By Will Unwin
Manchester United’s 3-2 victory over Arsenal in 2016 is remembered for two things: Marcus Rashford scoring twice on his Premier League debut and Louis van Gaal chucking himself to the ground in front of the fourth official. For James Weir, however, it will always be his one and only appearance for United's first team, a minute to be cherished.
Since that sunny February afternoon, Weir’s career has taken a path he could not have envisaged, as misfortune has hit at every turn. Now the 24-year-old finds himself awaiting his debut for Pohronie, the bottom club in Slovakia’s top flight, having made just 16 league appearances since his professional debut over four years ago.
“If I was a striker like Marcus [Rashford], I might have had a bit more of a chance than one minute against Arsenal,” Weir says. “That being said, being on the bench and making my debut were unbelievable but it would have been nice to get more of a chance, to get more minutes and maybe taken that opportunity, but I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”
Van Gaal praised Weir, tipping him to make an impact at United but when the Dutchman left at the end of the season, to be replaced by Jose Mourinho, the midfielder decided to move on. The Portuguese is not known for giving youth a chance, so Weir jumped at the opportunity to join Hull City in the Premier League.
"Mourinho had come in and was signing some big players, so I looked at the dressing room and thought I wasn’t going to get the chances I want here."
Mike Phelan, who carefully followed Weir’s progress at United, snapped him up on deadline day but did not offer him Premier League debut before he left in January.
“I felt I always did well in training but the excuse was always ‘oh, he’s a young lad, he doesn’t have the experience’, so to chuck me into the Premier League in a team struggling in the relegation zone, would have been a big ask. Obviously, I would have appreciated more of a chance but it didn’t come.”
New manager Marco Silva sent Weir out on loan where he was reunited with former United Under-21 coach Warren Joyce at Wigan but once again the man who signed him was dismissed quickly, leaving the midfielder out of the picture. Weir headed back to relegated Hull to work under another new man to try and kickstart his career but fate and more misfortune would intervene.
“It was very frustrating, I just felt every manager I signed for lost his job straight after. Then Leonid Slutsky joined Hull, who was a bit of a character, and I enjoyed the first few months under him, I got my knee injury which wasn’t too bad but ended up being a catastrophe of errors; I did it once, did five months rehab, I was two days away from training, then I did it again, so it had to be a slower rehab, so another six months.
“I got back after another six months, trained, played a game, then had an injection to help it out, lubricate it, and that caused it to get infected, which was a 10,000/1 chance. Then I got back six weeks before the end of my contract but I hadn’t played a game in 15 months, so it was a very unlucky time with everything that went on.”
The injuries meant Weir was unable to prove himself and earn a new deal, instead he headed to Bolton, a club without a squad at the start of this season, hoping it would be the place to offer the platform he craves. Instead, Keith Hill replaced Phil Parkinson and the two “did not see eye to eye”. Hill publicly criticised Weir after hauling him off in the first-half of a match and he subsequently left the club in January.
“I remember going in on my first day and that was a huge eye-opener as the players weren’t really too sure what was going on. The club was in a weird state but they needed players and I needed playing time, so I thought it was a good fit.
“Phil Parkinson did all he could but eventually had to leave, which was fair enough as he was probably too stressed from all the things that were going on at the time, so it was another case of the manager who signed me leaving. We had some bad results but I think he was happy with my performances.
“I am not one for listening to the news for what managers say about me. I maintain my professionalism and standards. I just don’t think I was his [Hill's] type of player, which is football, it’s a game of opinions. I wasn’t enjoying going into training, which is never a good thing in football, as it’s your day-to-day life.”
At first, it looked like Weir would need to rediscover his motivation in the Czech Republic but after training with Slovan Liberec, there was no immediate deal on offer. A Plan B was needed and days after returning to England, he was back on a plane, this time to Slovakia and Pohronie.
Within a week of signing until the end of the season, the league was suspended due to coronavirus and Weir returned home to maintain fitness and await the call to return. The lack of luck continued as the Slovakian football authorities halved the number of games remaining. “I am hungry to play and I’ve definitely put in a lot of graft during lockdown to get my body into the right physical shape to go and attack these last few games for Pohronie and hopefully that will lead to bigger and better things, potentially in Europe.
"I am just eager to see how I do after a consistent run of games. Consistently, over the years, players and coaches have told me I am a good player but I need to go out, play well and earn that self-confidence that I have struggled with in the past but the more I play and do well, the more, I will start to excel and hopefully become a good professional footballer.”
A positive outlook is key for someone who has taken so many knocks before their 25th birthday and Slovakia is hopefully that stepping stone away from England. Weir made an 18-hour drive, in addition to an overnight ferry, to make it back to Slovakia, a sign of his eagerness to get playing.
"It just allows you to concentrate on your football and means you don’t have to take notice of the headlines or whatever is going on in the background, you just get to enjoy your football and if you do enjoy your football that’s when you play your best. It is a nice little Slovakian bubble.
“I feel like I have a bit of bad luck here and there but going forward it’s a case of looking to change that by being the best I can be and put all that behind and look at it as a learning curve.”
As football returns to great fanfare around the world, Weir will be happy to restart his personal journey in the game quietly in Slovakia. There's still plenty of time to make his own noise.