Malcolm Christie on *that* Man Utd goal, battling anxiety… & Niall Horan
Malcolm Christie could not put it any more succinctly. “One day I was Superman, the next, Clark Kent,” he says.
At 22, the-then Derby County marksman scored the winner against his beloved Manchester United to save the Rams from relegation. Less than eight years later, injuries had taken their devastating toll and he was forced into retirement.
Christie, like so many professional footballers before and after him, fell into a pit of despair after leaving football behind, unable to even watch the game he once loved.
The ex-forward spent nine years in the motor industry and did not want to think about his career in professional football until he was inspired to do so by two of his three sons.
“I rediscovered football,” Christie says. “Working as a car salesman, I had to take on a new identity for nine years, but my kids began kicking a ball around and asking questions about my career. Something clicked inside of me and I felt that I was ready to look back.”
Now, he has decided to lift the lid on his football life to co-write Malcolm Christie: The Reality of the Dream, which will be published later this month.
The 43-year-old’s tale is certainly one of rags to riches – from his non-league days at Deeping Rangers and Nuneaton Borough, to be being snapped up by then-Premier League side Derby and moving to Middlesbrough.
The book also features forewords by his former manager Steve McClaren, ex-coach Steve Round and Gareth Southgate, who was his team-mate on Teesside.
Writing it was a cathartic experience, Christie explains: “The way my career went for the last five years in the game, no one was really bothered when I retired. I didn’t make an announcement and the phone didn’t ring.
“I was on the scrap heap and nobody cared, so I kind of moved away from being a footballer. I’m glad, in some respects, that that was the case because it has given me an opportunity to write my story.
“The aim was to also reflect the tough times and despair I’ve had after football and the recovery, if you like, from what I went through to where I am at now.”
The father of three, who is doing his UEFA coaching badges and also owns a football coaching company, was raised in the sleepy Lincolnshire town of Stamford.
A childhood Manchester United supporter, his talent was evident from a young age and he was fast-tracked into the Deeping Rangers men’s team, while also playing for his brother’s team formed from the fruit and veg company where his sibling worked.
Christie stacked shelves at his local supermarket too and was offered the chance to enrol on its trainee management course.
“I had my football and my job at the supermarket, and I never thought I was going to make a career out of football,” he recalls. “It just so happened that things sort of fell into place and, when they did, they did so incredibly quickly.”
He was signed by Nuneaton Borough, a club with a strong reputation in non-league. That was in April 1998. Six months later, he joined a Derby team which featured such names as Tony Dorigo, Igor Stimac, Lee Carsley, Stefano Eranio, Francesco Baiano and his future strike partner Fabrizio Ravanelli.
Christie says: “Brendon Phillips, who was Nuneaton’s manager, used to come into the dressing room and give me a list of teams who were coming to watch me, including Arsenal, Liverpool, Derby, Tottenham and Leicester.
“I didn’t feel any pressure because I was fearless at the time but if I had been told while at Derby, for example, that AC Milan, Juventus and Barcelona were watching me, I would have been nervous.”
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In October 1998, he signed a three-year deal at Pride Park, having impressed in a game for Derby’s reserves. The manager was Jim Smith, an old-school boss who would tear strips off the players in the changing room. The Bald Eagle, as he was nicknamed, was not one for putting an arm around his players – not that Christie minded.
“I got on with Jim and he was exactly the type of manager who could the best out of me,” he says. “You sort of played with a little bit of fear because he was watching you all the time and would not mind interjecting if something was going wrong.
“I used to quite like it because you’d be on your toes all the time and wanting to impress him. I never took it easy during training – if I had to chase the ball, I’d be sprinting, while the others were jogging.”
Christie made his first start for the club in January 2000, in a 4-1 win against Middlesbrough in which he scored twice. And he continued to ride the crest of a wave in the East Midlands, with his most memorable moment coming against Manchester United in May 2001.
Fighting relegation, Derby needed to pick up an unlikely three points against the Red Devils, who had already secured yet another Premier League title. Christie’s big moment came in the 34th minute when he received the ball and smashed it into the top corner beyond United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez.
His was the only goal of the game and it provided Derby with a precious three points as they staved off relegation.
— Premier League (@premierleague) March 23, 2017
“Growing up, there wasn’t an inch of my bedroom wall which wasn’t covered in United posters,” says Christie. “For me to come into professional football the way I did, without going through an academy, and to score the winning goal at the Stretford End and retain our Premier League status was a massive moment.
“It was just so surreal, and I tried to get my head around what was happening to me. It was a highlight of my career and, because of the way my football career ended, I’m quite happy in a way that that was my moment. I can look back at it for the rest of my life with a huge sense of pride.”
Derby were relegated the following season, by which time John Gregory was in the hot seat. But Christie – who was capped for England Under-21s – remained at Pride Park until January 2003, when he and team-mate Chris Riggott were signed by Middlesbrough for a combined £3 million, reuniting with their former Derby coaches Steve McClaren and Steve Round.
“I got on fairly well with John Gregory, but Derby were in financial trouble, so they sold us,” Christie recalls. “Steve Round had also been my mentor at Derby, so it didn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that if there was an opportunity to move back into the Premier League that it would be Middlesbrough who would be the club to sign me.”
He scored in his second game for Boro in the derby against Sunderland, but life took a downward spiral when a seemingly innocuous challenge from Riggott in training resulted in a broken leg.
That proved the catalyst for a succession of injuries which ruined Christie’s time at the Riverside Stadium and eventually forced him into retirement after a short spell at Leeds United.
It was a successful period at Boro, with the club winning the League Cup in 2004 and, two years later, reaching the UEFA Cup final, where they lost 4-0 to Sevilla. But Christie, who still lives in the North East, watched from the sidelines.
He says: “It was so difficult because, previous to that, I had never suffered from injuries, at any level. I’d had a few niggles, but nothing serious, so when I broke my leg for the first time, I was devastated.
“People today probably only remember me for being injured all the time, or ‘injury-prone’, as the journalists used to write about me. What the book gave me an opportunity was to look back and reflect on my career, and show people what I did achieve.
“I’ve read so many footballers’ autobiographies and I don’t think a lot of them had anything to do with the process, whereas I’ve been pretty much involved with the whole production of my book. It was important that the book is a reflection of me as a person as well, and not just put together by someone else.”
Christie was released on a free transfer from Boro in the summer of 2007 and moved to Leeds, where he scored once in four appearances before deciding, at the age of 30, that enough was enough.
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Retirement proved bleak. He suffered from depression and anxiety, which he later realised he had also experienced during his playing career.
“I changed my identity as in I wasn’t Malcolm Christie the footballer anymore – I had to leave that person behind,” he recalls. “He had gone, and I had to refocus myself and become someone else.
“It was incredibly sad because I had spent the previous 25 years with football as my love and passion, and it is only now that I can look back and be proud of what I did.”
His book also features a reflective piece by One Direction star Niall Horan, who is a huge Derby fan and whose childhood hero was Christie.
“I was at one of their concerts in Newcastle and Niall recognised me,” Christie says. “I am really honoured that he agreed to write something in the book.”
Having dissociated himself from football for so long, Christie is hoping that taking his UEFA coaching badges will lead him back into the professional game. And he feels his book will appeal to all types of people, not just football supporters.
Christie adds: “I didn’t want it to be a cliche – and anyone can pick it up and enjoy. I’m not into dancing, but I really enjoyed Billy Elliott because it was not necessarily about dancing, it is about a story, which is the same as my book.”
By Simon Yaffe
To buy Malcolm Christie: The Reality of the Dream, click here. Pre-orders are signed by the author, with free postage and packaging.