Phil Marsh: ‘Fergie was class after car crash derailed my Man Utd career’
The last thing Phil Marsh remembers before tightly shutting his eyes was a car racing towards him. When he woke up, he realised that paramedics were trying to cut him free from the wreckage of his team-mate’s Honda Civic.
Just 17 at the time, Marsh was highly thought of at Manchester United – but he was terrified his career was over before it had even begun.
The weeks and months that followed were tough, although they were helped by visits from Roy Keane and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Marsh, fully recovered both physically and mentally, went on to make his United first-team debut two and a half years later, against Crewe Alexandra in the League Cup, but that was to prove his only taste of senior action with the Reds.
He lined up alongside Alan Smith and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in a 2-1 win at Crewe in October 2006. Eight months later, however, his contract was up and he was released.
But Marsh was just thankful he had survived that night in January 2004, having been a passenger in Callum Flanagan’s car.
Flanagan and team-mate Mads Timm were involved in a 40-mile-an-hour chase with each other near United’s training complex at Carrington when the former lost control of his vehicle and hit an oncoming car.
Still can’t believe I actually survived this horrific car crash and lived to tell the tale…17 years old on my way home from football training to being air lifted🚁😕 in a great place with great people around me now❤️blessed to still be here and making the most of it🥃 cheers x pic.twitter.com/CkqEHvi55l
— Phil Marsh (@marshy2o) March 8, 2022
Marsh says: “We went ’round the corner fast and the back end spun out, and I remember a car coming towards us. I just shut my eyes and I blacked out.
“The next thing I remembered was the air ambulance team and the fire brigade trying to cut me out. They airlifted me to Wythenshawe Hospital and, as they were wheeling me through, I noticed my reflection in a mirror. I was covered in blood and glass, and my ear was hanging off.”
Marsh, who also broke his leg and a bone in his upper back, spent a week in hospital, where his visitors included then-United captain Roy Keane and other members of the first-team squad.
And he was convalescing at his parents’ home when Ferguson dropped by. “My mum set me up in my bed in the living room, and Sir Alex popped round for a chat and a brew,” Marsh recalls.
“He was fantastic with everything. He gave me an extra year on my contract, which he didn’t need to do, and got me the best treatment.”
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Flanagan was sentenced to eight months in a young offenders’ institute, while Timm – who contested the charge – served a year inside. But Marsh is not bitter towards either of his former team-mates.
He says: “Callum messaged me a few years ago, basically to reach out and say sorry about what happened. I’m quite a laid back person.
“Obviously what happened affected my career path, but it wasn’t something done maliciously – it was a stupid mistake by two young lads. I fought back from what happened and ended up having a good couple of years at United.”
Raised in the Merseyside town of St Helens, most of Marsh’s family were Liverpool supporters. A striker, he played in Wigan Athletic’s youth system before United snapped him up when he was 11.
Marsh, now 35, says: “I had been offered a new contract at Wigan, so it was a bit of a sticky predicament. Going to United was a risk because if I didn’t get through the trial, I would have been left with nothing. Thankfully, they took me on and I stayed for 10 years.
Photo from when I got the news Manchester United had offered me a contact at the age of 11 after a 2 week trial 💪🏼😂 excuse the curtains my mum said these were in back in the 90s 😅🤷🏻♂️ pic.twitter.com/DDR0ySN9Y0
— Phil Marsh (@marshy2o) March 30, 2022
“United were winning Premier League titles and the calibre of players at the club meant there was no better place for a youngster to be if they wanted to improve.”
Out of his cohort when he was 16, only Marsh, Danny Simpson – who went on to win the Premier League with Leicester – and Ritchie Jones were kept on.
After the car crash, Marsh pushed himself to get back to his previous physical level. And his determination and positive attitude caught Sir Alex’s eye, as he was called up to the first-team squad for the game at Crewe in October 2006.
Marsh recalls: “I didn’t think I would actually start. [Ferguson’s assistant] Mike Phelan put up the team sheet a few days before and there was me, Ritchie, Ryan Shawcross and a few others named on it.
“We were told that we would be training with the first team in the days leading up to the game, so I was obviously buzzing.”
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Stepping up to play alongside such names as Keane, Smith, Solskjaer, Gabriel Heinze and Mikael Silvestre may sound daunting, but Marsh took it in his stride.
He says: “As youngsters, we would see the first-team boys around the training ground. We would sit and have lunch with them in the canteen.
“Sir Alex wanted everyone there to feel like a big family – he wanted everyone treated the same way, whether they played for the first team or they were a cleaner.”
United beat Crewe 2-1 in extra time thanks to Solskjaer’s winner, with Marsh substituted at half-time.
That was his first and last appearance for the first team. At the end of that season, Marsh was released from his contract after a decade at Old Trafford.
Owing to a number of injuries at right-back in the reserve squad, Marsh had been converted to that position from his usual role as a forward. And despite impressing in defence, a chat with Sir Alex indicated that his time at United was coming to an end.
Marsh continues: “I felt playing as a striker was the best position for me. Sir Alex told me that my first-team opportunities would be limited – there was already Giuseppe Rossi and Fraizer Campbell ahead of me.
“He said that if I wanted to play as a striker, it would be better for me to try and find a new club as I’d been with the reserves for three years.
“I was realistic enough to understand that I wasn’t going to have many first-team opportunities because of the strength in depth at United and the quality we had.
“I was gutted because I’d been there for 10 years and I’d had an amazing time, in terms of the facilities, watching first-team games at Old Trafford and how great the people at the club were. But I knew it was the right time to move on.”
Marsh soon on the move and was snapped up by Blackpool, who were then in the Championship.
Sir Alex sat Phil Marsh down in 2007 and explained why he was being released by Manchester United, his latest club Rhyl FC did it this week by text #MUFC
Rhyl smooth! pic.twitter.com/nRrtrnh0vy
— ΛROUND THE GROUNDS (@ArndTheGrnds) June 3, 2018
However, his time at Bloomfield Road did not work out due to a succession of injuries and he took in a number of non-league clubs, most notably with FC United and Stalybridge Celtic, where he racked up the goals.
The father of two now works as an outdoor and sports teacher at a special educational needs school in Newton-le-Willows on Merseyside, as well as plying his trade for Pilkington FC in the North West Counties League.
Marsh says: “It is really rewarding because a lot of the kids are into football. Many of them know I played for United, so they are always asking questions, which I really enjoy.
“In terms of Pilkington, they’re my local side and I am going to play for them as long as I can. I actually started there before I went to Wigan, so my journey has come full circle.”
By Simon Yaffe