Wednesday 23 October 2019

The end of a beautiful relationship: Manchester United closes its doors on Ireland for first time in 80 years

Absence of Irish at Old Trafford after unbroken 80 years raises questions about our youth coaching

Johnny Carey, Denis Irwin, Paul McGrath and Roy Keane in their Manchester United days
Johnny Carey, Denis Irwin, Paul McGrath and Roy Keane in their Manchester United days

Miguel Delaney

On the same day Paul McGrath left Manchester United back in August 1989, Cork midfielder Brian Carey officially signed for the club. It reflected what was then almost a revolving door for Irish players at Old Trafford. Be they stars, squad stalwarts or young upstarts, there was a constant stream from this island.

Last week, however, that door temporarily stayed shut - and for the first time in a long time. It also meant Paddy McNair's transfer to Sunderland took on an historic significance for United and Ireland way beyond the sale of a young fringe defender. McNair's departure means that the club's first-team squad doesn't feature a player from this island for the first time since 1936.

That is a remarkable 80-year lineage, and one that speaks to the club's renowned connection with this country, as well as saying a lot about where both Irish football and United are right now. The northern English city's long history of Irish immigration made an intrinsic link inevitable; the team came close to playing as 'Manchester Celtic' when it was decided to rename the financially stricken Newton Heath in 1902, but it was really the range and reputation of the players that strengthened that link.

It is not just that United have featured more Irish internationals (34) than any club outside the country and more than all within it except Shamrock Rovers (82), Shelbourne (51), Bohemians (49) and Dundalk (38) - as well as another 32 from Northern Ireland. It is also that they've featured more genuine legends than pretty much any other club too. An all-time Ireland XI would be dominated by those who graced Old Trafford.

The player who began that line on joining the club in 1936 aptly set the standard. The great Johnny Carey became Matt Busby's first captain and was their first star to make headlines - and thereby United fans - back in Dublin. Liam Whelan immediately followed as one of the Busby Babes, before tragically becoming the only non-English player to die in the Munich air disaster, imbuing the club's Irish connection with a more profound emotional element.

Paul McGrath in his days as a Manchester United player

Paul McGrath in action for Manchester United

It was a connection perpetuated by monolithic figures like John Giles, Shay Brennan, George Best, Sammy McIlroy, Kevin Moran, Frank Stapleton, Paul McGrath, Denis Irwin and Roy Keane. With the Olympics always throwing up more debate about Ireland's greatest athlete, it is striking to think now that one of those, Keane, was captain of the European champions in the world's most popular sport.

The primary problem in all of this is that the country is no longer producing players even close to that level, while United have moved on to a drastically different level as a global superclub; they are now looking almost everywhere for players with almost everything. It's just a completely different circumstance, but even Carey's story about how he first went to Old Trafford - and one so common to so many Irish players - now feels like it was from a completely different world than even 28 years ago, right down to the fact that United were going for a Cork City player.

"Fergie just rang me up one morning in 1989, saying: 'look we want to sign you, we want you to come across, everything is organised, will you do it?'," Carey explains. "At the time, he wasn't the man he would become . . . and I actually said no. Can you imagine it? I was doing construction economics at CIT at the time, and he said 'right, you get your exams, we'll pick it up again in July'. This is 8.0 in the morning, and I'm in the middle of the stairs thinking 'God almighty, what's going on?' before going back to bed. Anyway, I couldn't believe I said no but I did the exam and, true to his word, he did come back. Fergie remarked after I'd signed that he liked that I had a nose that looked like it had been broken a couple of times."

United look for a much greater range of qualities now, but they are still the sort of elements that famous Irish scouts Billy Behan and then Joe Corcoran had an instinctive ability for spotting. The latter died in July 2015 and, described as "basically Man United in Ireland", part of the issue is that he has not been replaced.

United's operation here is like many other elements of the club, in that it still hasn't been re-assessed and revamped after the retirement of Ferguson. He put in place a network that was based on interpersonal relationships with people he trusted, rather than a system more suited to a modern superclub.

Although United are still very busy in Northern Ireland and have an academy in the Dundalk area to complement their scouts, they don't have a gifted figurehead like Behan or Corcoran. That means they just aren't as slick or as attentive as rivals like Chelsea and Manchester City, and are getting much more competition in Ireland than they're used to. While they still invite youngsters up to Dundalk to get them thinking about joining United early on, that is offset by an air of expectancy no longer aided by Ferguson's personal touch to get players over the line.

Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson

As one source put it, "the Fergie factor covered a multitude of faults in this area for years, and it does seem neglected now." The latter, at least, is beginning to change. United are undertaking a complete reform of their global scouting network, and that will likely bring their set-up in Ireland up to the expected level.

It is much more open to question, however, whether Ireland will produce players up to the same standard. That is what the breaking of this lineage is mostly about: the ongoing dysfunction in this country's youth coaching. There is no coherent overall structure that maximises the raw talent available, and still far too many wide gaps between temporary FAI programmes and the work of elite schoolboy clubs like St Kevin's Boys for players to fall through. In other words, any top-level players are being produced by accident rather than design. Changing that should really be the FAI's most pressing task, since it is about this country's long-term football future.

In the short-term, the line can still be restarted. Lee O'Connor is Ireland's highly-rated under 16 captain, and is set to complete a move to United in the next few days. He is similar to his fellow Waterford native John O'Shea in that he can play a variety of positions, especially across the back. As with O'Shea, too, United made it clear just how much they wanted him. O'Connor was introduced to Ferguson on his second visit, and even trained with young players who would make the move up, like Marcus Rashford.

The door isn't completely closed yet. It's just that, given how much the United link has signified for Irish football, this should signal a deep re-assessment of its current state. This should really be a case of red alert.

Paddy McNair joined Sunderland on loan from Manchester United
Paddy McNair joined Sunderland on loan from Manchester United

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