Kevin Pilkington relives his days in Manchester United's 'Class of 92' ahead of reunion in FA Cup
Kevin Pilkington (back row, fourth from left) was reunited with Manchester United's 'The Class of 92', including Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt, and Sir Alex Ferguson, when they were given a special PFA Merit Award during the 2013 PFA Player of the Year Awards.
Sat on a wooden bench in a corner of a small changing room at Notts County's training base at Arnold Town, Kevin Pilkington is a world away from Old Trafford. Until 'The Class of 92' is mentioned to him.
All of a sudden it is like he's there, at Manchester United; a teenager again, a team-mate of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes again, one of Fergie's Fledglings.
Transported back through time, he talks and talks. For almost half an hour, the memories pour out of him, with undiminished pride and clarity.
He relives all of the big moments; the night in 1991 he was spotted by a United scout playing for Harrowby United and invited for a trial at the biggest club in the world, the days he met Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Matt Busby for the first time and made his first team debut and, of course, winning the FA Youth Cup alongside the likes of Giggs, Beckham, Neville and Butt in 1992.
"You knew it was special, but it's only when you look back now you know how special," said Magpies' goalkeeper coach Pilkington of that famous youth team.
"We obviously didn't know they were going to go on and achieve unbelievable things.
"Becks was technically unbelievable in his passing, any set-pieces he got them all. Gary Neville was the leader, Nicky Butt was a box-to-box midfielder; very, very strong. And Giggsy on the wing was a bag of tricks and rapid.
"Scholesy didn't even play in it, but you could see he was a talent.
"In one of the first games my dad came up to watch and he just said 'that little kid there, he's going to be a player'. He was talking about Scholes and it turned out he was right. For me, he was one of the best ones there."
Signed by the Red Devils as a schoolboy in November 1991, after a successful trial, Pilkington was thrown into the youth team straightaway and they swept to the FA Youth Cup triumph, beating Sunderland, Walsall, Manchester City, Tranmere Rovers and Tottenham Hotspur to reach the final, which they won 6-3 on aggregate against Crystal Palace.
"We were terrible in the first half of the second leg at Old Trafford," recalled Pilkington. "But we pulled it around and won.
"There was almost 15,000 there, which was incredible.
"There are lots of little things I remember about the cup run, like Nicky Butt scoring an overhead kick against Palace in the first leg of the final. I've got all of the games on DVD.
"In some of the games, I would be standing there thinking 'these are good'!
"I had the best position to watch them play.
"It was an absolute dream for it to go so well in my first year. Every single player out of that team, I think, got a professional contract."
To put their achievement into some sort of context, they were the first United youth team to win the trophy since George Best had inspired them to it in 1964.
Beckham also says his favourite moment at Old Trafford is lifting that cup.
"It's right up there for me too," said Pilkington. "It's one of the biggest things for me. It was such a great achievement at a young age and I loved every minute of it.
"Obviously making my debut for the first team at Old Trafford is right up there as well, and seeing my friends and family afterwards, knowing you've just played for Manchester United at Old Trafford in front of 55,000. That was incredible."
Having helped United beat Palace to lift the FA Youth Cup, Pilkington then made his first team debut against the same club, in the Premier League in November 1994.
He went on to play eight times for the first team before leaving Old Trafford for Port Vale in 1998.
And, while Giggs, Beckham, Neville, Butt and Scholes went on to win the lot with United, Giggs becoming the most decorated player in English football, making a record 963 appearances for United and winning 34 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles and two Champions League winners' medals, Pilkington is not envious of their achievements at all because he still lived every boy's dream.
"God no. There's no jealousy there," he said.
"They've gone on to do absolutely fantastic things, they have had the ability to go on.
"There's not a moment I regret. I gave it everything I had, and I still give it everything I have got.
"For one reason or another, it didn't get to that level. But I've had a good career. It's still going.
"I've loved working in football, for Notts County. I'm privileged to have done what I have done."
"To get the opportunity to go and play for such a club as Man United was unbelievable, it was dreams you can't even imagine really," he added.
"After I signed the first three people that I met were Sir Alex Ferguson, Nobby Stiles and Sir Matt Busby. And my dad was next to me.
"For him to see his heroes as well...
"I was very fortunate to meet those three people and was very privileged to play for, for me, the biggest club in the world.
"I'm so proud of it. To go and play for that club, be it eight times. I was involved in a lot in the games when I was there. No one can take that away from me.
"I feel honoured to have represented that club, and to have been managed by someone as special as Sir Alex Ferguson.
"Whatever I say now, it wouldn't be enough to say what I think about the man; hard, very hard, but fair.
"If it wasn't for him I wouldn't have played professional football because no-one else gave me a chance.
"He was the one who said 'we'll give you a chance'."
The last time 'The Class of 92' were all together, apart from Beckham, was two years ago when they were given a special PFA Merit Award during the 2013 PFA Player of the Year Awards.
Pilkington hopes the FA Cup will provide an opportunity for a reunion, with the Magpies set to face Salford City, who are part owned by Giggs, Neville, Scholes, Butt and Phil Neville, in the first round of the competition at Moor Lane on Friday night.