Exclusive Interview: John O'Kane
John O’Kane was part of a special group of players at a special time, but unlike some of the more famous members of the Class of 92, he was unable to cement a regular first team place at Manchester United before carving out a decent career in the Football League.
Born in Nottingham, John was spotted by United legend Nobby Stiles and signed for the club as a trainee in the early nineties. He soon made it into the FA Youth Cup side where he found himself playing alongside the likes of Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, David Beckham and Ryan Giggs in probably the best youth team the club has ever produced.
The talented young team beat all comers to win the competition in 1992 with John scoring a close-range shot in one of the earlier rounds in a 3-1 win over Manchester City at Maine Road: “I only vaguely remember my goal against City, but any goal against the noisy neighbours is pretty good.
“It was great to be part of a good side with a great team spirit and plenty of talent. Even today, recognition for what we achieved still lives on for the future generations and the main highlight for myself was when the referee blew the whistle in the final against Palace and we knew we’d won the cup.
“Playing in the same team with the likes of Beckham and Giggs was a great experience and they are all exceptionally talented sportsmen. With the others they’ve gone on to form the ‘famous six’, from the Class of 92 and have achieved lots together.”
When asked if John saw his former teammates as superstars he said: ”I don’t see them as stars really, it was great to play with them and we were all good work mates who had each other’s back on and off the pitch.
“Eric Harrison, our coach will always be a big inspiration. He was knowledgeable, very direct and he knew how to get the best out of us every single day. I’m not sure that some of his coaching methods would be okay nowadays but it certainly worked for us!
“It’s very hard to say who the best player was at that time because we all had different qualities that made us a decent team. I’d probably say Ryan Giggs, he was a year older and sometimes just unplayable because of that.
“There was also another lad called Adrian Doherty who was a little bit older as well. He was probably as good as Ryan and was lightning. Very quick and for a small winger absolutely fearless. He was also quite eccentric from what I recall.”
John’s first team debut came a couple of years later on 21st September 1994 in a League Cup tie at Port Vale, coming on as a substitute for Gary Neville. Paul Scholes also made his debut that night and scored twice as United ran out 2-1 winners in a game where Fergie’s Fledglings really began to hit the headlines.
He made his first start a couple of weeks later in the return game at Old Trafford which United won 2-0 thanks to goals from Brian McClair and David May: “I don’t remember too much of my debut other than knowing it was a massive honour to play for United. I was young, talented and it felt good.
“If you can imagine running out at Old Trafford at such a young age I had a mix of emotions but it was mainly excitement.”
Of the man who gave him his chance at the club, John has great respect for Sir Alex Ferguson and his achievements in the game: “Sir Alex was a great man manager, especially for the Class of 92. He treated us like we were his own and his eye for detail was exceptional.
“His achievements as a manager have been the best and I thoroughly respect him for what he has done over the years.”
From making his debut, John was on the fringes of the first team for the next three years during a period of great success for the club. He accumulated a total of seven competitive first team appearances and a host of memories along the way: “One that stands out in particular was when me and David Beckham were selected for the first team’s tour to South Africa, we met Nelson Mandela and played in front of a massive crowd which was a euphoric moment that I’ll never forget.
“My European debut was also special and I played in the opening day defeat to Aston Villa where Alan Hansen said on Match of the Day that night those now famous words you can’t win anything with kids.”
John left Old Trafford in early 1998 in search of regular first team football which he found for a time at Everton. Spells with Burnley, Bolton and Blackpool followed before he finished his career at Hyde United. He has just launched AOK Soccer School, with the aim to pass on some of the lessons and values learnt during his career as well to aid kids’ enjoyment of the game.
“I was coasting at United and was offered a new contract. I needed to play so Sir Alex advised me to take the opportunity and go and play for Everton where I played regular Premier League football for the rest of the season and we stayed up on the last day.
“I had a great time at United and my ability wasn’t in question. I just wish I’d had the same drive as Giggsy or David Beckham but I just didn’t love football as much as them.
“I still follow and support them now, once you’ve been there for a while it becomes part of your DNA and I have some great memories there too.”