Growing up kicking a ball around the school playground, or dodging cars on the street outside the house, most football-loving kids dream of playing just one second at the top level of the game. Very few are lucky enough to achieve this, and Nick Culkin is one of those. Unfortunately for the goalkeeper though, it was the beginning of the end, far from a fairytale start to an illustrious career.
Born in York in 1978, Culkin started out with his hometown club before being plucked from their youth system by the mighty Manchester United, who forked out £100,000 for the teenaged goalkeeper in 1997.
The 1999/00 season was perhaps an opportune time to come of age as goalkeeper at Old Trafford. After eight years in which he was arguably the best number one on the planet, giant Dane Peter Schmeichel had moved on to pastures new after exiting on a high with a Champions League winners medal hung around his neck. The departure of Schmeichel created a vacuum that the Red Devils struggled to fill until the arrival of Dutchman Edwin van der Sar in 2005.
The Aussie Mark Bosnich, briefly on the books with the Old Trafford outfit as a youngster, attempted to step into the breach, signing from Aston Villa on a free transfer after seven years with the Midlanders. However, in just the third league game of the season, a 2-0 victory at home to Leeds, Bosnich picked up an injury. He limped off after just 22 minutes and, sadly for Bosnich, this kind of bad luck would haunt his second short association with Manchester United.
His replacement was the affable and dependable Dutchman Raimond van der Gouw, who would start the next game away to Arsenal, a “Super Sunday” on 22 August 1999. Ths side from Highbury were – geography aside – Manchester United’s bitterest rivals during the late ’90’s, the two sides regularly going toe-to-toe in the battle for most of English football’s major gongs. In Manchester United’s “treble” season of 1998/99 Arsenal were not only pipped to the league title on the last day of the season by their northern rivals, they were also knocked out of the FA Cup after one of the most memorable semi-finals of all time.
In a typically tense affair, an improbable Roy Keane brace gave Manchester United a 2-1 victory and drew blood in a title race that they would eventually go on to win at a canter, an 18-point margin that was only topped as a Premier League record by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City during the 2017/18 season.
Deep into injury time, Arsenal pushed for the equaliser. A Jaap Stam foul on Ray Parlour was penalised, with Dennis Bergkamp assuming set-piece duties. The Dutchman floated the free-kick into the box, connecting with Matthew Upson’s head. Van der Gouw thwarted the effort on the line, placing one hand on the ball before grabbing it with his other. Martin Keown – often ironically heard on television bemoaning foul play of modern footballers – arrived late, kicking the ball out of the goalkeeper’s hands and deliberately following through with a knee to the face of the Dutchman. The result – an ugly and painful looking injury that swelled up to the size of a tennis ball almost immediately – forced van der Gouw from the field with the assistance of a stretcher and a plethora of medical professionals. Referee Graham Poll correctly ruled the goal out but no further action was taken on Keown.
Manchester United were forced to play out the final seconds with third-choice goalkeeper Nick Culkin, donning the number 35 shirt, between the sticks. Culkin, making his competitive debut for the club, carefully spotted the ball before wrapping his left foot around the resulting free-kick. As the ball floated in mid-air Poll blew his whistle to signify the end of the game, without Culkin’s kick even reaching the grass.
Before it had even started, Culkin’s career as a Manchester United goalkeeper was over, the record for shortest Premier League debut still standing to this day and unlikely to be topped. Just nine days later Alex Ferguson added another goalkeeper to the tombola: ill-fated Italian Massimo Taibi. Culkin remained on the books at the club until 2002 but wouldn’t enjoy another second of competitive on-pitch action, spending most of the remainder of his contract out on loan. Still, he’d had his moment – literally one second – in the sun, a memory few enjoy and one he can cherish forever.
Culkin joined Queens Park Rangers in 2002, spending three years at Loftus Road before retiring in 2005 at the age of 27, a baby in goalkeeping terms. The knee injury that ended his career restricted him to just 25 appearances in West London. Culkin came out of retirement in 2010, representing non-league Radcliffe Borough and Prescot Cables. When he joined FC United of Manchester in 2014 he became the first player to represent both Manchester United and the rebel club created in 2005. Culkin later became FC United’s goalkeeping coach. Nowadays the record-breaker splits his time between his gardening business and his goalkeeping coaching clinics, using his hands and staying close to the grass in both fields.
Part of our Number Ones series
(This feature was originally published as part of our Debuts series.)