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Old 10th September 2011, 11:07   #1
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Default Chris Eagles: 'United like a family'

Bolton Wanderers' Chris Eagles plays his cards right and still enjoys life surrounded by members of his Manchester United 'family'

By Jonathan Liew
Telegraph 11:00PM BST 09 Sep 2011

Every so often, a poker night takes place at the south Manchester home of Darren Fletcher. Pop in to a typical gathering and what will greet you is virtually a directory of Manchester United’s recent past and present.

You may, for example, bump into Fabio and Rafael, or perhaps Danny Welbeck or Jonny Evans. Sunderland duo Wes Brown and John O’Shea are frequent guests, as is, more often than not, Chris Eagles of Bolton Wanderers. These young men may have gone their separate ways, but around a card table and a heap of rosy memories, they remain united.

“It’s like no-one’s left,” Eagles says quietly, and there is a note of wistfulness in his voice as he says it.

On Saturday evening, Eagles will look across the halfway line at the Reebok and see familiar faces; faces he grew to know during an eight-year career at Old Trafford between the ages of 14 and 22. “It’s going to be difficult playing against them, because I still care for United,” he says. “It’ll be like training. We all grew up together. It’s like a family.” Now 25, Eagles has a new family; a happy one, too, with Owen Coyle as its kindly patriarch. But his love for the brotherhood of United remains deep and unabashed.

Most players retain some sort of residual affection for their old teams. But to understand what makes Saturday’s fixture such a special one for Eagles, you need to go back over a decade, when a teenage winger from Hertfordshire was plucked from obscurity and groomed for a career at the biggest club in England.

Having left his friends and parents at the age of 14, Eagles did not take readily to life in Manchester. “It was difficult going to school,” he says in reedy Estuary tones that would certainly have stuck out at his Sale college. “I didn’t have many friends as I was doing extra training. I had family problems, like everyone does. Sir Alex helped me with them. He was sort of a father figure. Whenever I had problems I could always speak to him.” Ferguson, for his part, saw the quiet but supremely determined winger as part of a new generation of youngsters that could eclipse even the great late-1990s team of Beckham, Giggs, Neville and Scholes. But Eagles never quite broke through in the same way as that quartet. He found his way blocked, first by Cristiano Ronaldo, then by Nani, and ended up playing just a handful of games in between regular loan spells.

“It was frustrating,” he admits. “Even when I was 15 years old after school, I would go to Carrington and do extra training. You’ve been on the pre-season tours, you’ve scored, and then as soon as the season starts you’re straight back out again. Then United buy a £20m player, and they have to play. It hurt. I loved United. It just wasn’t to be.” In 2008, after another fruitless season, Eagles turned down the offer of a contract extension and reluctantly decided to migrate in search of first-team football. While most managers would simply have struck the player’s name from the training roster and opened the floor to offers, Ferguson wanted to make sure his precious talent was going to a good home.

Eagles recalls: “Sir Alex said: 'I’ve got this manager I’d like you to meet.’ I was unsure whether to leave, but as soon as I met Owen I just knew I’d be happy with him. Sir Alex does that with all the youngsters — he makes sure they go to the right club. He knew that I needed a manager who was right for me. That’s why he’s one of the best managers in the world.” Ferguson’s parting words? “Go and show people what you can do. I’m going to miss you.” “I could have stayed there,” Eagles explains.

“Who knows, I might have been playing now that Cristiano has left. But I could have still been sat on the bench, and I didn’t want to take that risk. The lads who are playing now, they’re great lads. But there are a lot of people who have left, who I believe are great players that have not come through.” Ferguson’s hunch, in this case, proved correct. Eagles has flourished under Coyle, first at Burnley, where he won promotion to the Premier League in his first season, and then at Bolton, for whom he signed in July.

“It’s a very close-knit club,” Eagles says. “At some clubs you can see there’s a distance between the players. Here, there isn’t. The gaffer’s playing table tennis with all the youth players in the next room. That’s what it’s like here. He’s done a great job here, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes further.” But after a tough start to the season, with defeats to Manchester City and Liverpool, comes the visit of the champions. At least Eagles will know the opposition thoroughly. A fortnight ago, he went back to Old Trafford as a spectator to watch the 8-2 demolition of Arsenal. Not really a scouting mission; more a sort of nostalgic wallow.

“It just brings back memories,” he says. “Seeing all the lads playing together, it sort of upsets you. It’s just one of those things. Hopefully one day I’ll be back there. But I’m here now.” Content as he is at Bolton, there is still a part of Eagles that wonders what might have been at Old Trafford. And you sense that coming face to face with many of his contemporaries in the current squad — whether over a game of football or a game of poker — deepens the sense of dissonance. For as Eagles is only too aware, a man may leave United, but somehow United never leaves him.
Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. Martin Luther King
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