Rhain Davis was in the Trafford Center with his parents when he began to realize what was happening.
Davis walked past someone with a newspaper and there was his nine-year-old face, pictured on the front page with the headline “ROO KID ON THE BLOCK,” in bold capitals. The newspaper was comparing Davis to Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney.
The youngster had just flown 11,000 miles from Brisbane in Australia to Cheshire, to join United’s academy. Davis’ story had attracted intense national media attention after his grandfather sent scouts to a DVD of his skills, to which United responded.
The video had gone viral on YouTube and it had been viewed by millions, with Davis performing stepovers and Cruyff turns.
speaking to the Manchester Evening News, Davis recalled that it was the moment he realized the enormity of exactly what he was going through. The media were comparing a young child to England’s best player.
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“That was the only time that I can really remember being blown away by how big it was back then,” Davis explained. “YouTube was big then, but social media was just up and coming. I think if it happened now, it would have been an even bigger thing.”
When Davis answered the phone, an Australian accent was expected, but he laughed as he admitted that his accent from down under was ‘long gone’. Davis has lived in Knutsford, Cheshire, since moving to England aged nine.
Davis paused for a moment as he took his mind back to where it all began. He’s now aged 24 and he’s kindly agreed to retell his story about him. “I started early doors really, my dad is British so football was a big part of his life and he embedded that in us as kids,” Davis said.
“My dad was actually the manager of my older brother, Emerson’s team. I started playing up with those guys, a couple of years above me, so playing with his age group, it was kind of obvious that I was better than kids of my own age.
“The games were filmed anyway, Australia kind of pioneered that video analysis, especially compared to England at that age group. My dad put a video together and they felt it over to clubs all over the place and United were the first to respond.”
In the footage, Davis is less than 4ft tall and he’s seen dancing around the opposition. Davis’ control of the ball was exceptional for someone of his age and he was recorded doing stepovers, Cruyff turns and Maradona turns, which prompted excitement.
The DVD worked and United offered to bring Davis to the club. A spokesman for United said at the time: “We take on about 40 boys of that age each year to the Academy. Rhain is British and lived here for the first four years of his life before moving to Australia.
“We regularly get sent videos and DVDs of youngsters showing their skills, but it’s rare they are of the quality that we need. He’ll train with us after school and at weekends.” Davis initially moved with his dad from him, and his mum and two brothers soon followed.
Davis had become an internet sensation and he was being compared to Rooney almost overnight. The attention and media interest in him had the potential to become a dangerous distraction, but he credits his parents for playing a crucial role in shielding him.
“To be honest, it was a little bit of a whirlwind for me, I think I was naive to it all,” Davis recalled. “I never spoke directly with anybody, it was my mum and dad sorting things out. They did a really good job of protecting me in that regard and taking the pressure away.
“They tried to say we weren’t moving because of me and that it was something they wanted to do. That took the pressure out of my hands and helped a lot. It was a fairly quick process. Within a couple of weeks, I had left Australia and signed for United.
“It coincided with my dad having family over here and it was quite an easy move – I never looked back.”
Davis had gone from kicking a ball around with his friends in Brisbane to mixing it with United’s first-team stars. “It was emphatic, everything was new and it was so exciting,” Davis said. “United were and arguably still are the biggest club in the world.
“Derek Langley, who was the scout that brought me over, took me around the training ground and we bumped into [Cristiano] Ronaldo, [Ryan] Giggsy and Rooney on my first day. It was eye-opening for a little kid from Australia, just mindblowing.”
Davis also had encounters with Sir Alex Ferguson. “He’s like a mythical figure that you hear about in all of the stories, the hairdryers and the kick of the boot at Beckham and things like that,” Davis laughed as he recalled meeting Ferguson for the first time.
“I feel like when I actually got the chance to meet him he was so humble, but the respect and aura that he carries, you definitely wouldn’t cross him. He was always great with us academy kids and he tried to do the best for us education-wise.
“He really banged home about education, about trying to stay off social media and staying away from distractions. It was fairly segregated professional and academy, we trained in a different building, but when you bumped into someone, it was pretty cool.”
Davis was progressing nicely in the academy and he was playing with future first-team stars. “Marcus [Rashford] was my age, I spent the U9s to U16s with him, he’s a top bloke,” he recalled. “I also played with Axel Tuanzebe and Sam Smith, who plays in the leagues.
“Scotty McTominay and Dean Henderson were both in the year above me, then you obviously had Paul Pogba, Jesse Lingard, Ravel Morrison, Ryan Tunnicliffe and that lot a few years above us. Marcus was probably the standout in my year.”
Davis had the opportunity to play in a tournament in Italy with United. He has a recollection of being ‘hammered’ by Arsenal and AC Milan and a memory of Rashford scoring a consolation penalty against the latter. He was living the dream of his childhood from him.
Sadly, Davis’ United dream eventually came to an end after he broke his leg at 14 years old. “It was the penultimate year to scholarship year that I broke my leg,” Davis explained. “I’m not going to pin my release on that because I might not have got a contract without that injury anyway, but it does set you back and means you’re not in the shop window in the year that everyone is looking.
“It hindered me, but I can’t dwell on that too much. It just meant that I didn’t get game time heading into the final year and that things kind of slowed down.” Davis was released from United and his parents were keen for him to focus on his education.
“My parents have always been strict with my education and It was something United also whipped us into shape with,” Davis said. “Dave Bushell, who was the academy director, basically made sure that we were all behaving in school and handing in our homework.
“I just kind of fell into my A-Levels, doing business, economics and English language. I was 16 and all I knew was football. I was always fairly capable at school. Football took a lot of time so I didn’t really excel in anything academic-wise, but I’ve always been a grafter.”
Davis used that mentality when playing for Altrincham while studying his A-Levels. “I think that transcends from football. The life lesson was: you will reap the rewards from the graft that you put in. I then went to the University of Sheffield after my A-Levels.
“I studied economics and business, which was three years of graft again.” However, Davis’ three years in Sheffield were interrupted by an opportunity to get back into the game that he simply could not refuse-he had been offered a chance to revive his career.
Rene Meulensteen, Ferguson’s former assistant and a family friend, had been appointed assistant manager of Australia’s national team.
Meulensteen was aware of Davis’ history and he reached out. “In my second year of university, I’ve always been quite close with Melle, who is Rene’s youngest, and I was on holiday when Rene contacted me and asked what I was doing,” Davis said.
“He asked me if I wanted to come out to Australia and he offered to take me around the A-League and to get me in front of an Australian U23 camp to see how I found it. We did eight weeks I think and I went out there with my dad.
“It was going well and the Central Coast Mariners offered me a deal. I came home for Christmas and basically waited next to the post box for my offer. That’s when Mike Phelan, who was sporting director at the club, left to join Ole Gunnar Solskjær at United.
“Mike Mulvey then got the sack. I’d lost every contact I had at the club and lost the verbal offer. That’s probably the hardest thing to have taken in football. When you’re 15 and 16, you can kind of bounce back , but when you’re 21, it almost felt like the last chance.”
Davis graduated with First-Class Honors at university after that disappointment. He’s now returned to Cheshire, where he’s settled with his long-term partner de él, and he’s working towards his ACA chartered accountant exams at Grant Thornton.
He still retains a love for the game and he now plays for West Didsbury and Chorlton AFC, who won promotion last season.
Davis admitted that while his story is obviously a part of him, it’s not something that he now looks to ‘milk’, although he laughed as he revealed his friends sometimes like to embarrass him with the YouTube video when meeting new people on social occasions.
“It was a lot,” Davis said when asked to summarize his journey. “I wouldn’t change for it the world, but at the age that I am now at 24, I kind of look back and think that it was demanding not only of myself but of my parents, my brothers.
“It was five times a week from nine to 16, it chews up a lot of your time and there are a lot of sacrifices. It might not have come to fruition in a footballing career, but it’s given me so much going forward in what I want to do.
“It was hard, it was competitive and there were times on a Friday night when you were smoking that your mates were out, having a good time, and you were in bed at 8.30pm, but it was a special time and I wouldn’t don’t change it for anything.”
Davis is at peace with his story and he’s found happiness elsewhere – he was successful after all.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.