of ’92. Think Beckham, Butt, Giggs, the Nevilles and Scholes. The name Colin Telford is unlikely to sound familiar, but the man from Belfast was in the same team, only for a back injury which prevented him from fulfilling his potential at Old Trafford. He ended a six-year stint in Manchester, on the advice of Sir Alex Ferguson, to join Raith Rovers, before returning home to Northern Ireland, and retiring from playing at the age of 26.
Weaker men would look back with self-pity, but Telford, 41, is an optimist by nature. He sees his experiences as a means by which aspiring footballers in Ireland can make more informed decisions. He has now formed the Player Development Programme, which aims to mutually benefit talented young footballers and clubs which cannot afford an extensive scouting system. Telford, who is Head of Coach Education at the Football Coaches Association of Ireland, said: “I want to create opportunities for kids to get scouted and also create awareness so that football clubs can find up-and-coming young talent".
Telford has examined the youth academy of Ajax Football Club intensely. He said: “I have spent the last six years studying Ajax’s academy. I am over there every year and I have got a very good understanding of their scouting network, how they recruit, and their process in developing very young players".
Telford shot to prominence at the age of 14 as a centre-forward when he starred at a world-renowned youth tournament in Northern Ireland. He said: “I played in the Milk Cup and got player of the tournament. Every club under the sun came after me. Alex Ferguson had just come in at that time and United were not what they are today but had the reputation of being one of the biggest clubs in the world. I wanted to receive the very best coaching that I thought was out there. At that time, Eric Harrison, Brian Kidd and Nobby Stiles were there. They were my coach educators.
“As much as the offer was excellent, it was more about the development and how Alex Ferguson sold the club to me. It may not have worked out for me but he was absolutely right when he said that he was there to bring young talent through. He didn’t half prove that with what is now called ‘the class of 92’".
Telford offers an interesting, if unconventional, theory on how to make a career in professional football - a theory forged by hindsight. He said: “I also had offers to go to Arsenal, Rangers, Manchester City, Aston Villa but another club which was interested was Colchester. When I was younger, I laughed that off but if you think about Lee Sharpe, his route to Manchester United was via Torquay. He played first team football at 16 or 17 and then got transferred.
“I think there is a lot to be said about that because any career is about building your profile. If you can go to a club and play football at 17, 18, 19 you will probably move up the ladder a lot quicker than a kid who is stuck between a Premier League youth team and reserve team.”
He continued: “I think the management of Irish players going across the water needs to be more strategic, more guided, rather than the massive emotional connection of ‘my son has just signed for Chelsea’. The flip side is what does it mean if he gets released at 19? People think that the hardest part is to get the first contract; it is actually getting the second one".
Telford did not receive a second contract at Old Trafford at the end of his six-year stint in 1993. Instead, he travelled north to play under Northern Ireland legend Jimmy Nicholl at Raith Rovers, with whom he won the Division 1 league title. After a year in Scotland, Telford returned home to play for east Belfast outfit Glentoran.
He said: “I signed for United at the age of fourteen on a six-year contract: two years as a schoolboy, two years as a trainee and two years as a professional. When I went full-time as a trainee, I had this recurring back injury which pretty much put me out of the game for two years. It was very stop-start. Then I signed my professional contract but around that time the Class of ’92 was being nurtured and, when I was in my professional contract, Ferguson brought me in and spoke to me. He said that "with the development of this squad and the length of time you have spent out of the game, I would advise you to take a step backwards rather than hanging in here on your contract".
“He left the decision up to me whether to stay or go. That’s when Jimmy Nicholl came into it, he was the Northern Ireland under-21 manager and opened the door for me to come to Raith, who were doing so well at the time.
“Unfortunately, the injury just kept recurring and I was not able to train for any prolonged period of time. Eventually, I came out of full-time football and signed for Glentoran but that’s where the mental side comes into it. The motivation is not there because you are in part-time football and spend a lot of time sitting around doing nothing. Really, your enthusiasm starts to wane".
Telford is, unsurprisingly, grounded in reality. He knows how cruel a game football can be but also how much it can offer a player, if expectations are managed carefully.
He said: “My objective from this is to get players full-time careers. I am not looking to make players famous. I use this analogy and I think it is very relevant: ‘If I can help a player earn £100,000 a year over ten years, that would be the equivalent of a well-paid doctor, who has had to study to the age of 26 or 27 just to qualify.’ I think that reality is missed, where parents are more excited by their child going to Manchester City, Chelsea or Manchester United".
It is hard not to get the impression that he is a man who wishes he could have heard his own advice twenty years ago. His ideas have a freshness about them; there is a real desire to help the next generation of young footballers.
“I never had an agent, my parents had no footballing background," he said. "There was no direction, no professional management to say ‘here’s how we can help you develop your career’. Again it comes back to the realism point: you don’t qualify as a lawyer and then immediately defend somebody for murder. It’s exactly the same in football but it isn’t viewed that way because of the massive emotional connection of signing for a big club.
“At every club I have studied over the years, I hear the same phrase from coaches and, although I don’t like it, it is true. They say that clubs sign ‘fillers’. A ‘filler’ is a player who will get a contract but the club do not really believe that he will break through. But they need 16 players in a squad minimum and they maybe only have their eye on one, two or three. Smaller clubs put more emphasis on the group and, actually, a smaller club these days, in financial terms, is Ajax. Dutch football must produce its own talent because they cannot afford to buy it. There’s an unwritten rule at Ajax that 70% of their first-team squad must come from the academy.”
Football is littered with examples of wasted potential, teenagers blinded by the bright lights of fame and fortune. Telford said: “It is very important to remain grounded. When you walk into Manchester United, you have everything: the boots, the training gear and a five-star lifestyle. But is that the grounding you need to be educated through? Is that not what you build towards?
“I want to help see them through to the age of 20 because then they have a chance of making it. Usually you will see kids returning home at 18 or 19 and then playing for Irish League or League of Ireland clubs. Not too many go back across.”
He added: “I think step-by-step planning for the long term is the way forward. That is not to say, though, that if there is a kid in Ireland who is one of the best I’ve ever seen, that he won’t breakthrough at Manchester United. Jonny Evans, John O’Shea and Paddy McNair prove this. But you can also guarantee that if United fancy a kid at 14, they will track him all the way through. You can be sure of that.
“I spoke to Alan Stubbs and he told me that Ferguson had his eye on Ross Barkley since he was 14. Stubbs was Everton’s reserve team manager and every time they met, Ferguson would also ask how Barkley was getting on. It was a joke with a jag, as if to say he knew fine rightly how he was getting on. So, even if you are not a United or Chelsea player, their scouting system will know about you".