It is exactly five years on Sunday since Marcus Rashford made his Premier League debut for Manchester United. Then 18, the striker announced himself with two goals against Arsenal to inspire a memorable 3-2 victory.
That same day, another talented young player also made his first league appearance for the club. Louis van Gaal sent 20-year-old James Weir on as an 89th-minute substitute – but it would be the only time the reserve-team captain would feature in the senior side.
While Rashford has gone on to score more goals for United than Eric Cantona, is a central figure for England, has become a campaigner for social change and even been awarded an MBE, his former housemate Weir’s life has taken a different trajectory.
That one minute – plus injury time – against the Gunners is now a distant memory. As Rashford gears up to face Chelsea on Sunday, Weir, now 25, finds himself immersed in a relegation battle in Slovakia.
Sharing a house – and a debut – with Rashford
Weir joined United’s academy as a 13-year-old from Preston and lived in digs with the same family as Rashford, who was two years younger.
“Since the age of 11 or 12 he was treated special,” Weir tells BBC Sport. “In Manchester they knew he would become good for the first team. I knew him quite well as we lived together.
“Maybe I would not have expected him to have a career like he has now, but I definitely thought he would be around the first team. He just excelled and is a great player.
“He was quiet and shy. We used to play in the garden with the kids or at PlayStation. He was quite normal, he had two older brothers and his mum behind him.
“Now he does a lot for the community, so he is a great professional on the pitch and a top person off it. It is incredible what he is doing.”
After the Arsenal game there was no looking back for Rashford, who had scored twice on his debut for the club three days earlier, against FC Midtjylland in the Europa League.
Weir’s journey to the first team had been a slower one.
As reserve-team captain he was around the first team quite often and during Van Gaal’s tenure he became involved more regularly.
“I played one game with Wayne Rooney in the reserves and I learnt a bit from him in terms of ‘street football’,” says Weir. “I found out from him you don’t have to think much about it, you just go out there and play, play without fear. Like as a kid, when you love the game and you don’t worry about anything.” Juan Mata encouraged him to make direct runs towards the goal when he played wide.
But when Van Gaal was sacked in May 2016, Weir decided to leave.
“The club wanted me to sign and go out for a loan, but at that time I trained with the first team maybe twice during pre-season, so obviously I thought about that,” he reflects.
“I was 21, hadn’t played much senior football and I knew I wasn’t part of [new manager Jose] Mourinho’s plans. If you get on the loan circuit you can sometimes get lost in the system and Hull came with a good offer.”
Hull’s manager Mike Phelan knew him from United and Weir hoped he could become involved in the Premier League more regularly. However, as the Tigers sank into a relegation battle Phelan was replaced by Marco Silva. Unwanted, Weir left for a loan at Wigan.
Wigan were managed by Warren Joyce, who coached Weir in United’s reserves. But four months after joining the club, he got sacked. “That is kind of what football in England is: it is a risky business and you can easily end up in a relegation battle. It is frustrating because I didn’t really play at Wigan. It was disappointing. Probably I wasn’t ready physically to play Premier League or Championship football.”
Weir returned to Hull but as he battled for his place in the squad, he got a knee injury. The rehabilitation lasted longer than expected – prolonged by infection – and he ended up spending 15 months without playing a single game.
In August 2019, he signed for Bolton Wanderers but fell out with manager Keith Hill and in January 2020 his contract was cancelled by mutual consent.
Having played just 15 times for those three clubs since leaving United, Weir had to find a new club quickly.
“That is why I am in Slovakia now,” he says. “It might not be the most glamorous in the world, but I am just happy to play again.
“I had not played for a while and I needed some games and when the opportunity came it was good. I didn’t care about where it was or about money.”
A move to Czech side Slovan Liberec did not work out, so he signed at Pohronie.
“A lot of clubs had squads completed, as it was the second half of February, which is not a great time to do a transfer,” he adds. “My English agent had a contact, a good friend in Slovakia. It worked well to get some games.”
‘A small team from a small town’ – celebrating survival with the locals
Pohronie are ninth out of 12 teams in Slovakia’s Fortuna Liga, so Weir finds himself immersed in a relegation battle. He is team’s top scorer, with five goals, alongside Gambian winger Alieu Fadera.
The club is based in Ziar nad Hronom, a small town in central Slovakia with a population of about 18,800. During the summer, with flights from the UK to Slovakia cancelled because of coronavirus, Weir had to travel by ferry from England to the Netherlands and then drive 18 hours to join the team.
It is a long way from the glamour of Old Trafford and the Premier League.
“It’s an eye-opener because in England you get a little spoilt, and most people there won’t even watch foreign football,” he says. “The contrast in money and fans’ support is obviously very big. But it’s still football.
“I’ve liked some stadiums in Slovakia too, for example Spartak Trnava’s stadium, but then we also played the Slovak Cup in some village.”
His description of Pohronie as “a small team from a small town” is an accurate one.
He remembers a victory against Nitra last season, a result that secured Pohronie’s top-flight status. After the match, the players went to a small local pub with some fans to celebrate.
“We had some food and drink. In England, you might go to a club or bigger bar, so it was completely different,” he laughs, reflecting on an evening which involved a lot of ‘borovicka’, a local alcoholic drink flavoured with juniper berries.
How long will he stay? Weir is hopeful he can help Pohronie remain in the top flight again, and that it could be a “stepping stone” for his career.
“It probably wasn’t meant to last as long as it has done,” Weir adds. “It’s been good to finally have a year of playing and the plan for me is to get into a bigger club.
“I would like to play in, maybe, Hungary or Austria, and then eventually get to Germany or even England.”