Having made just 17 league appearances in Iron colours, you would be forgiven for thinking Scunthorpe United was just a small step in Neil Cox's career.This article first featured in Saturday's Iron versus AFC Wimbledon programme.
But as a young player, it was always Neil’s ambition to represent the club he grew up supporting as a child – something that very few are able to accomplish.
Even fewer get the opportunity to train with the first team and travel to their first away game at the tender age of just 13 so he certainly wasn’t waiting around to make his mark on the club he loved as a boy.
THE IRON caught up with Cox in the run up to this afternoon’s game and he kicked things off by telling us how that first contact with United came about.
“I used to join in with the players for pre-season training during the school holidays, beginning when I was 11 and then Frank Barlow, the manager at the time, invited me to train with the first team at the age of 13,” he said.
“I’d train with the youth team on some days, then the first team on others and I travelled on the team bus to my first game away at Burnley while I was still 13 which was a bit surreal.
“I carried on training at the club for a few years after that before signing as an apprentice and then myself, Richard Hall and Graham Alexander were all offered professional deals.
“I did have one or two other options but I was a local lad and I just wanted to play for my local team.”
Neil signed a two-year-deal with United in 1990 to make his dreams come true and you’d probably expect a player so young to be slightly daunted with what lied ahead.
Though Cox isn’t one to feel the pressure and simply got on with making a career for himself as a footballer.
He continued: “I was young but I just tried to take it all in my stride really.
“We had some talented senior players at the club and a very good set of management staff that really looked after us.
“Richard Money was youth team manager, Bill Green was assistant manager and Mick Buxton was the gaffer and they all wanted to give the youngsters a go.
“The team were on a bit of a bad run at one point and the manager decided to throw two young and inexperienced lads in myself and Richard Hall right into the first team so it was good that we had a manager who could trust us.”
Following some impressive displays in the side whenever he was called upon, it was only going to be a matter of time before the defender would attract the attentions of other clubs.
A handful of proposed deals failed to come to fruition but it was Aston Villa who eventually snapped up Neil’s services in early 1991.
“There were a few clubs interested in signing me at that time. Aston Villa had made one bid and Tottenham were looking to sign both myself and Richard Hall in the same deal at one point as well,” he explained.
“Richard moved to Southampton and then Villa came in with another bid of around £350,000 for me plus 2,000 claret seats which are used in the away end at Glanford Park to this day!
“Bill Green phoned me on the Sunday night to tell me that the club had agreed to sell me to Aston Villa and I went there on the Monday and flew out to Hong Kong with the team on the Tuesday so it was a completely different world for me and things changed so quickly.
“We won the 1994 League Cup final, finished second in the Premiership to Manchester United and I had the chance to play with some fantastic players such Paul McGrath, Dwight Yorke and Steve Staunton.”
Following his three year spell in the Midlands, Cox was signed for a seven figure sum by Middlesbrough in 1997.
And he went on to experience even more success during his time on Teeside.
“I was Middlesbrough’s new million pound signing so there was a bit of pressure on me but I felt the move was necessary in order to guarantee first team football for myself.
“Bryan Robson was a hero of mine growing up so to have been signed by him was amazing. We got on really well and I still speak to him even now.
“I was also fortunate enough to have played in the final game at Ayresome Park, when we beat Luton 2-1 to reach the Premiership.
“The gaffer had spent a lot of money on new players so we were under serious pressure to achieve, which thankfully we did and it was a great occasion to have been a part of.”
The latter stages of Neil’s career saw him play for the likes of Bolton, Cardiff and Crewe but it was during his time at Watford that he was able to attain more success and also the honour of being named captain.
And perhaps predictably, the reliable skipper then ventured into management following the conclusion of his career.
“I was at Bolton for a few years and then I went to Watford and captained them for almost three seasons.
“I had a great time there – we reached the semi-final of the FA Cup and the semi-final of the League Cup which as a Championship side was no mean feat.
“After retiring, I went on to manage Leek Town and enjoyed every minute of that.
“I still keep in touch with a few people from the club and it’s nice to see that they’re doing well because it was a good starting point for me.”
In October 2012, Neil was asked by his long-time friend Neal Ardley to assist him at United’s League Two rivals AFC Wimbledon, where he finds himself in the present day.
And this afternoon will be the first time that Cox has returned to North Lincolnshire, for football related work, since he left Glanford Park in 1991 so naturally he can’t wait to get this afternoon’s encounter underway.
He added: “Neal was offered an interview for the manager’s job at AFC Wimbledon and he asked me to come along. We’ve been friends for 20 years so I was more than happy to do so and I’ve been at the club for about 15 months now.
“It’s a great club and I’m loving every minute of it here. We’re slightly disappointed with where we are in the table at the moment because we started off so well but there’s still a long way to go.
“I haven’t been back to Glanford Park in a football capacity since I left so I’m looking forward to it. I’ve got a few memories from my time at the club and my parents live near the ground so it will be nice to see one or two familiar faces.
“Obviously my priorities are with AFC Wimbledon but I do look out for Scunthorpe’s results.
“The club will always mean a lot to me because they gave me my opportunity in professional football and for that, I will always be grateful.”