After 23 years coaching some of the greatest youngsters in football at Manchester United, the son of former Busby Babe and United manager Wilf McGuinness is ready to go again. He talks to Andy Mitten about his life in football.
“I was born in 1966 and at the age of five or six I can remember going to Manchester United’s Cliff training ground to see my dad (Wilf), who was then United’s manager. I remember going to Old Trafford too and climbing the staircase to Sir Matt Busby’s office, where he had a swivel chair. There was a big bath in the home changing room, it seemed so huge to a little kid. Old Trafford also had a very distinctive smell and opponents used to comment on it. It was a medicinal smell from Five Oils, the rub which players used for massages. Visiting teams used to say they could smell it Manchester United.
There was some upset in my family when my dad left the club in 1970 and the subject remained a conversation at home when we went to Greece where he became manager. We lived in Salonika and I went to an American school with my sister. Dad moved to another Greek club in 1974 for a season where there was no English school, so he had a teacher shipped over from Manchester specially. Home schooling had advantages and disadvantages. When I came back to Manchester I was probably a year behind in some subjects and couldn’t speak any French. I vividly remember being asked to stand up and talk in French, aged eight.
Back in England I used to play football whenever possible. We played Knock-out Wembley, a game from which you can learn so much. It creates goalscorers, it helps you learn to dribble and take a man on. I went to Wembley itself for the first time in 1976. For such a legendary place, it was a real let down – and not only because United lost the FA Cup final to Southampton.
I didn’t go a year later when United won the FA cup. By 1977 we were living in York, where dad was now manager of York City. That meant another new school, where dad told me to tell the other kids that I was a centre forward. Because the kids weren’t as good in York as Manchester, I was fine up front. I scored a hat-trick in the first half of my first game, but the other kids couldn’t understand why I wore trainers and not boots. Dad promised me boots if I scored a hat-trick in the second half. I did that and dad brought some boots home a few days later. I was lucky; I had a choice.
With my new boots I scored loads of goals and felt like a king. After one game in which I scored ten goals, dad took us in his Jag to York’s ground where I was allowed a bath in the first team dressing room. The back seat of the car was covered so I didn’t get it muddy. I lay back in the bath and recalled every goal. Life was wonderful, but I had a shock coming. I hadn’t cleaned the bath properly and received such a rollocking. It was a test, the first of many, to keep my feet on the ground.
My aim was to play for Manchester United and to also be a PE teacher. Mum had told me to get something else behind me because dad had broken his leg playing for United which ended his playing career. We moved back to Manchester and I got into the Manchester schoolboys team. I had trials at Middlesbrough, Leeds and Nottingham Forest – but I also stayed at school to do A Levels. United invited me to do evening training. I was older than most of the young players but worked really hard. I played on the bench for the youth team but didn’t quite follow dad into playing for the youth team, but United offered me a year as a pro after my A levels.
I regularly played reserve team football with six or seven internationals, players like Gordon McQueen, Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran and the local Salford boy Billy Garton. Clayton Blackmore, Mark Dempsey, Arnold Murhen, Arthur Graham, Alan Brazil, Mark Hughes and Frank Stapleton all played reserve football. Standards were high and I loved it.
I dreamed of making it at United but still wanted to go to university. I signed a part-time contract, which seems odd now. Maybe I had doubts. I did a PE and sports science degree at Loughborough, with the idea of travelling back for games. The day before I was due to start, I was invited to be the 13th man for United’s first team for a game at Luton. I roomed with Mark Hughes and was there when the 10 game winning run at the start of the 1985-86 season came to an end. We drew 1-1 at Luton.
Because of that day, I started university a day late and all the good digs had gone. I ended up in a flat with three Chinese men and Tanzanian who didn’t speak English. That wasn’t easy and set off a downward spiral in my life.
It was too much to expect to be a professional footballer and do a degree. I was forever getting a train back to Manchester and didn’t get to know people at college. My game suffered and United let me go at the end of the season.
I went to Crewe and played a few first team games but I wasn’t in the best frame of mind. That was a shame, because Crewe was a good club for a young player. But I was depressed at leaving United, leaving home and having no friends at university. I packed in football and concentrated on university. The tutors and coaches at Loughborough were great and I learned to enjoy myself, met some good mates and played football. It felt such a relief after years of tunnel vision trying to succeed as a professional footballer.
I coached in America and one day I retuned to the Cliff to say hello. They asked me how I was doing and said: ‘You could have played for the reserves at Maine Road last night’. United didn’t have enough players and Alex Ferguson wanted me to fill a gap for the reserves, to help out with training. United offered me another playing contract, which I was happy to sign, but the problem then was that I started dreaming that I had a future at the club. I was captain of the reserves and played for two years before joining Chester City, who were in a difficult situation.
Sir Alex called me again: “I’ve got a job here, education and welfare officer,” he said. He wanted me to look after young players off the field. I started to help out with the centre of excellence under Nobby Stiles. He was fantastic with me and gave me a lot of encouragement. When Nobby left in 1994, I was offered the centre of excellence job. It was huge, with responsibility for scouting and signing players.
United had some great old scouts, though. One, Tom Corless, took me to watch Manchester boys. Six of the team were in our academy. One, Richard Wellens, would go onto have a good career. There was also a defender called Alan Griffin who was really good. We didn’t sign Jonathan Woodgate because we had Alan. His partner was Wes Brown, who was absolutely magnificent as a young player. Wes was athletic, smooth, tough and tall. He was going to play at the highest level. Tom Corless pointed Wes’s dad out. We needed to talk to him to sign Wes properly on schoolboy terms. Timing was important to getting players contracted to the club.
I had to develop a club within a club and was helped by Tony Whelan and Dave Bushell. We added more and more staff. The Class of ’92 were breaking into the first team and it was a magical time. I was in my twenties and full of energy. Sir Alex saw that and put a huge amount of trust in me.
United would look nationally for players. Les Kershaw, who served United well for years, would scout players outside Manchester. Brian Kidd was scouting too, before moving up to be assistant manager. The club was snowballing and it was so exciting. Most of us were working seven days a week, nine until nine most days. The weekends were spent watching football. Every now and then I collapsed through exhaustion, but it was such an exciting time. Sir Alex demanded progress and he got it. He gave me personal feedback and contacts. It was a very positive environment.
We took the kids to Kenya for a tournament one year and Sir Bobby Charlton came with us. He told the young players about playing for England and United with the Busby Babes. He stressed the importance of individual coaching, that emotional support from a mentor that he felt he’d had from Jimmy Murphy, Matt Busby’s assistant. Bobby had extra training with Jimmy, then was taken to the pub by him to talk football.
I tried to do the same with out players. Some players need help and support. I’d talk to them and take them to games. Ravel Morrison and Ryan Tunnicliffe came in the away end at Anfield with me to see what it was like to stand with fans. We had a great team, terrific coaches like Warren Joyce and Tony Whelan.
Jim Ryan was big on going to Europe and we expanded the network of scouts. We had a French scout, David Frio, who spotted Paul Pogba. Jim, Geoff Watson and Les Kershaw all watched Pogba – we did a triple check on him. Our scouts were very skilful, while Jim Ryan was good at closing the deal. He’d been a player and won the European Cup, he’d been at the club for years. He could reassure parents and tell them how life was at United. We also had Sir Alex, who’d ring a young player and his parents personally. He’d meet kids who’d come from all over the place for trials and we’d have a dinner and a singsong at the end of the trial week.
Sir Alex created a family feeling. He’d meet families at 2pm before a 3pm kick off. The families would be nervous, but he’d create time for them and leave them by saying: ‘I’ve got to go and give my team talk now’. The parents were delighted that he’d met them.
I was at United for 23 years. We lived through the glory years. It was like a dream, watching lads we’d brought through the ranks establish themselves in the first team. I got to know all the families.
There would be cup finals all the time and Sir Alex would get the backroom staff and young players in the dressing room at Wembley and then on the team bus back to the hotel after we’d won the FA Cup. It was to show that we were part of it. The whole bus was singing ‘Cheer up, Kevin Keegan’ after winning the FA Cup in 1999. Three days later, United won the treble with a squad that contained seven homegrown players. Success fed the family feeling.
Everything changed over time, particularly as the club got bigger and bigger. The ingredients changed too and new people have different ways of doing things. Sir Alex and David Gill, the two most important people at the club, stepped down at the same time in 2013. I don’t think any organisation would want that and you can see that things have been difficult for the last couple of years at United.
I left United in March 2016 and I’ve enjoyed having time off, reading, learning and giving talks. I’ve looked at others sports, from athletics to rugby and done some work with the FA and UEFA. I’m 50 now and feel I have a lot to offer my next club. I could be a head of coaching at a club or head of an under 18s or 21s set up. There are a range of jobs I could go for and, after a break, I’m more than ready for another challenge.”