Heaton has no regrets about leaving United

Tom Heaton
Tom Heaton

Clarets skipper Tom Heaton returns to former club Manchester United as one of the form goalkeepers in the Premier League.

And, despite incurring the wrath of then-boss Sir Alex Ferguson, and suffering a blast of the infamous hair dryer, Heaton has no regrets about leaving Old Trafford in 2010.

The England international spent 13 years at United, and was part of the travelling party on duty for the Champions League Final win over Chelsea in Moscow in 2008.

He spent that season as third choice keeper, and watched United beat the Blues in the stands with the likes of another future Claret Chris Eagles, Ji-Sung Park, Gerard Pique and Danny Welbeck.

But two years later, after failing to make an appearance for the first team, despite six loan moves to gain experience, Heaton decided it was time to leave to further his career, turning down a contract offer to stay.

He explained: "It was tough, I was there from 11 to 24, I grew up there, learned my trade, but the feeling of wanting to play week in, week out never left me.

"I got to the point where we were talking about a new contract, but I'd just reached that point where I was 24 and thought it was right to move on and go and earn my stripes and earn a career.

"Thankfully, going back there and playing in the Premier League sort of vindicates the decision.

"Moscow was a big moment, having not played a minute, I trained every day and travelled to every game that season, but didn't play a minute.

"I didn't feel a fraud, but I wanted to be involved, almost the main man, that was the dream for me.

"I needed to go and play."

The moment of truth, informing Ferguson of his decision, was not easy: "It was a tough moment telling him I wanted to leave, and he gave me short shrift at the time. Pretty short.

"I understood, I'd been there 13 years and was leaving on a free, but three weeks down the line he had me back in and said he respected my decision and he was always there for me, which meant the world.

"It still feels like the right decision.

"I've come across him a couple of times, he was at the training ground here, and you stand up straighter and still call him the boss. It never leaves you.

"All the lads were giving me grief for days, but it's ingrained.

"You have such respect for him."

While Moscow was a moment which made Heaton ponder his future, the experience has also stayed with him, seeing now top professionals prepared for the biggest club game of their lives: "It was fantastic, brilliant for me working so closely with (Edwin) van der Sar, I tried to take as much as possible from him.

"I got on the bench 20/25 times and followed the team everywhere. It was brilliant to see that winning mentality, and be involved in Moscow, how they went about preparing for it.

"I was in the 24-man party, I was one of the six in the stands, but it was brilliant, in the dressing room, watching the build up and how they went about it.

"That never changed, from any other game, they prepared the same, and that's one of the things I took away from that level.

"We try to do that here, and I'm a big advocate of sticking to your routine and giving yourself the best chance to perform."

Unfortunately, he didn't get a medal from Moscow, but he smiled: "I got a Champions League ball! "You had to be on the bench for a medal, but I took a lot home from that night."

Van der Sar was undisputed number one in his time at United, a position now held by Spain star David de Gea.

Boss Sean Dyche compared his captain to de Gea recently, saying: "I watched David de Gea the other night against Liverpool and I thought he was tremendous - not just his saves but the way he is away from the ball, prowling across his box and reading the game.

"I think Tom has a bit of that in the way he has developed in his career over the last two years and as he continues to do so."

And Heaton admitted: "I'll be pleased if he has (compared me to de Gea).

"I haven't see that myself but he's certainly one of the top performers in the league over the last few years.

"He's been outstanding and continues to be so, he's certainly someone I look to to try and add to my game and I'm looking forward to playing against him.

"Everyone has different skill sets, outstanding things they can do, he's a fantastic distributor of the ball, he makes big saves at big times.

"He made a couple of fantastic saves against Liverpool.

"He seems to be very good one on one, there's a whole range of things."

De Gea is one of a number of world class talents at United, but they have not quite gelled under Jose Mourinho, and have not won the league since Ferguson retired in 2013.

They were a fixture in the Champions League, but missed out on qualifying for this season's competition.

Heaton expects the good times to return though: "It can be difficult at times in football, it's a transition period, change of staff, backroom staff, lot of player turnover, but they're still a fantastic side, but with their stature, unless you win everything all the time, there's going to be questions.

"The quality is still there, it's a case of it all coming together."

And if anyone knows how United can hurt you even when not at their best, it is Burnley, who turned in arguably their best performance of the season last time out at Old Trafford in February 2015, but still lost 3-1.

Heaton believes Burnley are better equipped this time around: "I think so (more streetwise). I think naive is too strong a word, but I think first time around there were a lot of unknowns for us, but now a lot of the squad have more experience and I think we're benefiting from that.

"It doesn't make the task any easier, but we know when to slow it down, speed it up - whatever it takes at the time.

"The manager and the staff put the gameplan together every week, we as players try and get out there, perform, stick to what they've given us, and so far it's worked well.

"We've had a few wins and it's been good."

Heaton will make his 140th successive league start for Burnley, though he had an injury scare a couple of weeks ago, shaking off a calf problem which forced him to withdraw from the England squad: "There's a hunger to play. After different loan spells, scratching, fighting and biting to get games, I had an opportunity here to build.

"Pulling out of the England squad is the last thing you want to do, but I'd hurt my calf and was going to be struggling all week.

"I managed to get out on the Saturday and train, and played Sunday. I'm desperate to get out there. It's taken a long time to get back to the Premier League and you don't want to give it up easily.

"I've been close to not making games, but thankfully the medics, staff have wheeled me out at times and I'm pleased to keep it going."

He has been on board for most of Dyche's time in charge, having been his first permanent signing, and as the manager celebrates four years in charge on Sunday, Heaton looked back: "There's been massive change, we were third favourites to get relegated from the Championship so that was interesting.

"We had a fantastic first season and it's gone on from there.

"I still think when we were relegated there were building blocks in place to move it forward, and that showed coming straight back up.

"I don't think you can do that if you're not still building.

"You can see the players we've got, the quality, the training ground, we've got more wins on the board, more experience - the whole thing is moving in the right direction."

Heaton had previously agreed to join Dyche at Watford, before the Pozzo family relieved him of his duties: "I'd known about the club, with my dad being from here, but he said it was an opportunity, "I'd liked what he said at Watford and then there was an interesting situation with him getting the bullet and my contract getting ripped up.

"I'd already understood what he was about, how he worked. So once the call came, I grabbed it and it went from there."