Manchester

‘Roy Keane was laughing’ – The Manchester United player who made Premier League history in two seconds

It was an early season encounter between the Premier League's best sides and the tension was palpable. Arsenal were leading at half-time, but Roy Keane scored two goals after the break to condemn the hosts to their first defeat at Highbury in 20 months.

Keane scored his second goal in the 88th minute and Arsenal responded by 'throwing the kitchen sink at it'. That's according to Nick Culkin, who was watching from the bench as Freddie Ljungberg and Dennis Bergkamp converged around the United goal.

Culkin had just spent the season as United's third-choice goalkeeper for the historic Treble and he was the only goalkeeper on the bench at Highbury on that afternoon in North London, with Raimond van der Gouw starting in between the sticks.

Van der Gouw had an outstanding game, but with Arsenal desperate to equalise, he collided with Martin Keown in injury time. The Dutchman was unable to continue and Ferguson turned to 19-year-old Culkin, who was yet to make his debut for the club.

Culkin was substituted on and he made history by making the shortest Premier League debut of all time – it was just two seconds. It has been 23 years since Culkin made that debut, but he vividly remembers it, as he explained to the Manchester Evening News.

“Thats when there were proper rivalries between Man United and Arsenal,” Culkin recalled. “The Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira era, which was phenomenal. I remember it all clearly. The build-up, the team talks, the hotel, it was just business for me.”

That Premier League record is what Culkin is known for but his story is more than that. Culkin spent seven years with United, he trained with Eric Cantona, he spent the Treble-winning season as a third-choice goalkeeper and watched history unfold up close.

Culkin has lived in Manchester since retiring from football and his Yorkshire accent now has something of a Mancunian influence. He created his family in the city and it's where he has forged his fondest memories, which include his time at Old Trafford.

He recently agreed to speak to the MEN to reflect on his journey: “I started playing in goal when I was eight years old and just really enjoyed it. I loved the feeling of saving shots and getting your head stuck in where most normal people wouldnt,” he said.

“Les [Kershaw] was watching me play for York for quite a long time. York eventually drew Man United in what was the Coca-Cola cup [League Cup] back then and a deal was done before the game at Old Trafford – I actually knew nothing about it.

“The club secretary told me the manager wanted to see me in the morning. I thought I dont know what that is about. I didnt sleep all night. I went in to see the manager Alan Little and he told me Man United had put a bid in for me and they had accepted it.

“He said 'youre not staying, we need the money to buy a training ground'. I met Sir Alex at Old Trafford, we went into the board room, and he told me about the club, the history. He said 'were going to offer you a four-year deal, heres the pen and sign it'.

“I obviously did – no negotiating. I had gone from 31.50 a week to 300 a week. I was buzzing, I felt like I had won the lottery.”

Culkin completed his move to United in September 1995 and he also received a 20,000 sign-on fee, but it wasn't just the monetary reward that had him excited. He was aged just 17 and joining England's biggest club, who had just finished second in the league.

In just under seven days, Culkin had gone from training on a public pitch in a park with York to training at The Cliff with Cantona, Andy Cole, Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham. He couldn't quite believe what was happening.

Culkin wasn't even old enough to legally buy alcohol but that didn't stop him from being thrown into the deep end on his first day of training. Ferguson wanted him to take part in a shooting session with Cantona and Cole – would Culkin sink or swim?

“All the coaches were watching but I actually did alright,” Culkin recalled. “It was a great morning and I must have done alright because I stayed at the club for another seven years. Its only now that I look back and think I was a very lucky man.

“I was blown away by it all. Learning from the best in the world in Schmeichel, it was great to watch him in training – I had never seen anything like it. When he trained, especially with the goalkeepers on a Monday morning, it was phenomenal to watch.

“Just the stature of the man, the aura he carried, he was a beast of a man. He was one of the first goalkeepers to catch a cross and throw it to the halfway line and his technique on 1v1s, his little star shape, I loved – he was amazing.

“He had his own technique, which he learned from handball where he grew up. His dominance and everything, I could just go on, just all of it. To watch him in training and watch him perform consistently on a Saturday was just amazing.”

The culture Ferguson built during his time at the club during his 26-year reign is well documented but Culkin had the opportunity to witness it first-hand. He was privy to all the training sessions, the team talks and the culture of excellence that was created.

He admitted that supporters love to speak to him about his time at the club and his unique insight makes it clear why.

“The training was fierce, ferocious, everyone wanted to win,” Culkin explained. “It was full of characters, big personalities, it was brilliant, training with them on a daily basis. Scholes is always the player who stands out for me, along with Eric [Cantona].

“Scholes was just one of the best players Ive trained with and played against. He was just ruthless and clinical, he knew what was doing smashing people. It was just a different level. You also quickly realise Ferguson is a man that you do not want to disappoint.”

Culkin progressed nicely after signing from York and regularly training with some of the best players in the country helped him to raise his game, which eventually led to him becoming United's third-choice goalkeeper for the historic 1998/99 season.

United won the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League that season, becoming the only side in English football to do so. Culkin was involved with a squad that would make history and he paused for a moment before discussing what that meant.

It was almost as if Culkin still couldn't believe his role, even now. “I was very lucky to do that, so lucky to be involved during that time [treble season] and be third choices goalkeeper at Man United, especially in that season, flying everywhere,” he said.

“Training in the stadiums the night before. You dont think about it when youre young, it just becomes normal, but if I talk about it with my two sons, theyre like really, is that what you did? Theyre blown away. They were really special nights.”

It wasn't just on the pitch that United were enjoying special nights, as Culkin explained after laughing at a story he had just about managed to remember. “We went on tour once, pre-season tour with the first-team to Norway and Denmark,” he recalled.

“Me and John Curtis were the young players that went with the first-team. We were allowed a night out, legitimate, we got the green light, and Ill never forget the name of the place. We were having a few beers in Copenhagen, in a place called Conrades.

“We were in a corner, minding our own business. We were just keeping our heads down. Giggsy, Keano, all the lads were out and what have you. This was a quiet pub when we arrived and eventually, they turned it into something like a nightclub.

“Honestly, it ended up being heaving because word got round that Man United were in the bar. The music changed, the lighting changed and before you knew it, people were dancing everywhere, on tables and bars – it was one of the best nights I ever had!”

After the Treble-winning season, Schmeichel left United at the age of 35 and Ferguson signed Australian goalkeeper Mark Bosnich on a free transfer from Aston Villa, however, he sustained an injury after just the first three games of the new Premier League season.

Van der Gouw remained at the club and he stepped in to start the fourth game of the campaign, which was the small matter of Arsenal at Highbury. Arsenal had finished as runners-up behind United in 1998/99 and they were desperate to atone.

Culkin had explained that Van der Gouw was 'brilliant' with the younger goalkeepers earlier in our interview and he lauded him as one of the nicest people you could meet, but he also explained that he was someone who could certainly be intimidating.

Van der Gouw needed those qualities when starting at Highbury. “I never remember being involved with the first-team and not thinking we were going to win,” Culkin said. “All the lads thought that and Arsenal was one of the biggest games of the season.

“There was a lot on the line and I was lucky to be involved with it for a start. How good is being on the bench at Highbury?”

Bosnich was injured and Van der Gouw started at Highbury, which meant Culkin made the bench. He did not expect to make his first-team debut that afternoon, never mind Premier League history, but that's exactly what he did with a two-second cameo.

“Keane gets a couple of goals, Arsenal are throwing the kitchen sink at it and Raimond made a routine save,” Culkin explained with impressive detail. It turned out he was not joking about remembering it vividly at the start of the conversation.

“He caught it on the line and Keown smashed him. Raimond went down, but I thought he would carry on as hes an absolute machine. Rob Swire the physio indicated a sub, and Sir Alex turned around and said 'Nick, get yourself stripped off youre going on.'”

Van der Gouw was brought off in stoppage time and Culkin was now coming onto the pitch at Highbury to make his debut at 19-years-old. What was he thinking? Did he have that feeling in his stomach? Did he realise he was about to make history?

“I was never overawed, I was looking forward to it,” Culkin said. “I was thinking Id get maybe four or five minutes of injury time, I was thinking Im going to be under pressure here and really enjoy it. There was no fear, I wanted to come on and do well, I was in the zone.

“When I look back at the video, which is a very short video, Im focused on what I need to do. Steve McClaren told me where to put the free-kick and I thought no problem. Henning Berg offered to take the free-kick for me and I said I was fine.

“You can imagine the stick Im getting from the Arsenal fans, getting a few coins thrown at me. I put the ball down, Dennis Bergkamp is in front of me and Im thinking f****** hell, If I shank this now, thats me done and finished in football. I wont be on the coach back.

“I take the free-kick, I sweetly ping the ball, and I heard the whistle go and the roar of the Man United fans. That was the job done and three points, that was me with a clean sheet bonus, win bonus, I think it was 1100 all together I got for that.”

United had the three points, Culkin had a clean sheet bonus and he made Premier League history at the same time – his time on the pitch was remarkably just two seconds. “I wasnt aware of it at all, it had been a long process [to make his debut],” he recalled.

“People who dont really know anything about football laugh at it. For me to get on that pitch and to play for that team, took years of training and hard work, blood, sweat and tears. To achieve what I wanted to achieve, at such a young age as well, is something that Im very proud of and Ill never forget that. It was unbelievable for me and my family.

“Unfortunately, thats all I did in terms of competitive games for the first-team, but Im really proud of and I still dont think that record will ever get beaten. I don't think it can. Someone has to hold that record and if thats me, Ill take it.”

Culkin returned to the dressing room and Sir Bobby Charlton was waiting for him. “It was 500 for the clean sheet bonus in my contract and Sir Bobby Charlton, who was in the dressing room, was laughing and said you cant claim that,” Culkin added.

“I was smiling and I remember Roy Keane, who was playing cards on the bus on the way home to Manchester, asking how much I got for it. I was at the back of the coach with my head down thinking, what was actually just happened there?

“I said to Roy, I got 500 for that [clean sheet] and he started laughing. Being in the dressing room with all those players and Sir Bobby coming in and saying that, what can you say? It was just surreal and brilliant, I was dead lucky.”

There was a chance that Culkin would have started the game following Highbury, but the steely Van der Gouw refused to be sidelined. Culkin admitted he would have loved to make a few starts, but he also accepts he was not good enough to regularly play.

“I was hoping to get a chance, which I might have taken, but it wasnt meant to be and the reason was, I wasnt good enough – its as simple as that,” Caulkin said. “If I was good enough, the manager would have given me a chance, but I wasnt quite there.

“I might have been alright for a game or two, but to play a full season consistently, I was not near the level Man United needed.”

With Bosnich still injured, United signed goalkeeper Massimo Taibi on August 31, 1999, which was just nine days after Culkin made his debut at Highbury. The writing was on the wall for Culkin, who understood what the Italian's arrival meant for him.

“That is just how it goes. It wasnt a very successful time for Taibi unfortunately, he didnt speak a word of English to be fair,” Culkin recalled. “They were struggling to replace Pete in the end, I dont think they replaced him properly until Van der Sar came.”

Culkin had loan spells with Hull City, Bristol Rovers and Livingston in Scotland before permanently leaving United for QPR in 2002. He spent three years in London but his time in the capital was plagued with injuries, which eventually forced him to retire in 2005.

After a brutal ankle injury, Culkin sustained a knee injury and that forced him to hang up his gloves. “I think I would have floated around League One and League Two if I had kept injury free, it would have been a nice little career, but it wasnt meant to be,” he said.

“I wasnt alright with it at the time. It took me a long time to forgive football and for myself to accept that I didnt fulfil the career that I wanted. I have come to terms with that and now I look back and think I had a fantastic little career.

“I speak to Man United fans now who are in awe wanting to know about the debut, about my career there and when I look back on it, its only when Im having conversations like this that I realise. I sometimes dont have words for it, like right now.”

Culkin certainly did alright for a lad from York, who just loved playing as a goalkeeper in the park when he was younger.