Long Read: Forever Young

In an interview that first appeared in the Official Matchday Programme for 2023/24 Premier League clash with Wolves, Ashley Young recalls memories of his senior debut, while also describing the impact of Sean Dyche on his incredible career to date and how adversity has always fuelled his desire to get better...

Ashley Young’s professional debut began with an eye-opening threat.

This month marks 20 years since that day, when, stepping off the bench for Watford as an 18-year-old, Young was confronted by Millwall’s notorious Kevin Muscat before he had even kicked a ball.

“It was one of them, being told that you are going to make your debut was my boyhood dream, especially to make it at the club that I'd been at since I was 10 years old,” he recalls. “To have that feeling, the adrenaline rush of everything you have worked hard for starting to pay off. 

 “I remember the feeling of coming on the pitch... I went to run past Muscat and his first words to me were, 'You're making your debut?', so I just nodded, and then he said, 'I dare you to go past me - and I'll break your legs’.

“In that instance it was a bit like, 'Oh, this is a welcome to first-team football’. It was one of those things. There were so many things said on pitches back then. But the overriding feeling of it all was just the enjoyment of getting out there on the pitch and making my debut.”

Young went on to notch a late goal to seal a 3-1 victory for Watford at Vicarage Road.

The truth is Young has never been one to be fazed by anything when it comes to football, in fact, it is adversity that has fuelled his incredible journey to date.

Rewind just two years beyond that first-team bow and the dream of becoming a professional footballer was hanging by a thread.

“I always go back to the story of being 16 years old and being told that I wasn’t getting a YTS (Youth Training Scheme, which has since been replaced by a scholarship),” explains Young. “I relate to boys nowadays who get their decisions at that point because it's one of the toughest things to take, when all of your life to that point all you've thought about is becoming a professional footballer and then you get told you aren't going to get a YTS. 

“It was like my world was over. 

“I remember the day now, being sat there in front of the four coaches, next to my mum, then going home and speaking to my parents and just working out what my next step was going to be.

“Watford had said to me that I could come back part-time, instead of the full-time scholarship, which meant going to school in Stevenage during the week then on a Tuesday and Thursday training with the full-time players. 

“I went home and sat there for the whole of the Saturday, working out what I wanted to do. 

“A lot of people will find it hard to believe, because I don't shut up now, but I didn't really speak until I was 18. I remember being sat there in front of the TV for the whole day, not watching what was on, everything was like a blur. 

“My mum, dad and brothers were there talking to me but it was just a blur, like my world was over.

“That night, it was about 10pm, I don't know why but I said to my mum and dad that I wanted to play in the game that was happening on the Sunday. It was an Under-16s game, I wanted to go and play in it because I wanted to make sure they know that they've got their decision wrong. I wasn't leaving, I was staying, I would go part-time and take it from there. 

 “That was it for me. 

“I woke up and I actually scored a header in that game. Everyone knows I'm not the biggest now but I was even smaller then, so how I scored a header, I don't know! 

“I’ve always had that determination, that winning mentality, that desire, that hunger to prove people wrong. 

“They said they'd test me, that they'd put me with the Under-19s and the reserves and just see how I got on. Within six months, I was playing with both of those teams - above my own age group - and within a year I'd been offered the professional contract. 

“I’ve always said that was a massive turning point in my career, at the very start of it all.”

A significant part of Young’s further education came in the form of an introduction to life at first-team level from a number of established players at Watford.

Among those senior professionals, of course, was then-centre-back and current Everton manager, Sean Dyche.

“Dychey was fantastic for me,” reflects Young. “At the time, I might have thought differently but looking back on it, he and the rest of the senior pros were great for me... Dychey and the likes of Neil Cox, Neal Ardley, Paul Devlin, Gavin Mahon as well. Those guys really helped me.

“When I look back at myself, Lloyd Doyley, Ben Herd, who were young players there at the time and the little things the older players used to speak to us about when we were coming up was so important. 

“At times they were tough on us but it was a tough love, it was for us to realise what we needed to do to establish ourselves at that level. "We knew we had to listen to what they had to say, whether it be help or constructive criticism that they gave to us. 

“All of those guys, the managers and the staff that were there had been in the game long enough to really know the game. Off the pitch you could always talk to people as well.

“That set me up for the rest of my career.”

A Premier League, FA Cup, EFL Cup and Europa League winner with Manchester United, a Serie A title during a season-and-a-half with Inter Milan and 39 England caps, including a World Cup semi-finalist with the Three Lions in 2018.

His nine-year stint at Manchester United threw up particularly interesting challenges, including having to adapt to highly-contrasting styles after the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson, who brought Young to Old Trafford in June 2011.

“After Sir Alex Ferguson had left, I think for the next seven years I was supposed to be leaving,” he says, with a smile. “There were new players coming in and I'd be leaving. It's one of those things. You have to have a tough shell and I've had that from when I was a kid. 

“You know the size of the club, that new players will always come in and managers will change but it's up to you whether you want to fight for your place and that's always how I saw it. 

“If new players come in, okay, this is more of a fight for me.”

A flying winger as a youngster, Young’s rounded ability and intelligence has, somewhat uniquely, led him to playing every outfield position during the course of his professional career to date.

It was Dutch coach Louis van Gaal who first experimented with Young in a more defensive role.

When Louis van Gaal first came in I wasn't going to play but then it changed,” says Young. “He obviously saw something in me that led him to playing me as a full-back and a wing-back in his teams.

“It was the same with Jose Mourinho — for the first four months I didn't play and we had a conversation that there was interest in the summer and I wanted to leave. 

 “The club didn't let me leave, though, and, again, he must have seen something in me for it to change (clicks fingers) overnight. 

“[Mourinho] made me captain as well, which was an achievement that I didn't see coming but I took it with both hands. 

“I wanted to take that leadership role and be a leader in the squad. I've always said when you're on the pitch there is 11 leaders on the pitch, not just one, but if I could be more of a voice then I would be and, like I say, I talk a lot, so maybe that helps!”

Young arrived at Goodison Park this summer with a staggering 680 competitive senior appearances to his name, having missed a total of only one match through injury in the past five seasons (not accounting for three contests he was forced to sit out due to COVID protocols during his time in Italy).

Last term, he recorded impressive statistics as a regular at full-back for Aston Villa, playing 29 Premier League matches – starting 23 times – as Unai Emery’s side finished seventh and qualified for European competition.

His 75.5 per cent tackle success ranked him among the highest three per cent for his position across Europe’s top five leagues.

The defender also featured in the top 11 per cent for shots blocked and the highest 14 per cent for clearances.

“I’ve come to a massive club in Everton,” says the Blues’ number 18.
“I spoke to the manager, who wanted me at Burnley previously, before coming here and from the moment I walked in the door here I saw for myself and felt a togetherness from the players and the staff. It’s real. 

“I know what the manager wants to achieve here. You look back at Everton teams over the years and we have to get back to competing at a higher level. 

“Obviously, the past two years haven't gone that way and it's a transitional period for us and a lot of teams, but the way the manager spoke and the way the players are here, that's what we need to get back to.”

Making his Everton debut last time out at Goodison against Fulham, Young became the Blues’ oldest-ever outfield debutant at 38 years and 34 days.

He admits the obsession with his age is becoming “boring” to discuss, but with his hunger still abundantly clear in conversation, it is a topic that is impossible to ignore.

“Is this my last season? I wouldn't
say so, no,” he insists. “I’ve said before that I'm not ready to retire yet. Who knows what can happen next season or the season after? Who knows? I won't put all my eggs in one basket and say this season is going to be the last dance.

“I’ve spoken to a lot of players who have retired and felt that they retired too early. Everyone always says that you will know when you're ready to retire. If you're fit, if you can keep playing games, if you still love it, if you still have that hunger and desire to do well, then don't stop. 

“If anyone sees me in training, if anyone sees me at home, they will know that I'm a winner. 

“I’m not stopping. I just keep myself in good shape — eat well, drink right. I know my body. I know what I need to do, whether that's in the gym or out on the training pitch. Every time I go out on the training pitch I'm giving 100 per cent, I'm not leaving anything out there. I know how to recover and how to prepare for games. 

“There's no stopping me right now. As long as I can stay fit and keep getting up and down the pitch, I'm not even thinking about retiring.”

Whenever the day comes to hang up the boots, Young is keeping his options open over the next chapter.

“As a footballer you don't want to think about the next part because you just want to concentrate on football,” he admits. “There will be different ways I could go, whether that's down the media route, as I've done a few things on that side, or coaching, because I've been doing my badges, it'll be one of the two things. 

“If it was coaching, as long as I don't get someone like me I will be alright!”