EVANSVILLE, Indiana. If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry. It isn’t famous for much. The last time the city hit the news was in 2011 when a Gallup survey found it to be the most obese metropolitan area in the United States. Which is some achievement in a country intimately familiar with the elasticated waistband.
It is also the hometown of Neal Doughty, keyboardist with He-Man-haired power balladeers REO Speedwagon.
But amid the damning statistics and B-list celebrities, Evansville can claim one genuinely world-class export.
An illustrious alumni who played until 40, captained his country and starred in the Premier League. A man who definitely isn’t one of Evansville’s 37.5 per cent of overweight adults and has never sported a mullet.
It is, of course, David Weir, once of Everton and Rangers, now the rookie manager of Sheffield United.
Weir was just 17 when he was scouted by the University of Evansville during a schools tournament in Lincolnshire in 1988. They offered the young Scot an athletic scholarship and a few months later he had left his family behind in Falkirk and jetted out to the Midwest.
“It was a big step, a real culture shock,” he says. “But to this day, it’s one of the best decisions I ever made.
“At 17, I knew I wanted to be a footballer. But I also knew I wasn’t good enough quite at that point. Going to the US gave me a chance to develop my game and continue my education at the same time.
“It also made me grow up very quickly, broadened my horizons. You play other colleges, which means travelling all over the country. At 18 or 19, that is a fantastic experience.
“The collegiate season runs from August to December, so you study in the day, train every afternoon, then play the games at night. During the spring term, the training eased to a couple of days a week and the schoolwork ramped up.
“My degree was in advertising and public relations. It’s nothing I’ve ever used or am ever likely to use but it was a great life.”
So great, in fact, that Weir had no intention of coming home. Converted from centre-back to striker, he plundered an incredible 28 goals in 29 games in his final year and was selected in the 1990 NCAA team of the year alongside a young keeper called Kasey Keller.
These days, he would have been drafted straight into an MLS side but in the early 90s, professional soccer was almost non-existent in the US.
“Was I tempted to stay?” he repeats. “Yeah, more than tempted. I would have loved to. I enjoyed the lifestyle, I had a lot of friends. And I didn’t really have anything concrete to come back to in the UK.
“Unfortunately, there was no real outdoor league of any kind at the time. The NASL had ended in the mid-eighties and the MLS didn’t take off until 1993. When I finished university, they only had indoor leagues and that wasn’t for me. So I came back.”
Back in Scotland and back at centre-back, Weir played for Falkirk and Hearts, winning the first of his 69 Scottish caps in 1997. But it was during spells at Everton and Rangers that he truly made his name as one of the game’s most reliable defenders. He is also a classic example of a late-bloomer. Weir joined Rangers at 37, won a Scottish player of the year award at 39 and played in the Champions League against Man United in his forties, becoming the competition’s oldest outfield player.
“My career has always been quite unconventional,” he says. “But luck does come into playing so long. One with injuries, but I was also fortunate to have two managers who put confidence in me and were willing to put their trust in a perceived ‘older’ player.
“It’s easier said than done but both Walter Smith and David Moyes were prepared to look not at my age but what I was doing.” It is an element of Moyes’ style that Weir admires, along with his selfless approach to player development.
“David was just brutally honest,” says Weir, who worked as a coach at Everton when he finally retired in 2012. “He knew what he wanted and he was – blunt is the wrong word – but very forthright in his views. It was all about trying to make you better and he didn’t like to see anybody fall short of their potential.”
When Moyes left for Manchester United, Weir applied for the Everton job, getting an interview but eventually losing out to Roberto Martinez.
Yet the experience only hardened his determination to break into management and barely a month later, he was named manager of Sheffield United, current holders of the League One “sleeping giant” tag.
Relegated in 2011, the last two years have been miserable, beset by budget cuts, player departures and failed promotion bids.
Weir is building from the bottom up but the arrival this week of new owner, Saudi Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud – whose 50 per cent stake cost him just £1 – has been described as “game changing” by chairman Kevin McCabe.
Those are big words, but Weir – perhaps informed by his own slow-burning career – has no intention of adjusting his plans.
“It’s great news,” says Weir, who has already bolstered his squad with Oldham playmaker Jose Baxter and Stoke’s Florent Cuvelier.
“It means we can stabilise, get a plan in place. It just gives us a fighting chance of implementing what we want to do. But it doesn’t guarantee anything. You still have to take the small steps before you can run.
“This club has a fine tradition of playing at the top level and we’d all love to be there again. But we also realise how far away it is and how much needs to be done. My job is to make it happen but also to ensure it lasts. Because real success is built on solid foundations.”
Weir is living proof of that.