Nick Powell became a bit of a laughing stock towards the end of his Manchester United stint, but in an alternate universe he might have become a big player for the Red Devils.
In 2015-16, with Louis van Gaal’s United chasing the equaliser they needed against Wolfsburg to make it out of their Champions League group, their manager took off Juan Mata and brought on Nick Powell for his first outing in the competition for three years.
‘Powell for Mata’ became a stick used to beat the Dutchman, before eventually veering into meme territory. Soon, you didn’t even need any context to see the phrase ‘Powell for Mata’ thrown around as if it was a sentence anyone ought to be able to understand.
But to restrict Powell’s United career to that low point is to do him a disservice in a number of ways.
First of all, United did find that equaliser after his introduction, only for lax defending to allow Naldo to restore Wolfsburg’s lead and put them back to where they were when he entered the field of play.
More importantly, though, while Powell was close to the end of his career at Old Trafford by December 2015, there’s another timeline where that may not have been the case.
When an 18-year-old wins a Player of the Year award, even in League Two, it’s going to make people sit up and take notice.
Powell was already on the radar of bigger clubs when he led Crewe to the play-off final, and the presence of so many eyes might have caused him to shy away, but instead it brought out the best in him.
It took him just 15 minutes to steal the show, scoring the kind of goal that makes you performatively rub your eyes. It was like watching a player from 2012 thrown into a game from 1992, such was the gap in terms of speed of thought and of movement.
The touch and the finish belong to a different era than the defending, to the point that not only have the opponents failed to deal with him, they’ve failed to begin considering how they might.
Powell was exactly the sort of player Alex Ferguson tended to mould into a star at Old Trafford, even if most in that boat had come directly through the club’s academy.
He occupied that middle ground between raw talents thrown in sporadically but lacking tactical nous and those old before their time game-readers who are more open to being eased into action and would have stood out among previous generations of teenagers coming through the ranks.
Those who witnessed Powell at Crewe, then, will not have been surprised to see him hit the ground running with a debut goal for United, and not just a tap-in, either.
The effort against Wigan again showed him to be one step ahead of those whose task it was to stop him, feinting to give himself space before drilling the ball into the corner of Ali Al-Habsi’s net from the edge of the box.
It was the kind of strike that felt less like a standalone and more like the first frame in a compilation video full of finishes so decisive they feel deserving of Batman-style sound effects. Little were we to know it would be his only senior goal for the club.
Had Powell arrived even a couple of years earlier, this may well have been the start of something much bigger.
Even if he was forced to wait for a run of games, Ferguson was the kind of manager with a history of making it clear to youngsters that their time would come, and he may well have felt assured of his longer-term future.
Instead, regular first-team football was far from the table under David Moyes and then Van Gaal, and a loan move at Leicester City didn’t bring a lot more in the way of action. When you’ve already played and scored at both Wembley and Old Trafford, it can be tough when your brain is sending you messages your opportunities are not able to reflect.
After leaving Old Trafford permanently, things picked up for Powell in the Championship and League One, as he came to terms with the fact that enjoying your football at a lower level can often be a lot healthier than misery and frustration higher up the pyramid.
However, there’s still a part of us that wonders whether he could have pushed much closer to the high, high ceiling we all saw for him at 18.
By Tom Victor