New Hibs signing Jonathan Spector vividly remembers his first day as a youngster at Manchester United. As he was coming out of the reserve team changing-room he bumped into Ruud van Nistelrooy, but rather than ignore the newcomer, the Dutch legend came over to introduce himself.
It was a gesture which left the teenager stunned but also a moment which, he admits, has helped shape a career in which he has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in the game.
At Old Trafford for three years, he enjoyed the company of players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Roy Keane, Paul Scholes, Rio Ferdinand and the Neville brothers Gary and Phil. Teddy Sheringham, Carlos Tevez, Javier Mascherano and Freddie Ljunberg were team-mates at West Ham United and, latterly, with Orlando City, Brazilian star Kaka shared the same dressing-room.
Spector, who has joined Hibs until the end of the season, also played at Birmingham City with perhaps lesser luminaries, but nevertheless, familiar names to Scottish football fans such as former Hibs players David Murphy, Jonathan Grounds and Andrew Shinnie along with Hearts goalkeeper Colin Doyle and former Tynecastle midfielder Morgaro Gomis.
But it was those formative years playing under Sir Alex Ferguson which continue to be his guiding light.
“I have been incredibly fortunate to play with some of the best players who have ever played the game – and to learn from them,” said Spector, 33, who has won 36 caps for the United States. “Being at Manchester United in particular, I wasn’t just learning from the manager and the coaching staff. It’s incredible how willing a lot of those players were to lend their expertise and help guide me on my career. That’s something now, at my age, hopefully I can also do for the younger generation.”
Ferdinand and Mikael Silvestre were two picked out in particular by Spector as fellow defenders but, he revealed, there was a humility within Sir Alex’s changing room, saying: “They were really down to earth, nice individuals and one of the reasons that club was so successful.
“I remember my first day and running into Ruud van Nistelrooy in the hallway. He came up to me to introduce himself. I was like ‘I know exactly who you are, I should be introducing myself to you’.”
Admitting it would be easy to name Ronaldo as the best he had played with, Spector said: “To be honest I’d have to say Paul Scholes. Watching him in training I don’t remember him ever giving the ball away.
“He was always a step ahead of – certainly me – but it felt like he was a step ahead of everyone else on the pitch.
“It was just so impressive to see how he played, how his mind worked and how the positioned himself. He was incredibly humble, too. But that’s some thing I found at Manchester United. I think the manager did a good job of finding great players who were good people, too.”
Sir Alex and his captain Keane are often portrayed as scary characters, but Spector insisted the Scots manager was simply outstanding at dealing with his players as individuals.
“They were blunt, they were honest and those were things I respected,” he said of the pair. “I remember I had been training and travelling with the first team. Not playing, but occasionally I was on the bench.
“There was one game when I was playing in the reserves, I think it was at Middlesbrough in midweek, and to be fair, I had a poor game. I was playing against Adam Johnson, who was flying at the time, coming through the reserves into the first team.
“I was back with the first team that weekend, but wasn’t on the bench for the game. The manager pulled me aside after the team talk and said ‘Spector, you were absolutely useless the other night’. I was like ‘Yeah, I know. It won’t happen again’. That’s all he needed to say to me.
“I know he had a reputation for really getting into players, but he never did that with me. That’s something that struck me at the time. He knew how to get the best out of each individual.
“He didn’t treat everyone exactly the same, he knew the individual, how that individual responded and, at a young age, I found that impressive from someone like that.
“I’ve never played for anyone that has understood that or enacted that better than Sir Alex Ferguson. Looking back now, as a young player I probably did not fully understand and appreciate it. But after working under a number of managers, with different styles, his approach is something that I would try to emulate if I go into management.
“I was incredibly fortunate to learn from arguably the best manager in the world – at any sport.”
Spector has yet to make his Hibs debut but he and his wife Olivia are familiar with Edinburgh and fell in love with the city during a visit a few years ago.
He said: “It’s a kind of romantic city in a lot of ways, the old town, the new town, the cobbled streets, the castle.”