Hibs new boy Jonathan Spector on how Manchester United superstars helped shape his career
Jonathan Spector vividly remembers his first day as a youngster at Manchester United. As he was coming out of the reserve team changing-room, he bumped into Ruud van Nistelrooy but, rather than ignore the newcomer, the Dutch legend came over to introduce himself.
It was a gesture which left the teenager stunned but also a moment which, he admits, has helped shape a career in which he has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in the game.
At Old Trafford for three years between 2003 and 2006, he enjoyed the company of players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and the Neville brothers Gary and Phil, to name but a few. Teddy Sheringham, Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano and Freddie Ljungberg were team-mates at West Ham United and, latterly, with Orlando City, Brazilian star Kaka shared the same dressing-room.
Spector also played with perhaps lesser luminaries but, nevertheless, familiar names to Scottish football fans while with Birmingham City during 15 years playing on this side of the Atlantic, former Hibs players David Murphy, Jonathan Grounds and Andrew Shinnie, along with Hearts goalkeeper Colin Doyle and ex-Jambo Morgaro Gomis.
But it was those formative years playing under Sir Alex Ferguson which continue to be his guiding light.
“There have been a few good ones,” conceded a player who also won 36 caps for the United States. “I have been incredibly fortunate to play with some of the best players who have ever played the game – and to learn from them.
“Being at Manchester United in particular, I wasn’t just learning from the manager and the coaching staff. It’s incredible how willing a lot of those players were to lend their expertise and help guide me on my career.
“That’s something now, at my age, hopefully I can also do for the younger generation.”
Ferdinand and Mikael Sylvestre were two picked out in particular by Spector as fellow defenders but, he revealed, there was a humility within Sir Alex’s changing-room. “They were really down to earth, nice individuals and one of the reasons that club was so successful.
“I remember my first day and running into Ruud van Nistelrooy in the hallway. He came up to me to introduce himself. I was like ‘I know exactly who you are, I should be introducing myself to you’.”
Admitting it would be easy to name Ronaldo as the best he had played with, Spector said: “To be honest, I’d have to say Paul Scholes. Watching him in training, I don’t remember him ever giving the ball away. He was always a step ahead of, certainly me, but it felt like he was a step ahead of everyone else on the pitch.
“It was just so impressive to see how he played, how his mind worked and how the positioned himself.
“He was incredibly humble too. But that’s something I found at Manchester United. I think the manager did a good job of finding great players who were good people too.”
Sir Alex and his captain Keane may often have been portrayed as scary characters, but Spector insisted the Scottish manager was simply outstanding at dealing with his players as individuals.
“They were blunt, they were honest and those were things I respected,” he said of the pair. “I remember I had been training and travelling with the first team. Not playing, but occasionally I was on the bench.
“There was one game when I was playing in the reserves. I think it was at Middlesbrough in midweek and, to be fair, I had a poor game. I was playing against Adam Johnson, who was flying at the time, coming through the reserves into the first team.
“I was back with the first team that weekend, but wasn’t on the bench for the game.
“The manager pulled me aside after the team talk and said ‘Spector, you were absolutely useless the other night’. I was like ‘Yeah, I know. It won’t happen again’. That’s all he needed to say to me.
“I know he had a reputation for really getting into players, but he never did that with me. That’s something that struck me at the time. He knew how to get the best out of each individual.
“He didn’t treat everyone exactly the same, he knew the individual, how that individual responded and, at a young age, I found that impressive from someone like that.
“I’ve never played for anyone that has understood that or enacted that better than Sir Alex Ferguson. Looking back now, as a young player I probably did not fully understand and appreciate it. But after working under a number of managers, with different styles, his approach is something that I would try to emulate if I go into management.
“I was incredibly fortunate to learn from arguably the best manager in the world – at any sport.”
Signing for Manchester United, making his debut and playing in the Champions League for them along with playing for the United States – winning the Gold Cup, beating Mexico in the final in 2007 and being part of his country’s World Cup squad in South Africa three years later – are, naturally, moments that stand out for Spector.
But, he revealed, basketball was his first love, his grandfather Art having played for the Boston Celtics.
He said: “I never thought that growing up in Chicago that this would be my life for so long. I wanted to be a professional sportsman, but actually basketball because of my grandfather.
“I just wasn’t good enough so I had to play soccer instead. I was passionate about soccer as well. My mother was born in Germany and I grew up with that background and that sport in my life. It’s taken me all over the world and I’ve been very fortunate in that regard.”
Spector may yet have to pull on a green-and-white shirt but he and his wife Olivia fell in love with Edinburgh during a visit a few years ago.
He said: “It’s a kind of romantic city in a lot of ways, the old town, the new town, the cobbled streets, the castle.”
JONATHAN SPECTOR – THE FACTS
March 1, 1986: Born Arlington Heights, Illinois.
2003: Joins Manchester United aged 17. He makes eight first-team appearances for club but lines up 24 times for Charlton during loan spell at The Valley.
2004: Earns first cap for the United States in a World Cup qualifier against Jamaica.
2006: Signs for West Ham United in £500,000 deal and goes on to make 115 appearances for the Hammers scoring five goals.
2007: Part of USA team that wins CONCACAF Gold Cup.
2010: Included in USA squad for 2010 World Cup finals but doesn’t feature in South Africa.
2011: Signs for Birmingham City where he spends five-and-a-half years. Spector plays for the Blues 180 times and scores one goal. During his spell, City play in Europe for the first time with Spector facing Portuguese club Nacional in the Europa League play-off round.
2015: Wins 36th USA cap in friendly against Brazil.
2017: Returns to the United States to play for MLS side Orlando City. In his second season, he replaces Brazilian legend Kaka as captain. At the end of 2018, he becomes free agent.
March 2019: Joins Hibs on short-term deal.