Kirk Hilton using his Manchester United experiences to nurture Dubai's youth football talent
The Go-Pro founder and coach once faced Ronaldo and trained with Beckham and Scholes - now he is aiming to identify similar talents in the UAE
If you were a footballer, how would you feel about having to play against Cristiano Ronaldo?
How about having to play directly against Cristiano Ronaldo in your first game for a club when coming back from career-affecting injury?
For Kirk Hilton, a former Manchester United squad member under Alex Ferguson and now based in Dubai as director of youth football academy Go-Pro, this was not a hypothetical situation.
Hilton had been on loan at Royal Antwerp during his Old Trafford spell, where he was full-time between the ages of 16 to 23, and then signed for the Belgian club in the summer of 2006 after stints at Livingston, Blackpool and Altrincham.
“We played a behind-closed-doors game at Carrington [United’s training complex] and it was my first game back at Antwerp,” Hilton says. “We played a Manchester United XI and it included Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, the Da Silva twins, Wayne Rooney … and Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Ronaldo was right-wing and I was playing left-back. I was just thinking to myself ‘oh my … I don’t need this. I’m just back from an injury and this is my first game back here. I’m trying to impress and I’m playing against Ronaldo!’
“Luckily, he wasn’t that bothered because it was just a game against Antwerp behind closed doors – and he switched wings in the second half. We lost 3-1 but he didn’t score so I’ll take that.
"But Ronaldo is the best player I played against.”
Hilton, who left United in 2003, grew up surrounded by Old Trafford greats, training with household names such as David Beckham – “fantastic” – and Paul Scholes – “on another level, a level above”.
In the same youth group as Wes Brown and John O’Shea, Hilton cleaned Dwight Yorke’s boots as a youngster, meeting up with the former United striker recently in Dubai for “a bit of a pasting” at a round of golf.
Hilton’s dreams of emulating those names never came to fruition, with serious groin issues that required operations severely hindering his opportunity to impress at Old Trafford.
He had a first-team squad number, No 28, but never made an appearance for United. After a hip operation at 28 he was forced to retire from football and followed his wife, a teacher, to Dubai.
He set up Go-Pro seven years ago, where now some 300 youngsters from around 20 different nationalities, boys and girls, aged five to 18, can hear how you stop Ronaldo in full-flight.
There are four full-time coaches all of whom have UEFA ‘B’ coaching licenses and are former professional footballers.
Training sessions are conducted after school up to four times a week, with matches at the weekend. Based at Dubai English Speaking College in Silicon Oasis, it is run “in a professional environment, similar to the academies in England”, says Hilton.
The ultimate goal is for a youngster to sign with a professional club, but he does not shy away from stating how hard that is to accomplish.
While Hilton feels opportunities to join Arabian Gulf League teams are improving – two of his players, an Emirati and an Indian, have signed for Al Nasr – most target signing for English clubs.
That, however, requires sacrifices. Hilton has seen youth players leave their parents, or indeed one parent move with them while the other remains in the UAE, to try and achieve their football dream.
“If you go back at 13-14 there are opportunities for you,” he says. “If you leave it any later I think it’s very tough. At 16-17 you have to be better than what they have.”
Seven former players are at professional clubs abroad at teams including Everton – where Mackenzie Hunt, 18, has signed a three-year professional contract – Manchester City, Accrington Stanley, Sunderland Ladies and one set for the MLS draft. Another player has trials at Liverpool, and eight are currently on soccer scholarships in the United States.
There are, of course, other football academies in the UAE, including ones also run by former players, but Hilton sees Go-Pro continuing to grow.
“I think over the next five or so years you’ll see more going [to professional clubs],” he says.
Maybe one day as well as playing against him, Hilton will have helped coached the next Ronaldo.
Updated: February 12, 2020 08:12 AM