Brothers James and John are on different football paths but are happy to be part of the FA Cup romance this weekend… meet the magic-making McAtees
- The brothers reveal their parents watch matches in-person ‘on a rota’ for equality
- James and John could yet meet at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final
- James eyeing Man City return after encouraging discussions with Pep Guardiola
About three weeks before fulfilling the dream of making his Manchester City debut, James McAtee was being kicked to bits at Glanford Park. A Papa John’s Trophy tie for the club’s Under-21 team against Scunthorpe United in front of 860 people. Glamour.
And the treatment wasn’t his fault. The actual villain sat in City’s away end. Step forward John McAtee, the brother three years his senior. John had recently left the Iron for rivals Grimsby Town after rejecting a new contract. It was all a bit raw.
‘They’ve seen James’ name on the team sheet and tried to kick him,’ John, 23, says. ‘I actually went to watch it in the away end, sat with my hood up trying to hide from everyone! He scored so I was obviously buzzing.’
James laughs at how feisty the evening became and that sets the pair off on 40 minutes of deadpan quips and one-liners. Both are in the FA Cup quarter-finals this weekend, James a midfielder on loan at Sheffield United and John a striker back with giant-killing Grimsby, on loan from Luton Town.
James can be reserved with dry wit, John a raconteur in a similar mould to his father, John Snr, who had a brief rugby league career as a scrum half at St Helens. On his Premier League debut – three months after Scunthorpe last season – Gary Neville was describing James as a David Silva clone. His mates had labelled him the ‘Salford Silva’ for some time and the nickname stuck. No pressure. ‘I’ll take that any day,’ he says. ‘My mates wind me up about it but it’s an honour. David’s one of my idols.’
John and James: ‘Salford Jimmy Grimble’ and ‘Salford Silva’
John has made it through five non-league moves to face Brighton in the FA Cup with Grimsby
James is enjoying a successful and game-defining spell whilst on load at Sheffield United
‘They call me the Salford Jimmy Grimble,’ John grins with a self-deprecation that deflects from his obvious ability and courage to fight adversity. John was released by his boyhood team, Manchester United, and Burnley as a teenager. He was close to giving up at 16.
He is asked to explain how he ended up as a scholar at Shrewsbury Town. James interjects. ‘Where from, the start?!’ the younger brother asks with jovial exasperation. ‘How long have you got?’ John says. ‘I got scouted by Liverpool at eight, spent three years there, loved it, and that’s when James started getting scouted. You know, like you do at an early age?’
Actually no but carry on.
‘James had just signed for Man United and I ended up going there.’
James interrupts to reveal that Liverpool let him go after a short training camp as a young child – ‘stupid nonsense’ – and John picks his story back up.
‘United let me go and my brother moved to City because my dad might have been a bit gutted and fuming with them for releasing me. I was at Burnley a year. I kind of fell out of love with it, hated it. I just wanted to go to college and be a normal Salford lad, enjoying certain things with my friends.’ James smirks.
‘I thought I was done with football. My dad got a call off my Under 9s coach at Liverpool, Ian Dawes, who had the youth team at Shrewsbury. I played against Coventry Under 23s and I scored a hat-trick. I don’t know how, I couldn’t tell you how! They gave me a scholar straight after the game.
‘I wouldn’t change it. I’d probably change me as a person, I was oblivious to certain things and probably didn’t take it as seriously as I should have, but in terms of where I’m at now, I’m buzzing. It’s made me grow as a person.’
And here he is, in the last eight of the FA Cup via five non-league loan spells, ready to lead the line away at Brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday after playing his part in beating Southampton, although critical of his own performance.
Grimsby pulled off one of the season’s great giant-killings knocking out Southampton, who at the time sat 64 places above them in the football pyramid
After a nervy replayed tie against media darlings Wrexham, the Blades efficiently beat Spurs
Mum Gill and dad are going to the Amex Stadium instead of Sheffield United’s tie with Blackburn Rovers because they saw James star as the Blades shocked Tottenham in the last round. The rota system works.
John plans to slyly watch United’s early kick-off on his phone in the Grimsby dressing room. Fortunately, James lives two minutes from Bramall Lane so can race back for his brother on the box. They hope to meet at Wembley in the semi-final. John Snr is so far the only member of the immediate family to have featured at the national stadium in a Great Britain Under-23 international against New Zealand in 1994.
James raises an eyebrow. ‘Do I take my dad’s advice? About football? The one thing he always says is that the happiest players are the best players. That’s the only line I’d take from him!’
Alan Ball is their great uncle from Gill’s side, although died when the pair were young. Gill is a dance coach – owning a studio in Walkden – and James is renowned for a somersault celebration which takes inspiration from his mum.
‘Has nobody seen my back flip?! Mine’s better than his!’ John says and James gracefully adds: ‘He’s definitely a better dancer than me.’ Presumably graceful and not sarcastic, although you can never quite tell.
The progression of James, an England Under-21 international, is just as interesting for different reasons. Always the best player in City’s underage teams, scoring heaps of goals from midfield. His feet dance, his vision lasered, timing impeccable, tricks in abundance. He has got the lot but, unlike other academy products Phil Foden and Cole Palmer, wanted a loan away. City were not overly keen on him leaving but there were five midfielders ahead in the queue. A risky strategy, because nobody – other than Oleksandr Zinchenko – has ever returned and become a first-team regular.
McAtee was told this last summer and maintained that he would buck that trend. Pep Guardiola has recently met him to discuss next season and City are banking on him, impressed by the way he has handled setbacks in the Championship. Because, even with his undoubted talent and work ethic, this has not been plain sailing – especially when hooked at half-time on his second league start during a draw at Luton in August.
‘That was a big learning curve,’ James says. ‘It was more than them just kicking me, it was me not being aware of the level I was stepping into. I was a bit arrogant, a bit naïve to go into the game thinking that I’ve always been decent in no matter what game. It was a big wake-up call and probably the best thing that’s happened.’
They can be serious occasionally. ‘Very down,’ James sought counsel from his brother and that is the beauty of their relationship. ‘It’s easier when it’s coming from your brother because you know he wants the best for you,’ he adds. ‘With other people you’re always second guessing.
‘If that game hadn’t happened, I don’t think I’d be as good as I am now. I wouldn’t have learned lessons. I feel like I’m getting better with the physicality and the pace of the Championship. I can start doing the things I like to do and affect the game more.’
Pep Guardiola (right) recently met with James to discuss plans for next season
Walking in to meet United manager Paul Heckingbottom last summer, James shocked the room by immediately asking how he would improve him. With up to 30 clubs interested in a loan, he wanted to pick the right club. Heckingbottom’s pedigree of coaching youngsters is exemplary and Morgan Gibbs-White’s emergence last season was a factor. Since, Heckingbottom has instilled a cleverness to the player’s pressing and off the ball work. He is beginning to dominate matches.
‘I like to feel pressure, I like those high-pressure games,’ James says. ‘My character is that if someone kicks me I get back up, I don’t cower. I’ve got an alter-ego on the pitch, I’m not as laidback as this. I care. I love the game.
‘You’ve got your brother who does the same job as you – it’s one of the best things in the world. Obviously the final is the dream but we’d take a semi against each other.’
John looks to his right. ‘We’ve got to beat Brighton first, mate. That’ll be some going.’
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