‘I scored a goal that sealed a Premier League title for Manchester United – then went to college’

Chelsea had won consecutive titles and were champions but their grasp on the league trophy was about to cease.

United moved five points clear of the top of the table thanks to a 4-2 comeback win against Everton and the result left Chelsea demoralised, but there was a young player, Eagles, up the M6 who was flying high.

Eagles scored the fourth goal on that afternoon, a goal in added time which confirmed the result. The away section exploded, he kissed the badge and he was mobbed in celebration by Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney.

“I started screaming. I didnt know what to do. Youve just got to go with the moment,” Eagles told United&aposs club media in 2019.

“I went to jump in the crowd but Giggsy ripped me back. Giggsy, who I watched on telly as a kid. Wazza, who Id played against all the time as kids when we played Everton, who had been a mate since hed arrived at the club.

“He had set me up and he was buzzing. As soon as it left my foot, I knew it was in. It was surreal. We all went nuts.”

Any supporter who remembers the goal will recall it almost didn&apost happen, with Eagles stumbling on the edge of the box after being played through. “I didnt trip and it was actually my studs. It was Albert Morgans fault,” he said.

“Everyone thinks I nearly tripped, but what happened was, Albert had packed my metal studded boots and I always wore mouldies.

“It was so dry that he didnt even pack them. It was boiling that day. My foot wasnt going through the grass because it was so dry. My stud got caught in the floor, so it almost took me down.

“In that moment, nothing is going through your head. I just felt like I was going to fall over. But I steadied myself. In years of finishing at United, you were taught to go for the corners. So once I was steady, the rest was instinct.”

The players returned to the dressing room to discover Chelsea had drawn, which meant they&aposd virtually won the title. Eagles continued: “We were still going nuts inside the dressing room when Sir Alex came over.

“He said to me &aposyouve got college on Monday&apos, but I didnt mind, I just made sure I had about a hundred toilet breaks so I could wander by all the classrooms and make sure the girls saw me.

“Eight days later, we beat City, Chelsea drew at Arsenal and we were champions. That meant we went to Stamford Bridge the following week with nothing riding on the game. We were clapped onto the pitch by Chelseas players.

“It was unbelievable and a lot of my family are Chelsea fans, which made it even more special. You dont forget things like that.”

Rather than Rooney, Ronaldo, Giggs and Scholes receiving the guard of honour at Stamford Bridge for winning the league, Ferguson named a team of youth players and Eagles was joined by names like Dong Fangzhuo and Kieran Lee.

John Terry, Claude Makelele and Michael Essien were among the stars who applauded that weakened team onto the pitch.

But that Premier League winner&aposs medal was special for Eagles and it was reward for years of sacrifice after coming through Watford&aposs academy and making the move to Manchester, miles away from his family aged just 14.

Eagles continued: “Ive always followed United and as a young kid, I remember watching at home when they were in the green and yellow kit, Giggsy when he had his long, curly hair and his big hairy chest.

“Id be sitting there at home, watching these amazing players in these awesome kits, so when I was scouted by Malcolm Fidgeon, the same man who scouted David Beckham for United, you can imagine how I felt.

“I remember everything about my time at United, even my first day at Littleton Road and my first day at Ashton on Mersey school. I moved to Sale to live in digs with a foster family and everybody around there was a United fan.

“It was a dream. Even now, I only live in Hale, so I still go over and see my foster family once a week and I dont want this to sound cringey, but Sir Alex Ferguson was my father figure in Manchester.

“My Dad did my deal with United for me, and he looked after me until my money started getting serious, but Sir Alex always looked out for me. He used to speak to my Mum and Dad, and I think thats why he gave me extra love.

“It was harsh love, at times. He used to walk past me and just slap the back of my head. At the time I was like: Whys he hitting me? but I knew he loved me. Sir Alex loved players who could do individual things.

“He liked exciting football and he loved winning. He loved that about me, that Id try stupid stuff. Sir Alex was really the only manager who encouraged me to do that. I just go out on the pitch and try stuff, and most managers dont like that.”

Eagles was always highly regarded at United and he played in a talented reserve team, which is now known as the Under-21s.

“My youth team was frightening; we didnt lose. In the old days we had myself, Phil Bardsley, Luke Steele, Kieran Richardson, Tom Heaton, Paul McShane, Gerard Pique, Giuseppe Rossi,” he told Ladbrokes in 2021.

“Ferguson had a lot of involvement with me as a kid because he knew Id moved away from home, but I drove a car somewhere when I was 15 and Sir Alex found out about it and called me in his office. I was petrified.

“Its the worst experience ever because you dont know what hes going to do. I can remember standing outside of his office, sweating, going red. He used to have a folder where he used to keep his notes.”

Eagles made his first-team debut for United against Leeds in the League Cup in October 2003 before having multiple loan spells with Watford, Sheffield Wednesday and Dutch club NEC Nijmegen.

“When we were youngsters at Man United, wed all be going out on loan to get experience before making it into the first team. I think its different now and the youth team players get more of a chance because of the difference in the team,” he said.

“When I was at United the first team were winning everything, competing in every competition, so we were never going to just get straight into that team. We had that winning mindset drilled into us from a very young age.

“Regarding the players going out on loan, I think its a great idea. When I was 17 or 18, I went out into the Championship Sir Alex wouldnt let me go anywhere else in the Premier League.

“If you look at this whole U23 thing theyve got going on now, if youre 23 years old and youre at Man United, Man City or Liverpool and youre not sniffing around the first team, youre in a difficult position.

“When I was there, you had your under-17s, your under-19s and your reserves, and that was it. At 17 years old, youd be sent to a Championship team and youd be given this great chance to really go and impress at such a young age.

“You look at the new model; could youngsters in this day and age go and do it now? I dont know. They tend to knock around these big clubs until later on in their careers and then we never seem to see them.”

Eagles&apos loan in the Netherlands was cut short due to a lack of minutes and he returned to Manchester in December 2006, which meant he spent the last six months of that title-winning campaign around the first-team.

He scored his first senior United goal a months few later against Everton at Goodison Park. “Solskjaer had gone down with cramp, so the gaffer turns to me and goes you ready, son?, so I said yes,” Eagles explained.

“I was just petrified because I wasnt expecting to get on the pitch at all, and within three minutes Id scored for Manchester United. It probably was a good thing that it happened the way it did.

“If the gaffer had told me to warm up 20 minutes beforehand, Id have been a lot, lot worse. When I got on there I was completely taken aback. You cant prepare for the reaction you get from the fans.

“They knew who I was because of the things Id done with the youth team but with five minutes to go in the game everyone was interested about the result and biting their nails because of Chelsea.

“I just remember scoring, I kissed the badge and jogged back to our half and the fans were singing my name. It was a real bizarre feeling because youre used to them singing at Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney, players like that.”

Eagles spent the following 2007/2008 season at Old Trafford but he made just six appearances throughout that entire campaign. Burnley had followed his progress and it was the right time for him to leave in pursuit of regular football.

“Sir Alex offered me a five-year extension, but I just wanted to show people what I was about,” Eagles said. “Ronaldo, Nani, Giggsy were all in the squad and I was never confident that I would get a long enough run in the first team to show my abilities.

“I had to decide whether I wanted that, or to go somewhere, play more games and show people what talent Id actually got. For me, I just wanted to make my own name. Some people sit there for years at top clubs and play 10 games a season.

“They get a bit of money, but that wasnt enough for me. To be fair, Sir Alex backed me on that. He knew how much I loved playing the game. I was always first out and last in from training. He just said &aposgo and prove it to everybody&apos.

“I think I did. I got promoted with Burnley, played in the Prem with them and Bolton. Those years were amazing. Every player would love to have done what Giggsy did, spend your whole career at United and win everything, but it doesnt happen that way.