Life can change quickly for a young athlete. Now, just five months past his 18th birthday, Jonathan Spector has himself become a role model. For his peers in the Manchester United youth team, for which he was player of the year last season, Spector’s emergence on the club’s US tour has been an exemplar. For the members of 20 teams from four different continents who will gather this week at Carrington for the Manchester United Premier Cup, he is also somebody to look up to.
Back in 1999-2000, the Premier Cup, the biggest under-15 tournament in the world, was Spector’s first exposure to international competition and helped change him from a Chicago high-school kid, with no designs on becoming a professional footballer, to the determined young talent, mature beyond his years, who could be a surprise member of United’s first-team squad this year. He played at the finals held in Amsterdam when the Premier Cup was run by Nike.
Spector was a midfielder at 14. A year later, he moved to centre-forward and, emboldened by his experience in Amsterdam, began thinking about a professional career. A university sports scholarship, or a place on the youth programme of a Major League Soccer franchise, seemed his likely bet. Then, playing at the Ballymena International Tournament in 2002 for the US Under-17 team, an injury crisis saw him fielded in central defence: "It was actually my first game in the position. United had come to scout an Austrian forward I was playing against so it was kind of lucky how it worked out. We had a shutout and I don’t think they had any shots on goal."
When he made his first-team debut, in United’s opening US tour game against Bayern Munich in Chicago, Spector looked like he had been a centre-back since wearing nappies. Even with 58,000 watching and, perhaps more frighteningly, Roy Keane alongside him, he purred through the game, demonstrating poise on the ball, speed on the ground and an eye for the tackle. "He spots danger quickly," said Sir Alex Ferguson. With Ferguson looking to save senior players for United’s Champions League qualifying game on August 11, there is a real chance Spector will find himself facing Arsenal and Reyes in next weekend’s Community Shield.
He is unshakeable, very American, in his outlook: "I haven’t set myself a timetable. I just have to keep working hard and hopefully I’ll get an opportunity in the first team this season and make the most of it."
Spector’s roundedness is reflected in the fact that, away from football, he plays the piano and trumpet and is taking correspondence courses from Indiana University in history and philosophy. In his spare time he listens to "non-mainstream" heavy rock. Among his favourite bands are Good Charlotte and Lucky Boys Confusion.
None of these last three words spring to mind when you watch this precocious American defend.