This is the tale of how a 21 year old from York took a free kick for Manchester United.
Peter Schmeichel was the first truly great goalkeeper of the Premier League era. Before De Gea, Cech, Van Der Sar and even David Seaman, the big angry Dane was indisputably the number one keeper in the league and, with Buffon still 4 years away from his debut when Schmeichel joined United, possibly the world.
When he went into semi-retirement after winning the treble in 1999, United had a huge gap to fill. Alex Ferguson had done well so far replacing big players, making some key signings and bringing through the best crop of young players in recent English history. Keane replaced Robson. Beckham replaced Kanchelskis. Gary Neville replaced Paul Parker. Sheringham replaced Cantona. That said, where exactly do you go from the best in the world in his position?
Mark Bosnich, apparently. When he signed on a free after seven years at Aston Villa he became the only player Fergie ever signed twice for Manchester United. It would turn out disastrously, with Bosnich clearly unfit. He appeared just over 20 times that season, leading to the panic signing of the notorious Massimo Taibi and plenty of play time for Raimond van der Gouw.
A constant during all this turmoil was a young goalkeeper called Nick Culkin. Signed from his local side York City as a kid, Culkin was a talented but raw goalkeeper. He was the side's third choice keeper, the role filled these days by Joel Perreira or Sam Johnstone when he's not out on loan. He would travel Europe in that capacity as a squad member in case one of the established keepers would get injured in training and he would be needed to sit on the bench.
Sitting on the bench is pretty much all he did for United, and the stars aligned for him in August 1999, just a few months after the treble win. With Bosnich not yet fit and Taibi not yet signed, he got the call to sit on the Highbury bench for United's game with Arsenal with Van Der Gouw starting.
Arsenal at the turn of the millennium were a different beast to the soft-bellied, fragile side Wenger has allowed them to devolve into. With the snarling but graceful Vieira, the cultured Petit and the brilliance of Bergkamp and Henry they were genuine contenders for domestic and European glory year in, year out. Their rivalry with United was incredibly heated, fueled by the rivalry between Keane and Vieira, and their games rarely disappointed.
Freddy Ljungberg had fired Arsenal into a 1-0 half time lead, but two goals from Keane, the second two minutes from time, had put United on top. Arsenal were pressing for an equalizer, and deep in injury time Martin Keown had come up from the back.
Keown was a proper defender, if you will. Big, hard and great in the air, but a good reader of the game and deceptively quick. With only 4 goals in his Arsenal career, however, he was hardly prolific even by the standards of a center half.
The ball came in, Matthew Upson (yes, THAT Matthew Upson) headed the ball towards the goal and Van Der Gouw claimed it in a 50/50 with Keown. In the process the Dutch keeper got a heavy whack to the head and, after treatment, was found unable to continue. Enter Culkin.
This was the culmination of four years hard work at the club. With a few minutes left, Arsenal pressing for an equalizer backed by a raucous Highbury crowd and the possibility he was playing for a place in the team, Culkin was focused as he stepped up to restart the game. He'd need to keep it solid for a few minutes, command the defense, make a save or two.
His free kick arced high into the North London sky. Before it bounced, Graham Poll blew the final whistle. Van Der Gouw would return for the game against Coventry three days later. Culkin would never play for Manchester United again. Here is a video of Nick Culkin's entire Premiership career.
. The couple of seconds between him kicking the ball and the final whistle blowing constitute the shortest Premier League career of all time.
The goalkeeper situation wouldn't improve that season. Post Schmeichel, Culkin would join Bosnich, Van Der Gouw, Taibi, Rachubka, Barthez, Goram, Carroll, Ricardo and Tim Howard before the eventual arrival of Edwin Van Der Sar a few years later. He would end up having a similar influence to Schmeichel, and United wouldn't try and replace him on the cheap, splashing out on David De Gea when he eventually retired.
Culkin would only play professionally up to the age of 26, albeit that did include around 100 games
in the Football League. A knee injury ended things for him and, without enough money to be comfortable, he now
works as a gardener
owns a gardening business in Manchester.
You'd be forgiven for having completely forgotten Nick by 2014, but he had one trick left in his locker; thanks to the one appearance he made for the upstart club that year, he is the only player (to my knowledge) to have played a
league game for both Manchester United and FC United of Manchester. Edit:
Turns out that a guy called Phil Marsh
played once in the League Cup for United and also turned out for FCUM. Credit to buymepizza
for the find. I don't remember this game very clearly because I was out on a date with a crazy girl with massive boobs and didn't watch it. Kieran Lee scored the winner for United deep in extra time. The United team that day was Kuszczak, Gray (Sub: Lee), Brown, Silvestre, Heinze, Marsh (Sub: Barnes, Sub: Ryan Shawcross), David Jones, Ritchie Jones, Richardson, Smith, Solskjaer.