Tom Heaton has rejoined Manchester United, arriving on a free transfer after his contract with Aston Villa expired.
The England international, who has three caps for his country, explained what the return to his boyhood club means to him and outlined his ambitions during an exclusive interview with club media at Carrington.
Tom, you know this place well so does it almost feel like you’re coming home?
“Yes it does. That’s exactly how it feels. For me to have the opportunity to come back here after spending 13 great years here as a kid, yeah it’s an incredible feeling and I’m really, really excited to get started.”
You could have signed a new contract when you left permanently in 2010 but felt you needed first-team football. Looking back, is it fair to say that brave decision has been totally vindicated considering the progress you’ve made?
“Yeah, it feels like the right decision. I knew at the time it felt right but it wasn’t easy. I’d been part of the club for so long and how much care I had for the football club. It was the right decision looking back and it’s justified it coming back here now with a lot more different experiences, a lot more security – what I’m about and my goalkeeping ability, having practical experience. So, yeah, I look back at it as the right time even though, at the time, it wasn’t the easiest one.”
You’ve said it was hard telling Sir Alex about the desire to leave but he got back in touch with you afterwards to say he respected the decision – how valuable was his support, then and since?
“It’s been brilliant. At the time, as a young lad who has been here for so long and having such a good relationship with him, and the time and effort the football club had given me, I could understand his frustration, I think. But he accepted it. I said many times, I was back in his office in a couple of weeks and he said he would always be there for me – and he has been. I’ve come across him a few times since. As ever, you always stand up a little bit taller when you come across him. It’s been fantastic to have that blessing, if you like, after I’d gone and it felt vindicated.”
We know you have the United DNA from your time here – how much of a benefit has that character been to you over the years?
“I’ve already said, it feels like coming home and it really does. My upbringing here was second to none – the best in the world at the time for football education and, beyond that, looking after people as well. Making sure people are doing things properly was a massive part of it. The biggest thing for me, the biggest part of the Manchester United DNA is winning. There are a few factors in there too – the youth players who come up, with the way they played football and how they handle themselves. It’s all part of the Manchester United way. It’s played a massive part in my life, so far, and to be back here and be part of it again feels incredible.”
You had several loans to cut your teeth away from Old Trafford, including at Royal Antwerp, so how important do you think that is for any young keeper making their way in the game and how much did those experiences prepare you for regular senior football?
“There’s no substitution for it really, to get that practical experience, week in and week out. Things you can’t really get taught unless you go through it. You can have all the technical and physical ability that can be given but, beyond that, you need to know how to handle situations, decision-making under pressure, when it really matters. When I left here, I’d had eight or nine loan spells and they have all given me different experience. It gives you a really good platform to step on to the next part of my career and that is exactly how I looked at it. In general, for goalkeepers, that loan experience and getting that match experience when it really matters is vital. It really needs to be done.”
After some time at Cardiff, how big a part have Burnley and Sean Dyche played in your career – we have some close ties with the Clarets with a few former players there?
“Yeah, massive. Again, it was another move that, for me, felt right. My dad was born in Burnley so it had a little bit of family history to it. Again, it felt similar to how this feels now. It felt just right at the time and I had six brilliant years under Sean Dyche there. He was brilliant all the way through. I still have a fantastic relationship with him now. It was a really successful period for me. It gave me a real stable sort of time, allowed me to play a lot of games, and I got back into the Premier League which, for me, in that era, which was an aim of mine when I first left the football club here. I look back on it with fond memories because I really enjoyed it.”
You have enjoyed some amazing performances against United – playing out of your skin a few times at Old Trafford – do you particularly remember the draw in 2016?
“Yeah, I’ve been asked about it quite a few times over the years. For me, it’s never any different in terms of preparation but you can’t get away from my history with the football club and growing up here. I imagine there’s some sort of uplift in adrenaline walking out at Old Trafford. But there was nothing different I did, I didn’t go about it any differently. I will say I did enjoy some of the performances I put in – it was one of those things where it seemed to land right on the day. They were great moments, especially having the history here.”
When we drew 2-2 with Burnley in 2019, and you were excellent again, Ole spoke about you afterwards and said you deserved all the accolades you were getting – was that encouraging to hear?
“Yep, brilliant. I always had a fantastic relationship with him when he was playing and I was coming through the Academy. Again, when he turned into the Reserve-team manager, sort of at the tail-end of me being involved with the Reserves, he was great then. To fast-forward the clock a little bit and be walking off the pitch at Old Trafford and have some great words from him, and now to be playing for him, is a little surreal. The excitement is difficult to put into words how I feel at the moment.”
Of course, you do remember Ole as Reserves coach – could you see the signs then that he was going to become a top manager?
“Yeah, I did actually. Obviously, I had him as manager for the Reserves and I saw, very early on in his career as a manager of course, but I could see the signs then in terms of how he went about it, how he set the team up and his man-management skills. But, before then, even as a player, his words of advice to all the young lads but me especially. I’ll never forget him pulling me to the side once and saying the summer is not the time to have off as a young player making your way in the game. It’s a time to kick on. When everyone else is taking it easy, you’ve got an opportunity to take advantage on other people. So I usually only give myself a couple of weeks off over the summer and then start working. It’s something he drilled into me at probably 18 or 19, at the time, and it’s stayed with me. So I’m not surprised he’s gone on to do what he’s done and do what he’s doing at the moment. It was always a path he was likely to take.”
How did the move come about this time – your contract was expiring at Villa and you must have had plenty of interest?
“Yes, it was a strange time. I had a really good spell at Villa, a fantastic football club, in the first 20 games but unfortunately had a relatively serious injury. Coming back fit but then finding Emilio Martinez coming in and playing fantastically well so opportunities were limited at the back-end of last season. That’s part of football. My contract runs out and I have a decision to make and weigh different things up. As soon as I heard of the interest from what feels like my club really, having spent so much time here, their results are the first I looked for, it was a no-brainer for me.”
What has Ole said to you about the move?
“I’ve had a couple of conversations with him so far and he’s looking forward to getting started and the new season. He’s looking forward to having me on board and, yeah, as I say, I’m looking forward to hitting the ground running. I feel great at the moment. I feel in great shape and I’m looking forward to coming in to compete with the other goalkeepers. I’ve got my eyes firmly set on trying to get into the team and I’m looking forward to getting started on that journey.”
Are you itching to get going as you know so many people here at the club and among the coaching staff?
“That’s right. Obviously, there are plenty of faces that are still the same. It’s amazing really and a good mark of a football club, the longevity of the staff and people who know the club inside and out. There are plenty of players I’ve played with in that dressing room and I’ve spoken to them a few times. For me, I’m just seeing it as a fantastic opportunity as I still feel I’ve got an awful lot to give and I’ve got the bit between my teeth. It can’t come quickly enough.”
What are your aims for this second spell at United?
“I’m looking forward to come in to compete. My ambition is to get into the side. That’s never been any different. I left the football club to go in search of first-team football, to go and get that experience. I’m coming back here now with a lot more experience. It’s been 11 years, I think, since I left. It feels like a long time but I’ve gathered different things since I’ve gone and have come back here now looking to get into the side. I can’t put it any other way. I’ll do things properly, of course, and we’ve got some fantastic keepers at the club – David [De Gea], Dean [Henderson], Lee [Grant], Nathan [Bishop] and a host of good young keepers. I can’t wait to get started with that group and get going. Yeah, it’s certainly what I’ve got my eyes on and we’ll see how it goes.”
Football has always been your passion – how desperate are you to pull on that United shirt again and show what you can do?
“That’s right. You know it certainly feels part of unfinished business and that’s the aim. That’s the dream, to do that, through hard work day in and day out. That’s what I plan on doing.”
Getting to work! gallery
Scroll through our images of new arrival Tom Heaton in action at Carrington…