MEET THE MAGIC-MAKING McATEES
Brothers James & John are on different football paths but they are dreaming of an FA Cup semi-final date at Wembley...
About three weeks before fulfilling the dream of making his Manchester City debut last season, James McAtee was being kicked to bits at Glanford Park. A Papa John’s trophy tie for the under 21s against Scunthorpe in front of 860 people. Glamour.
And the treatment wasn’t his fault. the actual villain was sitting in City’s away end. Step forward John McAtee, the brother three years his senior. John had recently left Scunthorpe for rivals Grimsby town after rejecting a new contract. It was all a bit raw.
‘they saw James’s name on the teamsheet and tried to kick him,’ John, 23, says. ‘I went to watch it in the away end, sitting 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 FA Cup quarter-final action this weekend, James a midfielder on loan from City at Sheffield united and John a striker back with giant-killing Grimsby, on loan from Luton town. James is reserved with a 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 labelled him the ‘Salford Silva’ 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.’
‘they call me the Salford Jimmy Grimble,’ John grins with a self- deprecation that deflects from his ability and courage to fight adversity. John was released by his boyhood team, Manchester united, and burnley as a teenager. He almost gave up aged 16.
So how did he end up a scholar at Shrewsbury town? ‘How long have you got?’ John says. ‘I got scouted by Liverpool at eight, spent three years there, loved it, that’s when James started getting scouted. He had just signed for 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 was a bit fuming with them for releasing me. I was at burnley a year. I 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! they gave me a scholarship straight after the game.
‘I wouldn’t change it. I 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 now here he is, in the last eight of the FA Cup via five non-League loan spells, ready to lead the line at brighton & Hove Albion on Sunday after playing his part in beating Southampton. Mum Gill and dad John are going to the Amex instead of watching 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.
Fortunately, James lives two minutes from bramall Lane so can race back to watch his brother on the box. they hope to meet at Wembley in the semifinal. John Snr is so far the only member of the immediate family to have featured at the national stadium in a 1994 Great britain under 23 international against New Zealand.
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 he died when the pair were young. Gill is a dance coach and James is renowned for a somersault celebration which takes inspiration from his mum.
‘Has nobody seen my backflip?! Mine’s better than his!’ John says and James graciously adds: ‘He’s definitely a better dancer than me.’
tHe progression of James, an england under 21 international, is just as interesting for different reasons.
He was always the best player in City’s youth teams, scoring heaps of goals from midfield. His feet dance, his vision is superb and he has tricks in abundance. but, unlike other academy products Phil Foden and Cole Palmer, he wanted a loan away. City weren’t keen but there were five midfielders ahead in the queue. A risky strategy, because no loanee — other than oleksandr Zinchenko — has ever returned and become a first-team regular.
McAtee was told this last summer and said 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 talent and work ethic, this has not been plain sailing — especially when he was 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 naive, thinking that I’ve always been decent, no matter what game. It was a big wake-up call and probably the best thing that’s happened.’
Feeling ‘ 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. I’m getting better with the physicality and pace of the Championship. I can start doing the things I like and affect the game more.’
When meeting blades boss Paul Heckingbottom last summer, James shocked the room by asking how he would improve him. With up to 30 clubs interested in a loan, he wanted to pick the right one. Heckingbottom’s pedigree with progressing youngsters such as Morgan Gibbs-White last season was a factor.
Heckingbottom has instilled a cleverness into his pressing and off-the-ball work. He is beginning to dominate matches.
‘I like high-pressure games,’ James says. ‘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 laid-back as this. I care. I love the game.
‘You’ve got your brother doing the same job as you — it’s one of the best things in the world. obviously, the final is a 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.’
JAMES: IT’S AN HONOUR TO BE CALLED SALFORD SILVA. MY MATES WIND ME UP BUT HE’S ONE OF MY IDOLS
JOHN: THEY CALL ME THE SALFORD JIMMY GRIMBLE!