You were involved with Man Utd’s Youth setup as both a player and a coach. Did you notice any differences between the two and how has it changed over time?
I was a player at Man Utd when Ron Atkinson was first team manager. Ron Atkinson was brilliant, he played brilliant football, but the difference with Sir Alex Ferguson was how much attention he paid to youth. Sir Alex Ferguson was constantly everywhere. Part of my job when I became Centre of Excellence Director was to arrange trials and I had to arrange trial games in the afternoon, because Sir Alex Ferguson wanted to come and watch. I couldn’t imagine Ron Atkinson doing that. I’m not saying he didn’t have an interest because he had young players in Whiteside and Hughes. But the total commitment and belief in the youth system from Sir Alex Ferguson was incredible and it rubbed off on everyone else, because they then had that interest in the youth and the desire to get the high standards. He made a connection with the school boy players because he stood on the side line during U14 and U15 games. I can’t imagine that happening at a lot of places. Then he would have a meeting with the scouts afterwards, so they felt connected and valued. If a player hadn’t done well, he would leave it to the scouts and say ‘well he hasn’t done well this time, but if you want to bring him back, then bring him back.’
At the end of the week we would go to a hotel for a meal. At this meal would be Sir Alex Ferguson, Brian Kidd, the reserve team coach, the youth team coach, as well as all the first team and youth scouts and the manager would speak to them all. Then we would do a sing-song – the Irish would sing, the Welsh would sing, the English would sing and the Scottish would sing. So he was already giving a sense of belonging to everyone and we became attached to the club.
He would meet the young players and invite them to first team games. He would chat to the parents to make them feel important, then he would look at his watch and say “oh, it’s half 2! I better go and give my team talk.” Now he had already given his team talk, but imagine how the parents feel thinking that he’s giving them that time.
He would say to everyone that young players needed to have no fear with the ball on the pitch. He is such a big, famous guy, that that would almost make you fearful in a way but the fact was he was already three steps along in the process – he would have already watched the trial games, he would then have had a meal with them, now he has the parents there – so the trust and belief factor was huge. The fact that this guy wanted you there and the way he connected everyone together was incredible.
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