Sunday 17 December 2017

Fergie's fighting Irish key players

Story of manager's relationships with Ireland stars often dramatic

The Fighting Irish has been a theme of the Manchester United manager's 25-year reign -- the only problem was, sometimes he was fighting with them and they were fighting with him!

Going back to the start of his amazing tenure, Fergie didn't impress Frank Stapleton, who left Old Trafford in July 1987, just over six months after the abrasive Scot arrived from Aberdeen.

Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside were regularly hauled over the coals and given the Fergie 'hairdryer' treatment.

And even Roy Keane, described by the manager as "one of the great figures in our club's illustrious history" fell out with the boss eventually and departed amid huge controversy in November 2005.

Other Irishmen, notably Denis Irwin and John O'Shea, were different characters, not given to courting publicity or getting embroiled in public rows with the manager.

They were model professionals, with Irwin playing 529 times for the Reds, and O'Shea performing in almost 400 matches -- not bad for a player who was perceived as more of an understudy than principal actor.

And, of course, Irwin, Keane and O'Shea all won a shed load of medals under the guidance of one of football's greatest all-time managers.

That's easy to say now with the benefit of hindsight, but on Thursday November 6, 1986, the day Ferguson's appointment was sealed, the onus was on the Scot to prove he was strong enough to cope with managing a club that was a sleeping giant.

He inherited a squad backboned by big-name players, including Stapleton, McGrath and Kevin Moran, along with Whiteside of Northern Ireland.

Stapleton hadn't been getting on with Ron Atkinson, but soon realised he was not going to be staying long under Ferguson's management.

"I found that I was in the team for his first four games and then I was substitute for the next three, and then in for the next two," Stapleton said in his autobiography 'Frankly Speaking'.

"I felt I could not get any consistency in my play because the team was never the same, it changed every week.

"Very gradually, we started to creep away from the bottom but more often than not the manager would lose his temper and roar and scream until he went red in the face. At the start the players used to dread it but after a while it didn't have the slightest impact.

"I was on a weekly contract and the manager had said he wanted me to sign a new one, but I did not think there was much future, considering I was not being used often enough."

Fergie identified United's booze culture as a big problem. This was not confined to the Manchester club, as it was a cultural norm in British football that you trained, you played, you drank, and then you sweated out the booze in training. Ferguson, however, considered alcohol a poison to professional athletes and wasn't prepared to tolerate drink undermining his job or his drive for success.

Whiteside, McGrath and Bryan Robson were highlighted by Ferguson as players with two main issues -- they spent a lot of time injured and, as he said, "none of them could ever have been mistaken for a teetotaller."

Robson managed to keep enough of a lid on his drinking to perform like a lion when he was fit, and he skippered the club to their breakthrough Premier League success in 1992-93. For the other two, it was a different story.

From November '86 to summer '89 when they both left United -- McGrath to Aston Villa and Whiteside to Everton -- they were regularly upbraided by the manager.

McGrath admitted in his life story 'Back from the Brink' with Vincent Hogan that, contrary to general perception, he likes Alex Ferguson and gets on with him now.

McGrath conceded: "Hand on heart, when I look back at that time now, I have to say I would have thrown out Norman and me. In fact I would have done it a hell of a lot quicker than Alex did."

Moran incurred many injuries due to his uncompromising defending style, and from the time Steve Bruce signed in December 1987, his opportunities diminished.

He was still regarded as "a diamond" by Fergie, who gave him a free release and was happy that the club awarded Moran a testimonial. The Ireland star moved on to Sporting Gijon in Spain in 1988, and later to Blackburn Rovers.

Ferguson's all-consuming passion was to bring Manchester United the success he and the supporters felt the club deserved, and he kept shuffling the pack until he got the formula right. From an Irish point of view, the contributions of Irwin, signed in 1990 from Oldham Athletic, and Keane, bought from Notts Forest in 1993, were immense.

Versatility, pace, anticipation and an ability to score goals, particularly from free kicks, made Irwin virtually an ever-present each season from 1990-91 until he left for Wolves in 2002.

Keane's drive and aggression, his willingness to accept responsibility and demand the ball under pressure, the beautifully effective simplicity of his passing, plus the goals he contributed made him an awesome midfield general.

But no matter who the player was or is, no matter how much he costs in the transfer market, nobody is bigger than the club, or more important or bigger than the boss. Cross him and you lose, as so many have discovered, including some of our Irish heroes.

It hasn't all been plain sailing for United or Ferguson in the last 25 years, and he hasn't got everything right, but there's no sign of the manager's passion diminishing as he nears his 70th birthday.

Irish Independent

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