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Kyle Nix interview: Ex-Manchester United talent on open-heart surgery and coping with life after leaving the club of his dreams
Former Manchester United prospect Kyle Nix had the world at his feet but his dream turned into a nightmare and by 30 he was having open-heart surgery. In this exclusive interview, he opens up to Adam Bate about a career full of regrets and why he has found redemption in his coaching career
Last Updated: 09/07/20 9:54am
Kyle Nix remembers the date. Of course he does. June 3, 2016. The day that he had open-heart surgery at the age of 30. "I had to sign the forms in case I did not wake up from the operation," he tells Sky Sports. "I will never forget the look on my mum's face that day."
He had been some prospect as a teenager, an England U18 and U20 international who joined Aston Villa from Manchester United for a six-figure sum despite having a contract offer on the table at Old Trafford. But those heady days were long gone by 2016.
Tumours in the bottom left ventricle of Nix's heart had broken off and become stuck in different parts of his body. One in his right femur blocked the circulation to his legs.
"I could barely walk," he says.
"When I got the phone call to say that it was a tumour, I just froze. Within 10 hours I was in hospital on nil by mouth being told I needed open-heart surgery. A 12-hour procedure.
"It was one of the rarest cases ever known. Even when the doctors spoke to five specialist in America, they were dumbfounded. They were baffled by it all.
"They took my heart out of my body, that is how intricate the surgery was."
Nix's life was saved but it would not be the same again. A once promising career, one still earning him a lucrative living as he pursued his passion in Thailand, was over.
"Straight away, your career is done."
Now based in Australia having launched a successful coaching company together with his two brothers, Nix's journey is not just one of redemption after life-threatening surgery.
His is a cautionary tale of excess and addiction, an insight into the perils of having too much too soon and the challenge of coping with a career derailed by bad decisions.
He makes no excuses for the mistakes, only hoping he can help others take a different path.
As he reflects on all that has happened to him in his short life, there is the sense of a man still putting the pieces back together.
"Why did I get this tumour? What pressures were on me? What pressure was I putting on myself?"
Nix's talent was never in doubt and he has the England caps to prove it. At United, his contemporaries included future first-team players Chris Eagles and Kieran Richardson.
With England, he played in the same side as Tom Huddlestone and Jamie O'Hara as well as Liverpool midfielder James Milner. "He was out wide and I was in the middle."
Nix was not afraid to stand out from the crowd.
"I was just a bit different," he says. "I used to wear white boots when it was a bit more old school back then. I did tricks and played off the cuff. United wanted me to express myself."
Nix insists that he "could have gone to any club in England at that time" and in a sense that was the problem. At an age when he should have been focusing on developing his game, there were distractions. Agents became involved. Money matters took over.
"There was a lot of pressure on my shoulders," he admits.
"I remember going to meet agents with my dad every other day."
Manchester United had offered Nix a two-year scholarship followed by one year as a professional. But the lure of more money from Aston Villa, including a signing-on fee, was enough to persuade him to leave for Villa Park. He signed terms on his 17th birthday.
He is still processing how it all came to pass.
"You get advised," he says. "I had that many agents after me at the time. I went with an agent who advised me and my dad to leave. I was a Manchester United fan and you just don't know at that age. I was just a young kid. I had money thrown at me.
"These are the fine lines. It is something that I always think about."
Aston Villa was not the experience that he had hoped it would be.
Nix still rates it as one of the best academies in the country. He played in an FA Youth Cup final and featured regularly alongside future Premier League winner Gary Cahill. But the compensation fee that Villa had paid to acquire him brought with it certain expectations.
"It was not the same vibe at all," he recalls. "United felt like a family. This was a totally different environment. I had come in for big money and was being paid big money. It is different. I was probably not accepted at first looking back. Even by the coaches.
"I was this kid from Manchester United. I had played on Sky for England. Who is this kid who thinks he's big time? I don't mean it in a bad way but it was knocked out of me."
Graham Taylor was sacked and replaced by David O'Leary.
"That changed everything."
Before too long, he was released.
"My confidence went. I just did not know how to deal with getting released by a club that had bought me. You just think that your natural progression is to go to the first team."
There was a professional debut under Neil Warnock at Sheffield United and more than 60 appearances for Bradford City after that. Stuart McCall wanted him to stay longer but he rejected the request to go back for the 2009/10 season as a triallist.
"I refused because I felt I had already proved myself. I ended up at Mansfield."
The truth is that a part of Nix never really left Manchester United.
"By the mid-stage of my career, I already had massive regrets about leaving United. I was having those thoughts during my career about what might have been."
One telling example illustrates the point. Nix was playing for Mansfield against Darlington in the FA Trophy final in 2011 in front of a Wembley crowd of almost 25,000.
But rather than enjoying the moment, his mind was elsewhere.
"I should have been buzzing but all I could think about was the fact that Manchester United were playing there against Barcelona in the Champions League final later that month.
"I could have been playing in that game instead. It was hard to accept where they were at and where I had ended up. I should have been in my prime but I was full of regrets."
Life lower down the pyramid was not to his tastes but a move to Asia offered hope of a fresh start. There were better days on the pitch where he impressed as the lone Englishman in teams in Thailand playing under coaches from Brazil, Holland and Japan.
Off the pitch, there were problems anew.
"I took a dive into the deep end," he says. "That was where some of my problems started.
"I was struggling because I could not speak the language and I was in an apartment on my own having just gone through a breakup. I had problems with drink. It was challenging."
Nix sought treatment for his addictions from Sporting Chance. "I just needed help," he says.
But it was while out in Asia, having battled back from those demons to secure the biggest contract offer of his career, that his physical problems also came to the fore.
"I did not know what was happening to me. I was just feeling tired in games. I remember getting on a treadmill and I could do about one minute before my calves seized up.
"It was like a burning sensation. I cannot explain it. I felt like I had done a marathon and my fitness levels were unbelievable. It turned out that while I had looked fit, I had the blood circulation of a 75-year-old man. I went from thinking I had something wrong with legs to being told I had multiple tumours. I had actually had a mini heart-attack."
Back in Sheffield for surgery, the recovery was not swift. Nix was housebound for almost six months before he was cleared to fly to join his brothers in Australia in November 2016.
The trio launched a coaching company called K3 - their names are Kyle, Korey and Kallum. They started by providing free camps, working with just seven children. It has since become a huge success and not just for the youngsters but for the man at the heart of it too.
"I needed something," Nix admits.
"I was on autopilot for the first two years. I put on a lot of weight. I could hardly walk. I am only just starting to come to terms with everything."
His brothers, both of whom were also on Manchester United's books as youngsters, helped him to get back on his feet and, just as importantly, gave him something to get back for.
"I would not have come to Australia if it weren't for them but I dread to think what would have become of me if I had stayed in England," he adds.
"Now we are inundated with coaching requests."
One moment just before Christmas proved particularly cathartic.
The Nix brothers had the chance to place one of the young Australian girls from their coaching programme into the youth academy at Manchester United.
For Kyle, in particular, it was an emotional occasion.
"It was my first time back at the club since leaving as a young lad and having my last meeting with Paul McGuinness, the academy coach. That was surreal.
"I have gone full circle, trying to help kids with their own opportunities. That is powerful.
"What we have done is pretty unique. Teaching young kids one-on-one and getting them trials at Manchester United. We have two kids in there now, a boy and a girl.
"We love coaching and we still love the club."
It has been a life of extraordinary highs and lows but Nix is determined to come out the other side stronger for the experience.
"You have to be positive with the kids and I am positive because I have got to be because I know where negativity can lead," he says.
"The truth is that I am probably in a better mindset now, after my career has finished, than I ever was during my career.
"I am just grateful for my life. I might never have woken up."