If a broken neck didn’t scare Warren, Manchester United certainly don’t

Warren Joyce
Warren Joyce

Warren Joyce is not in the slightest bit fazed at the prospect of returning to Manchester United this weekend with Wigan Athletic.

As someone who played on through a rugby tour of Australia with a broken neck as a kid, he’s not someone who is easily overcome by adversity.

Joyce, of course, enjoyed a fine playing footballing career, including spells with Bolton, Preston and Hull.

What is less known is his talent in other sports, which could easily have seen him represent England at both rugby union and cricket.

“Yeah I captained England at rugby and cricket when I was a kid, at schoolboys level,” revealed Joyce, who was educated at Cowley School in St Helens under the watchful eye of a certain Ray French.

“We actually won the Daily Express team of the year in 1982, the rugby union team.

“Leicester Tigers were third, England’s full team were second, and we were team of the year – we went 40 odd games without conceding a try.

“But on the first game of our tour of Australia, I banged my head and broke my neck...but I didn’t even know about it until we got back.

“I only missed one game on the tour. I played the other 10 with a broken neck.

“I got back and found out about it and it was … I couldn’t play rugby for a few years after that, so I left school and played football.”

That doesn’t mean Joyce has an automatically unsympathetic view of any modern-day players who hit the deck nursing seemingly the mildest of complaints, though.

“Nobody can see pain can they?” acknowledged the 52-year-old.

“If I’d been able to have a scan, then obviously they wouldn’t have let me play, but it wasn’t available so you don’t know.

“You talk about characters you meet or influences like Sir Alex (Ferguson), but my school teacher Ray French...they’re like John Wayne-type characters.

“You’d be ashamed to come off – even with a broken neck.

“You’d be thinking you’d let them down, even coming off with a broken neck!”

Joyce may eventually have plumped for a career the round ball, but he did enjoy his time with the oval ball as well.

“Yeah, I always wanted to be a footballer, football was my first love,” Joyce recognised.

“But I went to a grammar school, and they didn’t play football, it was rugby. They thought football was a soft sport!

“I’d play rugby on the Saturday and then two games of football on Sunday. I grew up like that, I was at grammar school from 11.

“Would Bobby Charlton have been a world class footballer if he was born in Australia?

“No he wouldn’t. He might have been a cricketer or surfer, but not a footballer.

“It depends where you are and what you go into.

“If you looking for people who fast-tracked sides, Ray French must have thought: ‘He’s all right...he’s all right...tell you what, we’ll raise the money and go to Australia in three or four years.

“By the time it got to that stage, there was me playing in the Under-16s, but another five lads playing for England Under-19s, all from the same school.

“We were the scruffs really. To get into those teams when there were some posh schools down south was an achievement in itself, because people didn’t want to pick us.

“Even the way we played we didn’t conform. We ran teams off the pitch – we tackled, we ran, we competed.”

Of the injury itself that almost put paid to any hope of a professional career in sport, Joyce remembers the incident as though it were yesterday.

“I’ve never experienced any pain like it,” he remembered. “They told me later I could have paralysed myself.

“I ended up playing 10 more games over six or seven weeks with a broken neck.

“I was still in discomfort, still had pins and needles down my arms.

“The fracture was not all the way across. I think it was between the fifth and sixth vertebrae.

“If it happened now, the school would have been sued to bits.

“We didn’t have a physio on the tour, never mind a doctor – imagine that now!

“My dad was like: ‘Oh, he’ll be all right’. But I never played rugby again after that.

“I started playing football again seven or eight months later, and four months after that I played in Bolton’s first team.”

It was towards the end of Joyce’s playing career that he first dipped his toes into the world of coaching, at Manchester United.

And it’s being thrown in at the deep end – which included a spell as first-team manager at United’s Belgian partner club, Royal Antwerp – that meant becoming Latics boss in November wasn’t as big a step for him as some might have assumed.

“I probably did it the other way round, really,” Joyce admitted. “I started off at United in 1994, I worked there part-time for six years while I was still a player.

“It’s a much longer association that people realise – I’d been there 18 years in total.

“Then I was straight into managing at Hull, who were bottom of the Football League, 15 points adrift, so your early experiences are harsh.

“Then there was working abroad, and if you look at the passion of the fans at Royal Antwerp, they were absolutely massive fanatics.

“There were flares going off, every game was like a Champions League game.

“You’re away from home and, if you got it wrong, there were people in the car park.

“There were no stewards there. You could draw 0-0, and there would be 600 people in the car park.

“So you’ve already had that, to be fair.”

And Joyce will be instantly transported back to his time in Belgium if and when the United fans sing one of their famous terrace chants on Sunday afternoon.

“You know that song by John Denver: ‘Take me home, Country Roads’ that they sing at Manchester United?” he smiles. “Well I’ve come back from Antwerp, and I take my little lad to a United game.

“The United fans start singing that. And he’s going: ‘Dad. Why are they singing your song?’

“That’s because the words to it in Antwerp were: ‘Warren Joyce, take us home...’

“They made a proper song out of it, sold the thing on a DVD and it got quite high in the Belgian charts!

“You saw them dancing around on the stage, and there’s a guy with a microphone dancing – you can still find it on You Tube!

“And my little lad’s saying: ‘Why are they singing your song here at Old Trafford?

“I said: ‘No, it’s not that song.’ It’s bizarre if you watch it now. Good times.”