Had things been different, Tom Heaton might have been lining up for Manchester United tomorrow, rather than against them with Burnley.
But the 28-year-old has no regrets at leaving Old Trafford, even if his decision earned him the dreaded “hair dryer” treatment from his old boss Sir Alex Ferguson!
Heaton was with United from the age of 11, staying 13 years before joining Cardiff City.
He won an FA Youth Cup winners’ medal in 2003, and the Premier Reserve League North and Central League titles two years later, while he was also part of the travelling squad for the 2008 Champions League Final win over Chelsea in Moscow as number three keeper.
However, he felt he needed to move away to further his career, and Heaton explained when he realised he had to leave: “I had a few loan spells – went to Antwerp, Swindon Town, and then went away to Cardiff, and really enjoyed that season.
“I had a couple of injuries but I think I played 25, 26 games in the Championship, and loved it, loved being the number one.
“Then I had a year or two where I was number three, so I travelled everywhere, travelled with the squad to the Champions League Final.
“And it was great being involved, seeing how the top players work, but you get to a point where you sort of want to be involved. I almost felt like a spectator travelling with the team.
“Probably the highlight of that was the Champions League final. All the players were celebrating. You’re there, enjoying the moment, trying to take as much as you can. But inside, I felt like I wanted to be out there playing. That was a big turning point.”
Heaton turned down a contract offer in 2010 to join Cardiff, and he said: “I felt the need to go and play, really.
“I had a bit of time on the bench for the first team, but never actually played a competitive game, which was a source of frustration for me.
“But in order to get to that number one shirt, you need to have the experience and the backing. “Especially in goal. You rarely see young keepers come through and be able to handle it straight away. Courtois at Chelsea is a great example, but you don’t often see it.
“I certainly felt at the time that it was the right thing to leave, play games, earn my stripes, and try and work my way back up.
“Obviously it was a risk, but one that I wanted to take. I didn’t want to spend time in the stands. I wanted to play. You learn the game. There’s no substitute for playing games, and that’s certainly the route I took. I’m pleased I have.”
His decision incurred the wrath of Sir Alex: “I spoke to the manager at the time. There was the option of a new deal, and I said from the outset that that was me, really. I was ready to go and try new things, drop down and play some games, which was tough.
“Having signed there as an 11-year-old, I was 24 at the time, and on the Bosman there was no deal in place for me to go anywhere.
“There was an element of risk, but I knew that, and I wanted to go that way. I’m pleased I did.
“When I told him I wasn’t interested in a new contract, that didn’t go down too well.
“But in all fairness a few weeks later he had me back in the office and told me he respected my decision, wished me all the best and said he was always there for me, which was incredible for me to hear that after getting it in the ear a few weeks earlier.”
But Heaton can’t wait to face his old club at Turf Moor: “It’s certainly the one I first looked for when the fixtures came out, if I’m being honest.
“I had a big affiliation with them. I’m looking forward to it, but the important thing is that the performance is right and the focus is in the right place, and that’ll certainly be the case in the build-up.
“I’ll probably allow myself an hour after the game to enjoy it. Hopefully. If we get the right result.”