Matthew Monaghan had the football world at his feet. He had been signed by Manchester United, captained Wales at three different age groups and likened, as a ball-playing centre half, to Kevin Ratcliffe and Alan Hansen.
But Monaghan lasted only two months as a professional, unable to cope with the crippling anxiety caused by more than three years of sexual abuse at the hands of convicted paedophile Barry Bennell.
He escaped Bennell’s clutches when he moved from Crewe Alexandra to United at 14, but only now will his time at Old Trafford make sense to those he encountered during five years there. Only now will Sir Alex Ferguson understand why a Wales Under 18 international was unable to make the transition from gifted apprentice to his all-conquering first team.
Monaghan was a year below the Class of 92 but he lived in digs with Robbie Savage, Keith Gillespie and Kevin Pilkington.
He trained and played with David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers, Gary and Phil. He remembers marking Andrei Kanchelskis out of a practice match.
‘I was left back that day,’ he says. ‘We regularly trained with that great 1994 team of Steve Bruce, Mark Hughes and those lads.’
He was forever in trouble, though; drinking, gambling, often with Gillespie. ‘We remain friends on Facebook,’ he says.
On one occasion, Ferguson was so angry he handed Monaghan a ‘rusty Bic razor’ and made him dry-shave in front of him, convinced that Monaghan’s dishevelled appearance was the consequence of another boozy night out. ‘”What the hell is wrong with you?” he would shout at me,’ Monaghan recalls.
He finally walked out after a row with United youth coach Eric Harrison in October 1994. ‘We squared up after he said I was “never a captain”,’ says Monaghan. ‘But I’m sure they were glad to see the back of me. I was a nightmare.’
As well as the drinking and partying, he had been breaking down in tears in training, claiming he was suffering with a chronic stomach complaint. But when United sent Monaghan to a private hospital for exploratory surgery, they were horrified to discover that he had jumped off the trolley as the nursing staff pushed him towards theatre.
‘They wanted to run a camera into my stomach to see what was going on but I knew there was nothing physically wrong,’ he says. ‘I was crying because of the anxiety attacks. Sometimes I didn’t even realise I was doing it.
‘I concealed it by saying my stomach was hurting. I got hammered for that because apparently it cost them three grand.’
He says he would end up in Ferguson’s office ‘at least once a week’. ‘He was a great bloke and he tried to sort me out,’ says Monaghan. ‘At one point he got my mum down. But I was always in bother. I had to go into hospital for a hernia operation and I ran up an 800 quid bar bill. There was a fridge in the room with Guinness. My mates would come in to see me and we would all have a drink.’
Of course, what Ferguson did not know, what nobody at United knew, was why Monaghan was drinking; why he eventually walked away from football for good.
Indeed, it is only now Monaghan is speaking publicly about his ordeal, inspired by Andy Woodward and other victims to waive his anonymity and tell his own terrible story for the first time.
One that even involves Dario Gradi, then the manager of Crewe Alexandra and still the club’s director of football, driving Monaghan 35 miles from Crewe to Bennell’s house in Buxton.
On Monday Monaghan was in the council house he shares with his partner, Denise, and their respective children - he has a 20-year-old son who only discovered on Monday night, ahead of the publication of this interview, that his father had been abused - on what is time off from his job working nights as a machine cleaner in a factory.
‘I need a fag before we start,’ he says in his soft Welsh accent, and for the next hour or so he shakes as he recalls the events not just of a stolen career but a stolen childhood.
He was 10 when he was first abused by Bennell, his vulnerability perhaps heightened by the fact his parents had only just separated.
‘I was playing for a county team in north Wales when he spotted me,’ he says. ‘He invited me to train with Crewe.
‘We lived in Pwllheli, about 120 miles from Crewe. My mum would drive me to the train station after school on a Friday. I’d get changed in the car. And then I’d head down. Sometimes I’d travel with another lad from the area. He’d stay there, too. But often I’d travel on my own. I would stay at Barry’s house from the very start, and I’d stay there almost every weekend and during the school holidays, too.’
It was not long before the abuse began. ‘The first time it happened, the lad I travelled down with was sleeping in the top bunk,’ says Monaghan.
‘I don’t know if he was abused too. We never discussed it. I saw him in a pub when I was about 19 and we never discussed it then. But that first time, Barry came into the room and molested me. That’s how it started off, and it became more serious after that.’
This is painfully difficult to discuss, but did it escalate to the level of other victims? Was he raped? ‘Only a couple of times,’ says Monaghan. ‘And a couple of times after we went out to America one year. Out there, I was 12, I fought him off.
‘But the same thing would always happen. I’d be asleep and I’d be woken up. He was a big lad. I remember I’d try to push him off. But he had big legs, you know. To this day I can’t sleep next to a wall. I’ve got to have a gap, so I can escape. He would come in and I couldn’t escape. Even if I stay in a hotel, if there’s a bed against the wall I have to pull it out a bit.
‘And the smell of damp. His house always smelled of damp towels. There would be loads of boys there. Andy Woodward would have been there. I remember him being there. Sometimes our whole junior team would be there; 15 of us.
‘He’d have lads sleeping in his bed. I remember seeing Andy on the platform at a train station. I was about 16, heading back to United, and we looked at each other for maybe three or four seconds, said nothing. Talking to Andy the other day, he remembers that too.’
As it emerged last week, a complaint about Bennell in 1988 prompted Gradi and the Crewe directors to hold emergency discussions about their youth team coach. It is claimed they agreed to no longer let Bennell ever be alone with the boys.
‘I stayed at his house between 1987 and 1990,’ says Monaghan. ‘I stayed at Dario’s once, too. It was like an old person’s home. I remember he had a football table.
‘Dario even took me to Barry’s. He did that once, maybe twice. I didn’t always want to go. I told my mum after the first couple of times that I didn’t want to go, but of course I didn’t explain why.
‘Barry used to say he would make me captain of Wales one day and he would threaten me with taking it all away from me if I didn’t do what he wanted, or didn’t want to go to his house.'
‘That trip to America was in Atlanta. I pushed him away and I was sent home the next day. Me and another lad, who was even younger. We flew back with these Crewe kit bags. We were escorted by the airline but we travelled back from Heathrow on our own. We had to get the underground and then the train. I remember we got on the wrong train.
‘I remember thinking, “I’ve got all these bags and I’ve got to look after him, too. He was only a little lad”. I had to take all the bags back to the football club, and then leg it back to Crewe station to go home. You think about that, how young we were.’
After providing evidence that led to Bennell’s conviction in 1998, Monaghan received £1,200 in compensation. He then contacted the Professional Footballers’ Association to see if they could gain further compensation from Crewe.
‘They came back and said I’d never played for Crewe - only for Railway Juniors - so I wasn’t entitled (to anything),’ he says. ‘We trained at Crewe. Wore Crewe kit. If I didn’t play for Crewe, how come I stayed at the manager’s house? I never heard from the PFA again.
‘The rumours about Barry were rife. When we played Crewe, I’d get stick from the United lads. “Weren’t you one of Bennell’s boys?” they’d say. I’d laugh it off but my head was battered for days after. If they knew, how did Crewe not know?’
Around the time of Bennell’s conviction, Monaghan told his parents what had happened to him, prompted by one of a number of breakdowns he has suffered.
His mother was ‘devastated’. Both his father and his step-father have been hugely supportive. His step-father contacted Woodward after reading his original interview. Woodward then contacted Monaghan by text.
Clearly Monaghan has tried to make a life for himself. ‘I had three jobs at one point, felling trees, working in the Sportsman bar in Nefyn and as a part-time fireman,’ he says.
‘But when I’ve only got 20 quid left in my wages after paying my bills, I sometimes wish I’d stuck at it - even for a couple of years.
‘Saying that, I know the anxiety attacks were too bad. I couldn’t cope. I was losing the plot. I thought getting away from football would make me better.
‘After the row with Eric Harrison I went missing that day. The day after that I went back in and told them I was quitting. I got paid off by the club, about six grand, and I moved into a hotel for six or seven weeks and blew all the cash.’
What football he did play after that was at a much lower level, with four games for Mickey Thomas’s Porthmadog side earning him £120 a week before he realised he could not cope there, either.
‘I’d worry about getting anxiety attacks during games, so the stress would start to build from, say, Thursday and I just wouldn’t show up,’ he says.
He was watching in a pub in Nefyn when the Manchester United lads with whom he once trained lifted the European Cup in 1999.
‘I don’t know if I would have made it at United,’ he says. ‘But I would have made a living in the Premier League. I could have done what Robbie Savage did in central midfield, and given a bit more.'
‘I’m not being big-headed. I was a decent player. Robbie was a year older but we played in the same Wales teams. I was also playing a year or two up, and I was captain of the 15s, 16s and 18s.’
The past is a constant source of pain. ‘He has good weeks and bad weeks but he suffers every day,’ says Denise, sitting beside him on the sofa. ‘Every day,’ whispers Monaghan.
‘We were on holiday in Turkey recently and he had to leave the restaurant and sit outside,’ says Denise. ‘He never came back in for the meal.’
Monaghan nods. They squeeze hands. ‘Talking about it does seem to be helping,’ he says.
‘When I went for counselling I could only handle a couple of sessions. But since Andy got in touch, since the lads started to talk about it, since people started to understand, I do feel stronger for it.’