By Gregor Robertson
ON THE day I signed for Crewe Alexandra in the summer of 2012, their Reaseheath training ground was bristling with pride. A few days earlier, academy graduate Nick Powell, fresh from securing Crewe’s promotion to League One with that spectacular strike in the League Two play-off final at Wembley, had left for Manchester United for a fee of £6m.
I remember Neil Baker, Crewe’s long-standing coach, saying “He’ll play for England,” as though it were a statement of fact. Mind you, Sir Alex Ferguson agreed.
At Reaseheath, however, just a few years earlier, there had been doubts that Powell would make it as a professional footballer at all. His talent was never in doubt. His application was where the question mark lay.
My new team-mates told me Powell had done things in training that would make you rub your eyes in awe, though not always with the ball.
In one session, after going down under a challenge, Powell thought he should have been awarded a free-kick.
“Play on!” came the call from Steve Davis, the manager.
Powell’s pique was such that he pulled the hood of his training jacket over his head and, for the next ten minutes, lay down on the pitch in protest.
When there was gym work to be done in the afternoon, he would quip – at 17 years old – that they didn’t pay him enough to do all this extra work.
The picture they painted was not of a bad egg.
Baker spoke of the mercurial streak that some of the game’s greatest often have.
However, it sounded as though he wasn’t the type who would put in daily graft to maximise his supreme talent. And, perhaps, so it has proved.
Those who played with him at Manchester United echoed the sentiments about his unquestionable ability.
In one of his first sessions at Carrington he is said to have nutmegged Rio Ferdinand.
But, after scoring his first and only goal for United, against Wigan, ironically, on his debut in 2012, he would play only eight more games for United.
Loans at Leicester and Hull were fruitless. Rumblings about his attitude surfaced again, too.
Knee and hamstring injuries stunted his progress further.
But his former United coach, Warren Joyce, perhaps best summed up the widely-held view.
“He’s got some talent, but he should have done better than he did at Manchester United, in my opinion. He didn’t and a big part of that is himself,” Joyce said when the pair were reunited at Wigan in 2016.
“He’s got undoubted X-factor talent. He can do almost anything in football, either up front or in midfield. He can run, he can head, he can dribble, he can score, he can tackle.
“The big onus now has to be on himself. If he doesn’t, he could look back in 20 years’ time, and look back on a waste.”
A personal view is that Powell, like any player, can live his life as he wishes.
Should his talent go unfulfilled he would have let down no one, unless he felt he had let down himself.
But his performances for Wigan this season suggest that, in his nascent career, we are seeing the beginnings of an upward curve.
The flurry of interest and bids for his services on transfer deadline day were hardly surprising.
The 23-year-old moves with the natural poise, elegance and athleticism that regularly set him apart from anyone else on a pitch.
He is clearly settled at Wigan, enjoying his football, and he has already plundered an impressive 12 goals in 25 league games.
It would, of course, be easy to suggest he should be excelling in the third tier.
Yes, it’s true. He’s too good for that level. But playing at places like Scunthorpe and Rochdale when you’ve tasted the Champions League provides a different set of challenges. It’s a test of mental fortitude that a player like Powell, whose attitude has regularly been questioned, might not expect to willingly roll up his sleeves.
When I have seen him play this season, however, his work-rate has been particularly impressive.
And his outstanding performance in Wigan’s 2-0 win over West Ham in the FA Cup recently also acted as a reminder of just what he is capable of on the bigger stage.
It is also instructive to learn that, despite Brighton’s bids on deadline day – which reportedly reached £10m – Powell is said to have made clear his desire to stay.
Regular football and the chance to achieve something with Wigan evidently held more appeal than attempting to fight his way into a team scrapping for Premier League survival. It’s a decision that, in this instance, is both brave and mature.
Wigan, with Powell’s help, will almost certainly be back in the Championship next season. But it feels like a matter of time before Powell is back in the Premier League.