Why Josh Harrop Gambled On Preston Being A Better Bet Than Old Trafford

Why Josh Harrop Gambled On Preston Being A Better Bet Than Old Trafford

Monday, 5 February, 2018 - 06:30
Josh Harrop is enjoying life with Preston North End in the Championship. ‘I needed to get out and prove myself,’ says the 22-year-old midfielder. Photograph: Richard Sellers/PA Wire/PA Images
London - Ben Fisher
Fifteen minutes into his Manchester United debut he raced on to a nonchalant outside-of-the-boot pass by Paul Pogba, bamboozling Martin Kelly, the Crystal Palace defender, before wrapping his right foot round the ball and lashing it beyond the powerless Wayne Hennessey. For Josh Harrop the rest is history. He left Old Trafford 33 days later, rejecting a new three-year contract in favour of a move to Preston North End.

The midfielder turned 22 in December and to say it was a big decision is probably an understatement. A Stockport boy on United’s books since the age of seven, he left after impressing on his first start and scoring a goal that in some ways was more than 14 years in the making.

He concedes how the euphoria surrounding that unforgettable May afternoon last year and the praise that followed it made the conundrum even trickier, recalling the goose bumps as he walked out of the tunnel and the cramps in his legs after wheeling away towards the corner flag to the left of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. “It was a massive decision and the Palace goal was a great thing for me and my family, especially coming on my debut, and it was not easy to leave after that,” he says. “It was the team I was at all of my life, so the few days after were a bit of blur, really.”

The precursor to an unforgettable debut was an emphatic hat-trick for the reserves, at the same venue, against Tottenham Hotspur five days earlier, in front of José Mourinho and his assistants, Silvino Louro and Rui Faria. “Mourinho asked me if I was ready,” Harrop says, his reply a given. “He was a fine guy if I wanted to go to speak to him but I’m not really like that. I would rather just play my football.”

He weighed up his future and the likelihood of first-team chances over conversations with Nicky Butt, the United academy manager whom he credits with “stepping up his game” and fitness levels, John Alexander, the club’s former secretary, plus team-mates and friends, including the reserves’ goalkeeper, Kieran O’Hara. The verdict was that few opportunities were likely to be granted.

But most pertinently Harrop spoke with his parents, Andy and Nicola. “I take their words very wisely,” he says. “They have done a lot of miles and put a lot of work to get me where I am and obviously without their time and effort I wouldn’t be here. My dad thought it was the right thing to do. He thought I needed to get out and prove myself and do it where I’m going to be seen."

Harrop refers to the rapid ascent of Tammy Abraham, on loan at Bristol City last season, and John Swift, a former England Under-20 team-mate, who has made a splash at Reading since opting to walk out on Chelsea in 2016. This season Tom Lawrence, whom he regularly played alongside for the reserves at United, is making quite a dent at Derby County. “There are a few out there, who have made the step into the Championship and are doing well,” Harrop says, adding the second tier is “totally different” from the world of under-23s football.

Some of Harrop’s friends and former team-mates, namely Scott McTominay and Axel Tuanzebe, have been afforded the odd opportunity by Mourinho this season, albeit predominantly in cup competitions. Tuanzebe dropped into the second tier last week after joining Aston Villa on loan until May. “It’s brilliant for the lads,” he says. “It could have been a route for me; I don’t know to be honest. It’s great for them and they’re doing really well but my decision to leave was based on coming to get experience. I feel it’s definitely been the right decision.”

What would his message be to any peers reluctant to make a similar jump? “I feel like some players find it hard to move on from a club they have been at for years, which is understandable. Some find it hard, being young, to make that step. I feel if you’ve got a strong mentality and you are confident, that’s the main thing. If you believe in your ability, it doesn’t matter where you’re playing.”

Leaving his boyhood club also meant moving out of the family home, a short drive from United’s Carrington training complex. After initially travelling in from Manchester, Harrop now lives in an apartment in Worsley, while he looks for a house, sharing lifts to training with the midfielder Ben Pearson, another former United academy graduate. But which home comforts does he miss most? “My mum cooking my teas – she does a good chicken stir fry. I’m getting used to it now,” he says, breaking into laughter. “But that was a big shock at first.”

Harrop is one of three former United players in Alex Neil’s squad, Pearson and Marnick Vermijl being the others, and has quickly slotted into a an intriguing mixture of young players determined to make the grade, such as Alan Browne or Callum Robinson, and experienced campaigners, including the captain, Tom Clarke.

A 3-0 victory over Nottingham Forest on Tuesday night moved Preston to within touching distance of the top six, so what can they achieve under Neil? “We are looking to get into the play-offs and there is no reason we cannot get promotion,” Harrop says. “We want to improve and we feel like we have got a chance. Anything’s realistic; it’s football at the end of the day.”

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