Julian Dowe spent time at Manchester United, Everton and Manchester City as a youngster, but it was his youth career rather than his pro career which was truly remarkable, albeit not in the way he might have hoped.
Dowe grew up at No.4 Kippax Street, right across from Maine Road, but he never supported a team and didn’t even get into football until the 1986 World Cup. Predictably, it was Maradona that caught his eye.
He started to play himself, as an attacker, of course, and made such an impact that Manchester United came calling. But as would become the theme of Dowe’s career, it was not all plain sailing.
“There was one night Brian Kidd’s post-training talk went on a bit longer than usual,” he says. “All the other kids could walk home, but I had to get the bus. The talk went on so long I missed the last one.
“I was 12 and stuck in the middle of Salford, and with the best will in the world it wasn’t as cosmopolitan as it is now.
“Nowadays the club would sort it, but back then it was different. I was from a mixed heritage background and got chased by a few locals during the night, and it just put me off a bit.”
On to Everton
Dowe’s mum never went to see him play as a youngster and still hadn’t seen him play by the time he retired from football.
He never hired an agent either, and without that support network, he acknowledges now it was all too easy for people to influence his decisions throughout his career. But at that young age, he was making decisions by himself and chose to leave United to play local football again.
But his talent was so great that no sooner would one opportunity pass, another would quickly arise.
“After United I went back to playing for the junior teams, and in this one game I had scouts from Crystal Palace, Arsenal, Leeds and Everton watching me,” he says.
“By the end of the game there was only one scout left, the one from Everton. Apparently, he thought I was so good he told all the scouts I’d been signed so they all buggered off!
“The youth coach at Everton was fantastic. He came to the house and saw the dynamics – single parents, kid who wouldn’t be able to get to training – so they used to send a car to get me to Liverpool and back. Even if I stayed over, I stayed at the manager’s house.”
It was going well, but things would change just as Dowe was getting going as a combination of injuries and a change of manager saw him apply for his release papers.
“In one game against Tranmere I got a big whack from behind. The physio said it was a muscle spasm and that it would go as quick as it came, but it didn’t.
“At the same time, Everton got rid of Colin Harvey and brought in Howard Kendall. All the youth staff went too so suddenly nobody knew who I was.
“I went in to get my car home, but I was given a train fare. I told them I got a car home and they just said: ‘Not at this club you don’t.'”
Next chance at Man City
After leaving Everton, Dowe was offered salvation by Manchester City, but his injury was more serious than first thought. It transpired he had suffered a rotational fracture of the spine and had to wear a back brace for almost a year.
“Peter Reid was the manager, he got told by the scout I was so good to get me on a pro contract, but he was also told I was carrying an injury,” Dowe says.
“I remember when he was told I had a spinal fracture, he said: ‘I’ll leave it up to you, if you think he’s worth it then on your head be it,’ and he walked out laughing!”
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The lack of an agent or any family support would once again prove to be Dowe’s downfall as he took the decision to leave another top-flight club.
“People were telling me to go to a smaller club and build myself up, that they don’t bring through black players and all kinds of things like that.
“I looked at the likes of Gary Bennett, Clive Wilson, Roger Palmer (who were all sold by Manchester City) and you start to wonder.
“So again, being an idiot, I asked to leave. The chief scout couldn’t believe it!
“Oldham invited me over, but I was so nervous I left my boots on the bus.”
Pro deal at Wigan
Now 16, Dowe eventually ended up in the lower leagues with Wigan Athletic, under the guidance of soon-to-be Northern Ireland head coach Brian Hamilton, and it looked as though Dowe may have got the break he had been waiting for.
“I came off the bench in a reserve game at half-time. I did OK, had a few shots, passes, tackles here and there. A few minutes later the board went up and I was coming back off.
“I didn’t know what was happening, but as I was walking off Brian offered me a two-year pro deal.”
Hamilton had seen enough, convinced by Dowe’s talents in just a matter of minutes, but it was a decision that caused ructions among the backroom staff, notably with the youth team coach.
“I turned up in June ready for the new season and all hell broke loose, the youth team coach went mad because he usually gave the thumbs up for the youth players and he thought he’d been undermined.
“At 17, I was on more money than lads in the first team, I had a boot deal and I’d signed a pro contract despite being injured.
“The coach was fuming, he thought other lads who had been there longer deserved it more. Once Brian took the Northern Ireland job it was open season on me, it was horrible.
“I knew my worth, but he (the youth team coach) would bring me in just to do sit-ups like a punishment. He was making my life hell.
First overseas move
Eventually, Dowe stopped showing for training and was constantly being fined two weeks wages. The PFA soon intervened and suggested Dowe go on trial in Sweden to get more first-team games under his belt.
But before anything could materialise in one foreign country, he was on his way to another as the now 18-year-old was spotted by a scout from CA Marbella, who were making big strides in Spain.
“Wigan wanted a fee for me, but they were told they had to backdate all the wages I’d been fined and they just couldn’t afford it.
“The next thing I knew I was on a plane to Marbella.
“It was crazy over there, the club had just been bought by a Serbian businessman – and I use that word loosely. He brought in a lot of Serbian players: Vladan Kalic came from Atletico; Predrag Spasic had been at Real; and a few from Red Star [Belgrade].
“Eventually Andy Gray came over from England too, but only three foreign players could play during those times. I really enjoyed it because it was a great footballing experience, but I like to play football and I wasn’t playing every week.”
‘Dog Poo United’
The Bosman ruling allowed Dowe to move on, becoming probably the only player in history to leave the beaches of Marbella for Ayr United in Scotland.
“I went there in January in my cream suit. I looked like something out of Miami Vice and it was snowing.
“I was told it was a First Division side that was interested, I was thinking Rangers or Celtic but didn’t realise the First Division was actually the second tier. Honestly, it was Dog Poo United, it was an absolute farce.”
Former QPR forward Simon Stainrod was the manager at Ayr at the time. Dowe describes his time working for Stainrod as the most bizarre spell of his career – and that’s saying something.
“I got in a car with Simon and within five minutes he told me I had to go and finish with his girlfriend for him!
“I was absolutely stunned, it was nuts. We went to this bar and he just said to tell her he didn’t like her anymore – it was funny but crazy at the same time.
“I started playing well, but a player did me in training, and when I say did me, he did me. I was in a wheelchair and Simon sacked him.
“The club had no money, I was 19 with the most money, and the players hated my guts.
“I’d come in and my gear would be in the bin. Simon was telling players he’d brought them here to give the ball to players like me, but I just thought he was making matters worse.
“The team was awful and we got relegated. In England, if that happens and you get a lower wage, you’re a free transfer, so I went to Bolton on trial, but Ayr wanted a quarter of a million for me.
“I was like ‘Are you having a laugh?!’. They’d gone into administration and looked at the assets, seen my age and where I’d been and come up with that figure.”
Back to England
After getting over his injury Dowe had spells in non-league with Hyde, Woking and Colne before being offered a chance back in the Football League by Rochdale, but by now he’d suffered several injuries – he spent almost two years sidelined with a knee injury – and was no longer a teenage prospect.
He scored his first senior goal in English football while at Rochdale but once again did not last long before he was on the move.
“By this point I’d had five knee operations,” he says. “They told me at Rochdale they’d get me fit, but within two weeks I was starting and it was just too much, both physically and mentally.
“I went to Morecambe on three times what Rochdale had me on, but my knee was killing me, I needed proper treatment and the constant spells out were doing me no good.”
Incredibly, despite his injury problems, Dowe soon got another move abroad when, playing in an ex-pats league on holiday in Indonesia, he was spotted by a scout and invited to take part in a trial match against the Latvian national team.
“They had Stepanovs, Pahars, Stoljcers, all the big players at that time,” Dowe says.
“I ended up at FK Ventspils, but if you didn’t play for Skonto you couldn’t get out. They were the FA team; their directors were FA directors. Any player going to England would come from Skonto.
“The Latvia captain was at Ventspils and he only made $100 a week, but I was on $1,000 a week. Crazy.”
Dowe scored eight goals in 14 games for Ventspils, but by now he admits his knees were “shot to bits”. It couldn’t last.
A final chance passed up
One last chance came his way when a friend of the Carlisle chairman, son of almost Manchester United owner Michael Knighton, came calling, but at 26 Dowe accepted his career was over, with almost as many clubs as appearances to his name.
“I didn’t exactly get glowing reports from old clubs. The manager at Carlisle told me he’d keep an eye on me, but even after scoring six goals in 40 minutes in a friendly for the youth team against the first team he wasn’t convinced.
“At 26 I just thought, that’s it. It’s better to have loved and lost than not loved at all. I still see my knee surgeon and he always said it could have been nipped in the bud early doors.
“But back then managers were putting so much pressure on you. I was playing four weeks after one injury on an AstroTurf pitch at 16 years old, people just thought you’d run it off.”
Dowe still resides in Manchester and runs his own business, football4football, a site giving advice to young footballers coming from those who made it professionally.
Few could be better placed to advice on the perils of football.
By Rich Laverty
This article was originally published in June 2017.