FA Tonge Interview

Last updated : 26 November 2002 By @blades_mad1889

It has been quite a few months for Michael Tonge. The former Manchester United apprentice was pretty much unknown this time last year but now he is preparing to pull on an England jersey for the first time tonight as the Under-20s take on Italy at the Stadium of Light.

After a string of performances which have seen him emerge as one of the hottest young properties in the country, the precocious 19-year-old received the ultimate form of flattery when The Blades recently met Yorkshire rivals Rotherham.

"It was the first time I had ever been man-marked and I have to admit it was a new and interesting experience," Michael told TheFA.com.

"Lee Hurst was the guy marking me and I couldn't get my head around the fact he followed me everywhere.

"To be fair, it worked for Rotherham because I didn't know what to do and I had a pretty poor game. It felt strange that his only job was to stop me; I'm not sure if he even touched the ball apart from tackling me.

"I couldn't get away from him and told my dad afterwards how tough it had been - he said in the 1980s Maradona always had two players marking him!"

The respect opponents are giving Tonge is a sign of how he has improved since being rejected by hometown club Manchester United as a 16-year-old. Like Robbie Savage, David Platt and David Johnson, Tonge found himself unable to break through at Old Trafford, but the irony is he is currently doing far better than the lads United did take on.

"I have to be fair to Man Utd and say I wasn't in the best form and hadn't physically developed. I seemed to be short of stamina compared to some of the others," he says.

"But I came to Sheffield and it's worked out. I've had 50 first-team games while none of the United lads have got near their first team. Danny Nardiello is probably the best-known of the group in my year but he is only in the reserves.

"I think you will find a lot of young English players choosing to be in Division One. It's all very well training with the top players but it's only when you play in front of a big crowd that you know you can do it in a match situation."

Tonge, whose boyhood hero was Paul Gascoigne, has added a new attacking element to his game this season - cutting in from the left-hand side of midfield to score five times for Neil Warnock's promotion-pushing side.

"It's helped that Michael Brown and Stuart McCall are so good in the centre; it allows me to break forward more often and I have even managed to do some dribbling with the ball as well."

The latest example that Tonge is becoming a marked man came on Saturday when Gus Ulhenbeek, a former Blades team-mate, launched into a late challenge that earned him a straight red card.

It also left Tonge with a bad dead leg and nasty bruise on the thigh, an injury he hopes won't delay his England debut. Under-20s manager Les Reed thinks Tonge's versatility will be beneficial in the future.

"He has made steady progress at club level and playing such regular first team football has given him the chance to develop by playing with and against high quality players," says Reed.

"We believe he is now at the stage in his development where international football will be of benefit to him.

"He could either play a supporting role behind a front striker or as part of a central midfield pairing if we go with someone to play directly in front the back four."

With club manager Warnock slapping a press ban on Tonge, the youngster is unlikely to get carried away by the good publicity he is getting at the moment. And if he gets too big for his boots, he will have his landlord to answer to.

"Me and another Sheffield United player are staying at Phil Jagielka's house. He's also been involved at England level but most importantly he's a good landlord - provided I pay the rent on time!"