Around the time Paul Pogba made his return to Manchester United, a picture was making the runs online. The picture was taken in the dressing room following United’s 2011 Youth Cup triumph and was of Pogba and Jesse Lingard with the trophy. The picture shows two players who started together can take two completely different routes to end up in the same place. Another version of the same picture shows, cropped out of the first, Ravel Morrison sitting next to Pogba, showing that not all players can make it in the United team and that talent isn’t everything. But what many don’t know is that picture is not the original. There was another player in that photograph, standing shirtless next to Lingard, always edited out, as if no one wants to remember him. That player is Ryan Tunnicliffe.
Tunnicliffe’s history with United started since he was a child, first being spotted by United scouts at age nine. At this point his father, such was his confidence and belief in his son, made a £100 bet that Tunnicliffe would one day play for United. He signed as a scholar at United in July 2009 after progressing through the academy and signed his first professional contract in December of the same year.
Tunnicliffe quickly grew into the United youth team, and just the next season had become an important part of the United U18 team, commanding the midfield alongside Pogba. He, along with Pogba and Morrison, received praise from former United captain Gary Neville for his performance in the 2011 Youth Cup fifth round match against Newcastle United. Tunnicliffe won the Youth Cup that year, in what was the most celebrated United team of that age group in years. Despite playing with some immensely talented players, Tunnicliffe managed to stand out. So much so that he was awarded the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award at the end of the season. An award that none of the other players in that picture earlier ever won.
The summer after, Tunnicliffe, along with United teammate Scott Wootton, was loaned out to the Championship with Peterborough United, following their promotion from League One. Tunnicliffe made his debut in a 2-1 league win against Crystal Palace, and started the club’s next game, a League Cup tie away to Stevenage. Peterborough won the game 4-3 after extra time, with Tunnicliffe setting up the opening goal. In total Tunnicliffe made 30 appearances for Peterborough, 27 of which in the league, helping Peterborough to an 18th place finish.
Upon his return to United, Tunnicliffe became a regular in the reserve team. He went on to make his United debut in a 2-1 League Cup win against Newcastle, replacing Marnick Vermijl in the 77th minute, and earning his father a cool £10,000 from his ten-year-old bet. In February 2013 he joined Barnsley on a 28-day loan following an injury to left-back Scott Golbourne, making three appearances in his four weeks at the club.
In July 2013 Tunnicliffe joined Ipswich Town on a six-month loan deal. At Ipswich, he revealed that he took the shirt number 16 because of his idol Roy Keane. As early as September, Ipswich manager Mick McCarthy expressed his interest in keeping Tunnicliffe beyond the agreed six months, an idea Tunnicliffe said he was open to a month later. However, the extension never materialised, and Tunnicliffe went back to United in January 2014.
Not long after his return, Tunnicliffe, along with Larnell Cole, left United on a permanent deal to join Fulham for an undisclosed fee to join former United coach Rene Meulensteen, who was appointed manager following the sacking of Martin Jol, who Meulensteen was originally appointed to assist. He played two matches under Meulensteen, but following the Dutchman’s sacking and the appointment of Felix Magath, Tunnicliffe was deemed surplus to requirements and was loaned out to Wigan Athletic until the end of the season, as cover for the injured Ben Watson. The loan was far from a successful one, culminating in Wigan attempting to return him to Fulham, only to be rejected, as Fulham didn’t want him back.
Tunnicliffe was loaned back out on deadline day of the 2014 summer window, this time to Blackburn Rovers. On 28 September, Tunnicliffe went off the bench with Blackburn 2-1 down at home to Watford. Just 15 minutes later, he was on the end of a Ben Marshall and headed the ball past Heurelho Gomes and into the back of the net, salvaging a point with what was his first senior goal. Tunnicliffe went on to make 17 appearances for Blackburn before, in contrast to what happened the season before, he was recalled by Fulham on the first day of the January transfer window. Under new manager Kit Symons, Tunnicliffe became a regular in the Fulham first team upon his return, appearing in 24 matches, none of which was from the bench.
The 2015-16 season was a turbulent one for Fulham, as no less than four coaches took up the role of manager. Symons stayed until 8 November 2015, when he was sacked, with Peter Grant installed as caretaker manager only to be replaced by Stuart Gray in the same role. It was not until 27 December that Slavisa Jokanovic was announced as permanent manager. Tunnicliffe’s game time did suffer from this, as he was no longer a fixture in the Fulham team, but still managed a respectable 29 appearances in his first full season with a club in his senior career. Tunnicliffe’s contribution still couldn’t help Fulham to achieve a successful season, as they finished just two places above relegation in 20th.
Tunnicliffe was not a stranger to controversy throughout his career. While at United, Tunnicliffe, then 19, was arrested for drink-driving after the car he was driving collided with a van, with both vehicles badly damaged. Tunnicliffe was also banned from the two opening matches of the 2015-16 season, as well as a £5,000 fine and was ordered to take an educational course after calling Middlesbrough striker Patrick Bamford a “sausage boy” over twitter after the 2015 Championship play-off final, which Middlesbrough lost.
Currently, Tunnicliffe is still at Fulham and is still fighting for a regular starting role under Jokanovic. Tunnicliffe started the season opener against Newcastle and was taken off in the 69th minute as Fulham went on to defeat the title favourite 1-0. For the second game of the season, away to Preston North End, Tunnicliffe was left on the bench as his team won the game 2-1. In just two games, Tunnicliffe has seen that there is heavy competition in the Fulham midfield. He may not have had the career he expected to have after that Youth Cup and Young Player of the Year award wins, but he has shown his determination by clawing his way back into contention at Fulham after being frozen out just two weeks after signing. At just 23, he is still young but has experienced playing in seven different clubs in wildly different circumstances, an experience that should help him in maturing as a player and unlocking some more of the potential he showed in the youth ranks of United.