Loved this article.
I thought he was good for us. He has a bad rep from a lot of blues, and I could never work out why.
Seems like a nice bloke too.
They called him “Spaceman” because he seemed to be out there in a world of his own. Laid-back? In the eyes of his team-mates at Manchester United, John O’Kane was horizontal, drifting through life at his own pace. “Earth to O’Kane. Do you read me?”
He remembers “zoning out” while sitting in Brian Clough’s office as the great man urged him to sign apprentice forms at Nottingham Forest. It was no different when Manchester United came calling. “I had no idea who Alex Ferguson was,” he says. “People were saying to me, ‘Manchester United! Biggest club in the world! You’ve got to sign for them!’. I was like, ‘Oh right’. I had no idea. I was just a kid who played on the street and played for a local team. I didn’t know anything about football. I just played it.”
O’Kane really could play. Even among United’s famed Class of ’92, the defender stood out as one of those most likely to make the grade. “I was as good as any of them,” he says. “Obviously not Giggsy (Ryan Giggs) because he was a freak, but I could hold my own with anyone.”
That included his room-mate, David Beckham. “I always knew Becks would make it,” he says. “We were in digs together so I knew what his mentality was like. He was a born winner. But Scholesy (Paul Scholes) at that point was really small. I’m not saying he wasn’t good, but he didn’t stand out for the first two years. He was a tiny, scruffy little thing, like a park player. He was never fit and his work rate wasn’t great. And then I remember an A team game against Liverpool where something just clicked with him — and wow, what a player.”
And then there was Gary Neville. “Gary wasn’t that good at 15, 16, 17,” O’Kane says. “You could see the determination and the fire in him, but he wasn’t technically good. He knew he wasn’t as good technically as the rest of us in that team, but he worked on his game and I admire him for that. He had that different side. That mental side. I didn’t have that.”
O’Kane laughs at just how “zoned-out” he was. His team-mates were terrified of Ferguson, but the legendary “hairdryer treatment” did not affect the young defender — not even on one infamous occasion when the manager arrived at Lee Sharpe’s house to break up a party.
“If Fergie was telling me off, I would just be thinking… not in a bad way, but I knew he couldn’t get into my head,” he says. “No one could get into that brain. It didn’t affect me the way it would affect the other lads. I was wired differently.
“I would be in the manager’s office nearly every day saying, ‘Why am I not in the first team?’. He’d say, ‘John, you’ve just got to sort that out (pointing to his head) and you’re in my first team. That’s all that’s stopping you.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, cause I’m ####ing not right, am I? That’s why’.”
When O’Kane was approached about the idea of writing an autobiography, his initial response was one of bewilderment. Gradually, though, he was persuaded that he had a story to tell. And central to that story is his “otherness”, which is not just about being laid-back or supposedly indifferent to his craft, but about being a professional footballer on the autistic spectrum.
The result is Bursting The Bubble: Football, Autism and Me, in which the 45-year-old starts by saying, “I played football for the biggest club in the world, but you probably don’t remember me.” He certainly isn’t one for talking up a career that amounted to seven first-team appearances at Old Trafford before moving on to Everton, Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool and retiring at the age of 28, completely disillusioned with the game and the business around it.
O’Kane is not alone in feeling he had the talent to be a top-class player. What he didn’t have, he knows now, are the other attributes that would have helped him to get the most out of his talent. And that wasn’t a question of choice — or, as Neville once suggested, of “cowering at the thought of giving his all for the club”. O’Kane simply didn’t have the tools, mentally or neurologically, to do what Neville did.
It was only in later years, since hanging up his boots, that O’Kane was told he was on the autistic spectrum. “But I knew from an early age there was something,” he tells The Athletic. “I used to blink and twitch a lot. Back in the day, no one knew what it was. I sort of kept it under control most of the time, but I’ve always known something wasn’t right.”
O’Kane believes he had several team-mates during his career who might have one or other signs of autism, but he can’t be sure. The fact is that around 1.1 per cent of the UK population is on the autistic spectrum, whether diagnosed or not, and there are not known to be many professional athletes in that number.
The National Autistic Society cites Jessica-Jane Applegate, the Paralympic swimming gold medalist, as a rare example of a British professional athlete who has spoken about living with autism. The charity is delighted to hear of O’Kane’s candour in sharing his story.
“It’s different for everyone, but to me, it feels like… pressure,” O’Kane says. “It’s a chemical imbalance and it can cause a build-up of pressure in your head. I used to flick my right leg up all the time because I needed to have that feeling of my calf straining. I felt I needed to do a certain movement and I wouldn’t be satisfied until I’d done it.”
The “Spaceman” label was misleading. Yes, there were times when he would “zone out”, leaving his various managers exasperated by how laid-back he appeared. But there were other times when he would find himself driven to distraction by whatever was going on inside his head and his body. The focus that came so naturally to Neville, Beckham, Giggs and others was alien to him.
“I wasn’t wired to be like those lads who just lived and breathed football,” he says. “It just wasn’t in me to do it. I knew I was a good player, but it’s the other side, a mixture of the mental and the body. It’s hard trying to control your body and tell it, ‘Don’t do that’. It makes you want to do it more.
“Nobody knew the struggles I had to live with just to try to control myself and train every day at the biggest club in the world. I’d try to hold it in, but I had so much to think about apart from just playing football. It was a massive strain.”
First came victory in the FA Youth Cup final in 1992. Then, one by one, O’Kane and most of his team-mates were invited to take the plunge into United’s first team. Ferguson wanted to see how they coped. Neville, Nicky Butt, Beckham, Giggs and Scholes adapted successfully. Keith Gillespie did well but was reluctantly sacrificed in the deal to sign Andy Cole from Newcastle United. Chris Casper and Ben Thornley were thwarted by injury. O’Kane was the one who found the most mental adjustment the most difficult.
“It was surreal,” O’Kane says of the experience of playing alongside Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane and Eric Cantona. “I didn’t put them up there (on a pedestal). They were just normal men to me. But at the same time, it’s a big thing, isn’t it? I only played a handful of games, but there was one where I remember warming up, pinging balls with Scholesy, thinking, ‘#### me. What am I doing here? I’ve got to play a game here today’. It’s crazy when you think about it.”
The United youth team of 1990 (Photo: Getty Images)
It helps explain the contradiction between the laid-back appearance and the chronic nerves O’Kane felt in the build-up to certain matches. It wasn’t the classic pre-match nerves: doubting his ability, being overawed by the occasion or worrying about making a mistake. If anything, he felt casual about that side of his job. “It was more about myself and what sort of tic might come out today and thinking, ‘Right, you’ve got to control yourself’, and then — duh-duh-duh — there’d be this constant build-up in my head,” he says.
It came to a head in the fifth of his seven appearances for United: at home to Rotor Volgograd in the UEFA Cup in September 1995. He was picked to start at right-back, which had become his favoured position. But having played left-back in the reserves over the previous few weeks, he felt deeply unsettled by the prospect. The tics and the twitches got worse than ever, so to calm himself down, he had a brainwave: shortly before kick-off, he asked Ferguson to switch him to the left-hand side instead.
“Classic. Who does that? Who does that?” O’Kane laughs, shaking his head. “I can see him in the doorway now and I’m saying to him, ‘Gaffer, I’m not happy playing right-back’. I was a right-back anyway. What was I thinking? He actually agreed to it because Phil Neville was good on either side. I just wish he (Ferguson) had told me their right winger was their best player.”
Volgograd rushed into a 2-0 lead, with Valery Yesipov having a field day on the right wing, and O’Kane lasted just 26 minutes before Ferguson put him out of his misery. His United career — arguably his entire career — never recovered. “Killed myself, didn’t I?” O’Kane says. “It sums me up.
“Did I bottle it? I don’t know. It was on TV, under the lights and all that. I might have bottled it. He (Yesipov) was really fast, but the real problem that night was that my legs didn’t feel right. I felt like I was playing in quicksand. I remember just passing it back, putting Pally (Gary Pallister) under pressure. Normally I was quite attacking, but I could hardly see a pass that day. It was scary.”
So when Neville recalls his FA Youth Cup-winning team-mate “cowering” on the big stage at Old Trafford, he is possibly right about that particular occasion. But the reality was more complicated than he or anyone else at United imagined. “They didn’t know the struggles I had to live with every day just to control it and try to play football,” O’Kane says. “It’s not easy.”
That was meant to be O’Kane’s breakthrough season at Old Trafford — the way it was for the Neville brothers, Butt, Beckham and Scholes. But Volgograd raised serious doubts that he was never able to overcome. There were two more appearances for United a year later, as well as spells on loan to Bury (twice) and Bradford City, before he was sold to Everton.
Goodison Park was far from a happy place in the late 1990s, but O’Kane says, “I loved it when I went to Everton. Howard Kendall was brilliant. He gave me the freedom and the confidence just to go and play.
“I remember the game where we drew with Coventry on the last day of the season to stay up (in 1998). The celebrations at the end were more relief than anything. It was really really tense that day, but I didn’t feel that nervy, twitchy thing then because I felt settled. Howard Kendall made me feel strong, wanted. I don’t think I ever had this anywhere else, but I felt like I wanted to do it for the manager. That wasn’t like me. I would normally do just enough, but for him, I wanted to do that extra bit.”
O’Kane tackles Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in his Everton days (Photo: Mike Egerton/EMPICS via Getty Images)
Walter Smith, who replaced Kendall that summer, was a different matter. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘I’ve heard you’re a lazy bastard’,” he says. “He might have been saying it as a joke, I don’t know, but I just saw red. It dragged me down straight away.
“I shouldn’t have been like that. But it’s an O’Kane thing. You don’t talk down to an O’Kane. Or if you do, you’ll get the same back. And that doesn’t work, does it? It’s an authority thing with me. I find it hard to take. I know you’ve got to do it in life, especially in football, but it feels weird to kiss people’s arses. I can’t do it.”
He wonders whether growing up estranged from his father might have made him more questioning of the male authority figures in his life. Or at least whether having a father figure might have protected him from some of his excesses and impulses. Neville was from a sport-mad family and his father was a director at Bury, where his mother was the club secretary. O’Kane’s mother worked around the clock in various factory jobs and was fiercely protective, but she had no understanding of the football industry. Neither did he.
From that promising start at Everton, things unravelled. O’Kane was sold to Bolton Wanderers, where again he made an encouraging start only to lose his way and fall out with Sam Allardyce. It was similar at Blackpool, where he helped them win promotion and the EFL Trophy, only to fall out with manager Steve McMahon the following season. “The same pattern again and again,” he says. “Maybe it was just boredom. It found it monotonous.”
He is unsure whether he ever loved being a professional footballer, but his dispiriting second season at Blackpool, after diminishing returns at Everton and then Bolton, drained him of what little enthusiasm remained. His form suffered and it reached a nadir when he found himself the target of derision for Blackpool’s supporters.
“They were booing me,” he says. “It was, ‘#### off, you. Get back to Man United’. I’m at Blackpool, mate. I’m not going back to Man United now, am I? The booing made me angry. I was demanding the ball like a madman. I remember demanding the ball, pinging this 60-yard pass and turning around and asking this fella in the crowd, ‘Is that all right for you?’.
“In a way, you’ve got to be angry to get up for it at that level. You’ve got to be on it all the time. They saw that chilled-out look, where I look like I’m doing my own thing, and they didn’t like it, especially when the team wasn’t playing well. You’ve got to be 100 miles per hour at that level. I wasn’t that player.”
It all caught up with him that evening. He burst into tears on the drive home from Bloomfield Road. He wasn’t mourning the career he could have had — or the sight of his contemporaries helping United win yet another Premier League title that season before Beckham, now one of the most famous men on the planet, moved to Real Madrid. O’Kane just felt worn down by the pressure, the anxiety and the constant demands to conform with other people’s expectations of him.
He ended up dropped, consigned to “the bomb squad”, and played just one more game in professional football, a 3-0 defeat at Cheltenham Town. He doesn’t even remember it. He just recalls feeling, aged 28, that he had had enough.
“I was probably having a bit of a breakdown,” he says. “ All those years and it had just built up. It’s hard to determine whether you’re depressed or sad. It was more the football side, day after day. I was just so bored of it. The same pattern again and again.
O’Kane’s spell at Blackpool under McMahon was not a happy one (Photo: Barrington Coombs/EMPICS via Getty Images)
“Football is brutal. It’s horrible. If you’re in that bomb squad and they don’t want you, they just treat you like shit and try to wear you down. ‘Are you going to sign your (release) forms today? No? Right, same again tomorrow’.”
“In the end, I went in and said, ‘It’s done, isn’t it? Just give it us. I’ll sign’. I was done. I couldn’t be arsed anymore. I was 28. It’s horrendous thinking about that now. What was I doing? And that’s where, again, it might have been different if I’d had a dad there saying, ‘John, what are you doing? Go and get another club’. But no, I’d had enough.”
If you ask O’Kane when he was happiest as a footballer, his response is quite telling. It was when playing non-League for Hyde United when he was working all week on a building site. “That’s where I played some of my best football,” he says. “It was back to playing for enjoyment again without the pressure of playing professionally.”
He enjoyed being an apprentice at Manchester United too. Not every training session and definitely not the menial jobs — cleaning the dressing rooms, the gym and the senior players’ boots — but unlike many players of that generation, he loved life in digs. He relished those nights out with Sharpe and Giggs at Discotheque Royale, sometimes even when he had an “A” team match the next day.
He thinks back to those innocent days when he first moved up to Manchester, sharing a room with Beckham. “We were best mates and we lived in each other’s pockets,” he says. “Even then, he used to spend an hour on his hair before training and his clothes had to be folded perfectly. We did everything together. We were really good mates.
“And then after about three years, you could tell football was getting a bit more serious for Becks and I got the impression he was told to steer away from me. I wasn’t a bad kid — I was just happy-go-lucky — but you could tell I wasn’t 100 per cent focused on football. And it didn’t do him any harm really, did it?”
There was a reunion for the Class of ’92 documentary film in 2013. It was great to catch up with old friends, but there were aspects of the project that irked O’Kane. “It wasn’t about the Class of ’92,” he says. “It was about those six. It felt like the rest of us were making up the numbers while those six sat on the stage answering questions. Don’t worry, I totally get it, but it’s the title. The Class of ’92 was the team that won the Youth Cup. And Phil Neville was nothing to do with it!”
O’Kane’s friends — his real friends — rib him that Gary Neville stole his career and his best mate: “That should be you up there on Sky Sports!” But he says he was ecstatic, watching in a pub, when Neville and Beckham helped United win the Champions League in 1999. Even by that relatively early stage, he had accepted his football journey was going to be a different one.
That was the point he later made to Neville when they clashed on social media a couple of years ago on the subject of the Glazer family’s ownership. Neville questioned the discrepancy between the O’Kane “who is a Twitter warrior and represents the fans with all his heart” and the O’Kane “that cowered at the thought of giving his all for the club and was unprofessional while wearing the shirt”.
“Some make it at United, Gaz. Some don’t. We all have different paths. I’ve found mine now!” O’Kane tweeted before signing off in fairly blunt terms.
Four years ago, before the 25th anniversary of that FA Youth Cup triumph, the Class of ’92 were invited to Old Trafford to pay tribute to Eric Harrison and Nobby Stiles, two of their coaches in their youth-team days. Both Harrison and Stiles were at an advanced stage of dementia at that stage and it was an emotional afternoon for all concerned.
It was also an opportunity for O’Kane to see Ferguson again. But to his horror, his wife Simone got to him first. “She had a right go at him,” he laughs. “She had a go at Jim Ryan as well, saying, ‘Why didn’t you do more to help John? He was struggling with his autism. Why wasn’t he given more help?’. That was a bit awkward. Bloody hell, Simone.
“I always had a good relationship with Fergie. I don’t know why, but I apologised to him. I said, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t give you my all when I was here. My head wasn’t right. I’m sorry’. It just came out. ‘Why am I saying that? Why am I apologising?’. It’s a difficult one because I know that in my own way I did give my all.
“Fergie was great. He just said, ‘Don’t worry, John. You don’t need to apologise for anything. Yes, you were good enough, but it just wasn’t for you. It doesn’t work out for everyone’.”
As much as he knew that, O’Kane welcomed those sentiments. It felt like closure. As he said to Neville, everyone has a different path. And after years of drifting unhappily through the football industry, O’Kane had finally found his.
He didn’t enjoy being a footballer. But he loves working in care, helping youngsters, some of whom are on the autistic spectrum. “It felt like I was giving something back to society,” he says. “For a former professional footballer, it’s probably the last thing people would have expected me to go into. The number of times people found out and asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?’.
“My answer was always the same: ‘Why shouldn’t I be doing this? I’ve got another 40 or 50 years of my life where I need to do something’. I’ve worked 18-hour shifts, wiping backsides, and gained more self-worth and respect from my family than I ever got from football.”
Some United fans see O’Kane’s output on Twitter — frequently critical of the Glazers, far more sceptical of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer than his contemporaries, even daring to ask whether Bruno Fernandes might need to add more to his game — and accuse him of being “bitter” towards the club. “I’m not bitter at all,” he says. “What would I be bitter about? I support Manchester United. I don’t support the owners, but I support the team and the club.
“You can see something is happening with Ole, but he’s got to win something this year. Lovely guy, beautiful person, but there has got to be a title challenge. You can’t keep living off 1999. It’s not personal if I say that. It’s just my opinion. Same as I don’t want to see McFred (Scott McTominay and Fred) in midfield. Same as I say Bruno has to stop trying to be a hero every time. Eric Harrison would say, ‘Stop playing them Hollywood balls all the time. Play it simple’. Again, just my opinion. I’m not angry or bitter about anything.”
We are back to labels: from “You’re lazy” to “You’re bitter”. O’Kane feels that both misrepresent him. Some labels he will accept, but not those.
“The fact is, I wasn’t wired to be a professional footballer,” he says. “I was probably too much of a free spirit. To me, it was a sideshow, a job, something I was good at. In football, you can’t be like that. You’ve got to be 100 per cent on it and go that extra inch every time. In other words, you’ve got to be Gary Neville rather than John O’Kane.
“I was never jealous of Gary Neville or anyone else. I was always buzzing for Gaz or Butty or Becks or Scholesy when they were playing. I loved watching United play. I still do now. I prefer watching them to playing for them.”
That is quite an admission — and an important reminder that “living the dream” is not for everyone.
“I’m happy having a normal life and being to do stuff with my kids,” he says. “I don’t need loads of money. I’ve got a home, got a car, my kids are fed. What more do I need? People go, ‘Yeah, but you could have had more’. Who cares?! It’s my life! Why should anyone else get upset about what I didn’t do?
“Imagine being in that team in 1999. It would have been amazing. But you can’t hold onto what might have been. It would kill you. It is what it is. It’s life. And we’re not all made the same.”