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Premier League Files: Nicky Butt

Premier League Career: Manchester United (1992-2004), Newcastle United (2004-2005), (2006-2009), Birmingham City (2005-2006)

Part of the young talent that were dubbed “Fergie’s Fledglings,” Nicky Butt enjoyed a lengthy and fruitful Premier League career, winning six Premier League titles at Manchester United. He is back at the club where he received his big break helping today’s youngsters in the academy as well as being one of the five ‘Class of 92’ owners at Salford City FC.

The midfielder turned professional in 1993 but he had already made his Premier League debut by then, appearing as a late substitute in Manchester United’s 3-0 victory over Oldham Athletic in November 1992. It wasn’t until the 1994-1995 season though that the Old Trafford faithful got to see Butt play on a regular basis.

Roy Keane and Paul Ince were the main central midfielders at the time but with Paul Parker injured and Gary Neville still an emerging talent, Keane was often asked to deputise as a right-back. That meant Butt got more opportunities than expected and when Ince departed in the 1995 pre-season for Serie A with Inter Milan, Ferguson elected to draft Butt into the team on a regular basis as Ince’s replacement.

Goals were not a crucial part of Nicky’s game. Instead, his job was to be the ball-winner in midfield and allow the creative talents to take control going forwards. Nevertheless, he could still chip in with the odd strike. This included a goal in the opening minute of a fixture with Liverpool FC in October 1995 which was Eric Cantona’s comeback match after his nine-month ban for his kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace supporter. In 1997-1998, Butt made the PFA Team of the Year and many believed this was his best season in the colours of Manchester United as he developed leadership qualities after a knee injury robbed the club of Keane’s presence for much of that season.

Although he started the 1999 UEFA Champions League final victory in Barcelona as Keane was suspended, Roy’s return to fitness, coupled with Paul Scholes dropping back into a central role meant Butt’s first-team opportunities got more limited into the millennium. As competition increased in the midfield, he realised it was time to leave the club that developed him. In January 2004, Nicky Butt handed in a transfer request. Sir Alex Ferguson admitted: “Nicky Butt has asked to leave; it is a very sad situation. Nicky has given Manchester United great service but he wants to play first-team football.”

After turning down a move to Birmingham City, Butt was signed by Sir Bobby Robson for Newcastle United in July 2004. Signing a four-year deal, he was seen as a replacement for Gary Speed who had departed for Bolton Wanderers. Robson was sacked though four games into the new season and Graeme Souness was not convinced by Butt’s performances. He signed Emre, Amdy Faye and Scott Parker and sent Butt packing on-loan to ironically, Birmingham City in August 2005.

He scored on his Blues’ home debut in a 2-1 defeat to Manchester City and played 24 times but after finding out that Steve Bruce had picked his son Alex ahead of him for an away trip to West Ham United, he walked out of the squad and was fined for his lack of discipline. He apologised and returned to the squad but Birmingham were relegated at the end of the season and he returned to Newcastle.

Butt became an integral part of the Newcastle line-up on his return and would captain the side on many occasions when Parker and Michael Owen were injured. He won over the fans’, who had been sceptical about his arrival in the first place and stayed with the club even after their relegation from the top-flight in 2009. He helped get them back into the Premier League before retiring from football.

He might not have attracted major headlines but Nicky Butt had a medal-winning career.

Memorable Matches: Birmingham City 3-0 Aston Villa (September 2002)

Goalscorers: Clinton Morrison 31, Peter Enckleman OG 77, Geoff Horsfield 83

Teams:

Birmingham City: Nico Vaesen, Martin Grainger, Darren Purse, Kenny Cunningham, Jeff Kenna, Paul Devlin (Darryl Powell 79), Damien Johnson, Aliou Cisse, Robbie Savage (Bryan Hughes 87), Clinton Morrison (Geoff Horsfield 69), Stern John

Aston Villa: Peter Enckleman, Ulisses de la Cruz, Alpay, Olof Mellberg, Steve Staunton, Ronny Johnsen, Gareth Barry, Mark Kinsella, Jlloyd Samuel, Juan Pablo Angel (Darius Vassell 45), Marcus Allback (Dion Dublin 45)

Referee: David Elleray, Attendance: 29,502

This was the first meeting in the Premier League between these Midlands rivals and the first Second City Derby in the top-flight since 1986. It would turn out to be an evening that Birmingham City fans will remember forever and one that Peter Enckleman has never forgotten…for all the wrong reasons.

Birmingham had adjusted well to life in the big time. Managed by former title winner Steve Bruce, the Blues had already beaten Leeds United and came from 2-0 to grab a point at Anfield against Liverpool FC five days earlier. Graham Taylor was in the Villa dugout for his second stint in charge but his team weren’t exactly sparkling despite a home victory over Charlton Athletic last time out.

The home side were on the front foot from the opening exchanges and deservedly took the lead in the first half. Paul Devlin played a ball into the box which deflected off Robbie Savage into the path of Clinton Morrison. The Villa defenders stood waiting for an officials’ flag that never came and the forward made no mistake from seven yards out in dispatching the ball past Enckleman. That was his third goal in two matches.

There was a reaction from the visitors. Ulisses de la Cruz smashed the crossbar and half-time substitute Darius Vassell had a goal chalked off for offside after Martin Grainger and Kenny Cunningham got in each other’s way. The game was still perfectly in the balance as the last 10 minutes approached, before one of the craziest goals we’ve ever seen in the Premier League.

Olof Mellberg took a throw-in and played it back to his goalkeeper. Enckleman took his eye off the ball for a split second, miscontrolled it and the ball trickled into the back of his net. The Finn looked rather sheepish and did well not to react to provocation from some excited supporters that ran onto the pitch to celebrate the goal. Bruce’s reaction on the touchline summed it up. There was a debate on whether the goalkeeper actually touched the ball but judging from Enckleman’s reaction, he clearly did.

Moments later, another calamitous mistake by a Villa defender, this time from Alpay allowed substitute Geoff Horsfield in to score a third goal and power Birmingham to a priceless and magnificent victory. They finished 13th in their debut season and became a stable Premier League side for the next four campaigns. Crucially, they won both matches that season against Aston Villa and finished three places higher in the table too.