The McAtee brothers looking for a fairytale FA Cup reunion

John (left) and James - The McAtee brothers looking for a fairytale FA Cup reunion - Guzelian/Lorne Campbell
John (left) and James - The McAtee brothers looking for a fairytale FA Cup reunion - Guzelian/Lorne Campbell

"Some of my mates back home wind me up about it. I don't get annoyed by it, it's an honour. David Silva is one of my idols. I'll take it any day." The "Salford Silva", as Manchester City fans like to call their silky young midfield playmaker James McAtee, is talking about his nickname when his big brother chips in.

"They call me the Salford Jimmy Grimble," John McAtee says, deadpan, in a typically self-deprecating nod to the 2000 British film about a Manchester schoolboy whose football skills and confidence mushroom thanks to a pair of magic boots.

Welcome to an interview with the McAtee brothers, two very different personalities - and players - with contrasting trajectories but siblings who share a close bond and who could, if things go their way on Sunday, be pit against each other in an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley next month.

James is the gifted England Under-21 international for whom Premier League champions City have high hopes not wildly dissimilar to those that followed another local Mancunian, Phil Foden. Calm, quiet and considered, the 20-year-old is currently on loan at the Championship's promotion chasers Sheffield United, who face Blackburn Rovers in the Cup quarter-finals at Bramall Lane on Sunday.

By contrast, John - loud in the best sense, outgoing and a natural in front of the camera - had to fight his way into professional football and has been forced to overcome more than a few bumps in the road. Despite only being three years James' senior at 23, the forward has already represented eight clubs.

A moment in the spotlight now awaits, though, with League Two Grimsby Town who, having knocked out Southampton in the previous round, are hoping for another Premier League giant-killing at Brighton.

"I wanted him in this round but he wanted me at Wembley," says John, who is on loan at Grimsby from Championship side Luton Town.

"That'd be a game we can always remember,” adds James. “Obviously the final is the dream but we'd take it [a semi-final]. John shoots his brother a look from the corner of his eye. "We've got to beat Brighton first, mate! That'll be some going!”

They would not be the first McAtees to reach Wembley, though. Their dad, John, a former rugby league player with St Helens, played for a Great Britain academy side against New Zealand there in the early-to-mid Nineties. "What year was that?" asks James. "Dinosaurs were about, weren't they?" John pipes up, to widespread laughter in the room, before adopting a slightly more serious tone. “My dad understands certain things that other parents wouldn’t. He had certain experiences.”

James McAtee - The McAtee brothers looking for a fairytale FA Cup reunion - Getty Images/Catherine Ivill
James McAtee - The McAtee brothers looking for a fairytale FA Cup reunion - Getty Images/Catherine Ivill

Do they take their dad’s advice? “About football?” James says. “The one thing he always says is that the happiest players are the best players. That’s the only line I’d take from him!”

The family’s sporting pedigree actually extends much further. Their mum Gill's uncle is no less than Alan Ball, a World Cup winner with England in 1966 and a former City manager. Ball died aged 61 in 2007 when John had still to turn eight and James was just four and their memories, understandably if sadly, are sketchy. "I only met him once, down in Southampton," John recalls, his smile widening. "Kicking a ball about. It's very vague. There was a bouncy castle there. I was passing a ball with him."

"It was sad, I never got to meet him," James adds, at which point John interjects. "No, you did, but you were a bit too young. My mum talks about him all the time, the same as my nana. They said he would’ve loved us.”

“He’d be one of the best people to get advice from,” James says. “It’s sad he passed at such a young age.”

Ball would certainly be very proud, not least for the way the brothers are there for each other. When James initially struggled with the adaptation to the Championship at the start of the season, the biggest challenge to date in a career that had an unassailable rise to that point, it was to his brother that he turned.

Whereas James had been feted throughout City’s academy after leaving rivals Manchester United at 10 and, before that, having a fleeting spell at Liverpool, John’s journey has been anything but linear and strewn with setbacks. Released first by Liverpool and then United at Under-16s before failing to get a scholarship at Burnley, he fell out of love with football and was ready to turn his back on it when an unexpected call from Shrewsbury Town changed everything.

“When you look at how we’ve got to where we are, it’s very different but that’s helped a lot,” John says. “I’ve had quite a bit of adversity. When he’s had a bit of that – not a lot – [I can say to him] ‘I’ve kind of gone through those [moments] and overcome them’.

“James is doing that right now. He had a couple of bad games at the start of the season but looks like a different person completely now. We can help each other. We don’t really talk when things are going well. We speak a lot more when it’s not going well, to check we’re all right.”

'I thought I was done with football'

James values John’s support and advice greatly. “You’ve got your brother who does the same job as you,” he explains. “It’s one of the best things in the world. We trust each other, we’re a close family. I can always turn to him. A little message. It’s easier when it’s coming from your brother because you know he wants the best for you. With other people you’re always second guessing but he’s giving the best advice possible and wants you to be happy.”

That was never more important than in late August at Luton, his brother’s parent club, when James was substituted at half-time after a bruising experience in only his third game for Paul Heckingbottom’s Sheffield United. “That was a big learning curve,” James recalls. “It was more than just kicking me, it was me not being aware of the level I was stepping into. I was a bit arrogant, a bit naïve to go into the game that I’ve always been decent in no matter what game. It was a big wake-up call and probably the best thing that’s happened. I was very down [afterwards]. I texted my brother.

“My brother and some of the lads at Sheffield put their arm around me and said: ‘It happens to everyone’. If that game hadn’t happened, I don’t think I’d be as good as I am now. I wouldn’t have learned lessons.

“I feel like I’m getting better with the physicality and the pace of the Championship. I can start doing the things I like to do and affect the game more. It’s been a good middle part of the season and hopefully it carries on.”

The challenge was laid out by Heckingbottom the moment he first met McAtee and asked the youngster in no uncertain terms: “How are you going to make us better?”

“I think if you asked the players at Sheffield, they’d say I’ve grown a bit, I’ve got stronger,” James adds. “Second balls was a big thing for me – I was reacting to the ball instead of being around it in the first place. I went into the Championship thinking it’d be the same, that it’d go well. At the start it made me take a step back.”

'I think I’ve got the ability to play in midfield for Manchester City'

Will it be the making of you? “One hundred per cent,” he replies. “I don’t think I could make the next step without this one.”

City were initially reluctant for McAtee to go out on loan this season, despite offers from across Europe, the Premier League and Championship, and favoured the approach taken with Foden, who stayed at the club and developed on their watch. No academy graduates in the Abu Dhabi era have gone out on loan and then come back to establish themselves in the City first team but James’ response was telling and reflective of a steely determination masked by his laid-back, almost horizontal nature. “I’ll be the first,” he said.

The experience of another young midfielder, Morgan Gibbs-White, who scored 11 goals in 33 Championship starts under Heckingbottom the previous season, also helped to convince McAtee and City that Sheffield United would be a good temporary home.

City have been impressed with the way McAtee has responded and handled the challenge after a tough start at Bramall Lane. The club’s director of football, Txiki Begiristain, continues to follow his progress closely. A few weeks ago, McAtee met with Pep Guardiola to discuss next season. City want to sign Jude Bellingham this summer but, with doubts over the futures of Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo Silva, the midfield could undergo a significant makeover and McAtee is likely to be given the chance to prove his worth on the club’s pre-season tour.

“I wouldn’t take anything away from Phil at all, he’s an amazing player, but the team has grown a lot [since]. There were five midfielders. I needed minutes to try to become the player that City can trust,” McAtee said.

“Personally I think I’ve got the ability to play in midfield [for City]. But I am a player who can move around. If I’m playing for City’s first team then I’ll take it in any position.

James (L) John (R) - The McAtee brothers looking for a fairytale FA Cup reunion - Guzelian/Lorne Campbell
James (L) John (R) - The McAtee brothers looking for a fairytale FA Cup reunion - Guzelian/Lorne Campbell

“There is a philosophy in the academy to get you into the first team. Obviously the older you get the more advanced and specific it is. It’s what I’ve been brought up with my whole life.”

What advice has Guardiola given him? “His biggest piece of advice is to become more patient,” McAtee says without hesitation. “When I get the ball I want to make things happen, keep trying it, but he says to keep recycling it and in good teams like City you’ll always get the ball back in better positions.”

Gundogan has been a helpful sounding board. “The best thing was just watching them play but Gundo was very good to me, he spoke to me quite a lot, and I enjoyed watching Kevin [De Bruyne],” James says.

Does that nickname bring with it an added pressure? “I wouldn’t say it’s pressure. It’s just a nickname that fans like to use,” he says. “The fans aren’t saying I have to be as good as Silva. I like to feel pressure, I like those high pressure games. I’ve got an alter-ego on the pitch, I’m not as laid back as this. I’m constantly on my toes, constantly ready. I care. I love the game.”

As James talks, John listens intently. He may joke that he is “too loud for my own good” but it is evident just how proud he is of his younger brother, whom he recalls inviting to play with his friends all those years ago and subsequently watched get better and better. “He was obviously very good but you don’t see it like that: he’s your brother who’s decent for his age,” John explains. “It was only a few years ago when you realise that he’s actually unbelievable. He went to City at a young age and it was full time. I was kicking a ball at the park with my mates and he was constantly training at the best facilities with the best players.”

Yet James’ deep admiration for the battles John has faced and won through is just as clear. Lesser characters would have given up after being rejected by United and Burnley and missing out on a scholarship. Not John, and James remembered that through his early struggles at Sheffield United.

“I kind of fell out of love with it, hated it [at that time],” John reflects. “I just wanted to go to college and be a normal Salford lad, enjoying certain things with my friends.

“I thought I was done with football. My dad got a phone call off my old Under 9s coach at Liverpool, Ian Daws, who had the youth team at Shrewsbury. They said to bring me to a game. I played against Coventry Under 23s and I scored a hat-trick. I don’t know how, I couldn’t tell you how!

“They gave me a scholar straight after the game. I’d forgotten about footy for three months prior to that. Those three months weren’t about me losing confidence, it was just not enjoying it anymore. Luckily I signed that scholar and haven’t looked back since.”

John had loan spells with four different clubs during his time at Shrewsbury before joining Scunthorpe in 2019 and, two years later, Grimsby. Luton signed him last summer and loaned him back to Grimsby where he now stands on the cusp of an FA Cup semi-final.

John Mcatee - The McAtee brothers looking for a fairytale FA Cup reunion - Reuters/Toby Melville
John Mcatee - The McAtee brothers looking for a fairytale FA Cup reunion - Reuters/Toby Melville

Would he change his career path? “Nah. I’d probably change me as a person!” he said. “I was oblivious to certain things [when I was younger] and probably didn’t take it as seriously as I should have but, in terms of where I’m at now, I’m buzzing. It’s made me grow as a person. If I hadn’t had that adversity you’d be talking to a different person now.”

Having watched James’ Sheffield United eliminate Tottenham in the fifth round, it is John’s turn to be watched by mum and dad, who will be at the Amex Stadium on Sunday hoping to see their eldest son knock out Brighton. Since Grimsby kick-off two and a quarter hours after Sheffield United, James says he will be making a sharp exit from Bramall Lane to get home to watch his brother. And John? “I’ll be sat in the dressing room, slyly watching James’s game in the corner trying to hide it,” he says, laughing.

Gill McAtee is a dance coach - the boys’ sister Lucy appeared on the TV show Got To Dance - which helps to explain why James and John can celebrate goals with a somersault, something both hope to be doing on Sunday. “Mine’s better than his,” says John. James is not so sure but will concede defeat when it comes to dancing. “He’s definitely a better dancer than me,” James admits. “We have our own places and Lucy’s at home but we’re all close when we meet up. She supports us but I don’t think she enjoys it [football].”

The brothers have played each other once before professionally, when John’s Scunthorpe were beaten 4-0 by a City Under-21 side featuring James in the EFL Trophy in September 2020. But a FA Cup semi-final meeting would be a whole different story. “I think mum was a little bit nervous before that game - she didn’t want one of us to hurt the other - but if we both got through to the semi-finals I think she’ll be a lot more stressed!” James says. “My mum and dad are very happy for us but I don’t know what they’ll be like if we play each other!”

It would be some story.