Memory Lane

Sunday 17 November 2013 09:00

This week’s Memory Lane saw us catch up with former Fulham midfielder Jonathan Greening as he looks ahead to his next move in the game.

"He died for our sins, he died for our sins, Jonathan Greening, he died for our sins."

An amusing ditty coined in homage to a Fulham favourite, whose scraggly hair and impressive beard meant he bore more than a striking resemblance to the son of God.

While Greening never quite made the impression in SW6 he had hoped to, he will forever be remembered for his role in helping the Whites to the UEFA Europa League Final.

The midfielder made six starts en route to Hamburg, where he came off the bench late on against Atletico Madrid to some familiar cries.

"I can't remember the song but it was something to do with Jesus," Greening said with a chuckle when reminded of the chant by "The fans were great with me and I think there was another song about being a tramp as well. They were some funny songs and the first year I had there was amazing.

"To finish where we did in the league and to reach the Europa League Final with the squad we had was just an amazing achievement. I don't think many clubs could have done that and that was down to Roy Hodgson and his coaching staff. Everyone pulled together and so did the fans."

The clash with Madrid was the second major European final of Greening's career - one which began in Roy of the Rovers style.

Born and bred in the coastal town of Scarborough, Greening's local team folded at the age of 13 so he had to make do plying his trade in the local Sunday league and for his school side. He was also part of the North Yorkshire county side, which eventually saw him picked up by York City.

"They were in the old Division Two," Greening said. "I was there straight from school on a two-year YTS, earning £32 a week and living in digs with a load of other lads trying to make it. In my first year of the YTS I didn't really play much because I was quite skinny and I was quite small. I sort of didn't grow until I was about 17, so it was the second year I started playing more regularly and the gaffer put me in the first-team squad.

"I was playing in the reserves and stuff like that, then eventually made an appearance in the first team coming off the bench. I scored a couple of goals because I was a striker back in them days and interest started to grow, with Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester United appearing when I was about 18."

That interest was stirred by the impact made during his first steps in league football.

Despite only making five Division Two starts for York, Alex Ferguson liked what he saw and Greening was soon hot-footing it to Manchester for a trial.

"It was just a bit surreal, really," Greening said. "We’d just played Fulham in a league game and I hadn't done that well. The gaffer at the time, Alan Little, hooked us into his office as I was leaving and I thought I was going to get a dressing down.

"He turned around and said, 'how would you like to go to Man U for the week?' I just laughed it off, thinking he was taking the Mickey. But he said, 'no, I’m being serious - Alex Ferguson wants you to go training for week and we are going to give you permission.'

"I didn't have any time to prepare so on the Sunday I went down to Manchester and on the Monday, thinking I would be training with the reserves, I was training with David Beckham, Ryan Giggs and all of them."

It was some company for the teenager, yet he shone during a four-day trial and it wasn’t long until Ferguson signed up the lifelong United fan.

"It was great," he said. "My first game there was with the youth team and we won 4-0 and I scored all four goals. It all went on from there. I made my debut in the League Cup against Bury, which we won and I got man of the match, which was unbelievable. It was just a dream come true. I had been watching all these players on Sky Sports, so to be playing with them was surreal."

Greening became an established part of the United first-team squad, but struggled for regular first-team action. The England Under-21s international was often forced to watch from the bench, although one of those nights on the sidelines will live long in the memory as Greening was part of the United squad that won the UEFA Champions League against Bayern Munich.

"I've still got my medal," Greening said, recalling the 2-1 comeback. "It was unbelievable. I remember the morning of the game there was a snooker table at the hotel where we were having food. I was a half-decent player because I always used to play with my dad when I was little, so Ferguson challenged me to a match. He said, 'if I beat you, you're not on the bench tonight, but if you beat me you are.’

"I was so nervous and he absolutely thrashed me. I didn't know he had his own snooker room in his house. He smiled and winked at me after the frame and said, 'unlucky son' and walked off. I was gutted all afternoon thinking I’d blown it, but turning up to the ground all my kit was laid out. It was unbelievable and a night I’ll never forget."

It was one of the fondest memories of Greening's four years at Old Trafford, which eventually came to an end in 2001. Steve McClaren had left United earlier that summer to become Middlesbrough manager and forked out £3.5m to sign the midfielder and teammate Mark Wilson.

"They had so many world-class players and I knew I would never get a run of games," Greening said of his growing frustrations at Old Trafford. I got to the age of 22 and I spoke to Alex and expressed my wishes to leave and play regular football. I eventually got the move to Middlesbrough and went on to play 106 or 107 games in three years, which is what I needed to get my career started."

Greening shone on Teeside and was voted the club's player of the year in his second season, when he was also called up by England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson for a training get-together.

The midfielder never got a cap but things were looking up, with Middlesbrough winning the League Cup in 2004. That, though, proved to be one of Greening's last major moments in a Boro shirt, as he was sold to Premier League new boys West Bromwich Albion that summer.

It took a lot of persuading to get him there, but Greening thoroughly enjoyed his five topsy-turvy years in the Black Country. A part of the Baggies' famous great escape in his first season, the club eventually went down only for the midfielder to captain the side back to the Premier League in 2008. Again, though, West Brom were relegated and Greening yearned for a new challenge.

"That’s when the move to Fulham came up," he said. "I knew Roy was interested in me in the summer. “We’d just been relegated to the Championship and Fulham were in the Europa League. They spoke to West Brom to see if I was available and it just went from there, really.

"I wanted to play in the Premier League, wanted to have a crack at Europe and it was a great move. I really enjoyed my time at Fulham. I had two great years there and, while I didn't play as much I would like, I loved the Club. It was an amazing Club and the fans were brilliant."

Greening initially moved to Fulham on a season-long loan, although that was made permanent in 2010. He proved a wily addition, with the former Baggies captain making 34 appearances across the competitions as the Whites attempted to juggle domestic and European football in the 2009/10 season.

Greening impressed in the league as Hodgson's side finished 12th, although it was the European campaign that will live long in the memory.

"It was just crazy," he said. "We were so well organised and everybody knew their jobs. We knew we could do it, do you know what I mean? It was a shame to lose in the Final, but if you're going to lose then there aren’t too many better strikers than Sergio Aguero and Diego Forlan.

"I came on in the Final and obviously you want to win, so it was upsetting after. It was a big achievement to get to the Final and I would have liked a bit longer to make an impact, well, longer than two minutes, but it wasn't to be. It was an amazing time and we felt comfortable all the way throughout the competition, really.

"There were some cracking matches and obviously we did well to finish where we did in the Premier League as well because we didn't have a massive squad. It’s a year I’ll never forget because we had a really good team spirit. They were good times.

"Roy was great. He was organised, his coaching sessions were very good. Everybody knew what they were doing. If someone slotted into a position, if someone was injured or suspended, he would just change the team and everybody knew what was required for them. I think that’s why we did so well that year, so fair play to him."

Hodgson would go on to leave that summer to take the reins at Liverpool and Greening dropped down the pecking order under Mark Hughes. Still, the midfielder was enjoying life at Motspur Park and had no intention of leaving until it became clear he was not part of Martin Jol's plans.

That led to a move to Nottingham Forest, where Greening now combines a playing role with coaching. Having taken his UEFA A and B coaching badges in the summer, he now combines his playing career with assisting Ian McParland with the club's Under-21 side.

"Billy Davies has been absolutely terrific since he came back to the club," Greening said.

"He pulled me in and said, 'I know you’re doing your courses, would you like to help take the under-21s to get a bit of experience alongside your playing?'

"I was delighted with it, really, so it has been great so far working with Ian. He’s been teaching me the ins and outs. It’s a bit different to being a player, so it’s quite interesting, so it has been really good stuff."

Greening admits he has ‘got the coaching bug’ now and would like to stay in the game as a coach or manager, although he’s also keen to carry on playing for another season.

It has been quite a career and, while his time by the river only took up a small portion of that, Fulham will always remain close to his heart.

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