There are few more authentic eye-witnesses to Manchester United’s modern history than Brian McClair, who lived through Sir Alex Ferguson’s transformation of the club from first division mediocrities to the kings of the Premier League - first as a player and then as a coach.
It is 30 years since his first year at Old Trafford, when he scored more league goals in a season than any United player since George Best. He was there for Ryan Giggs’ debut, Eric Cantona’s arrival and he has the assist for David Beckham’s 1996 Wimbledon halfway line goal. In 14 years working at the academy he oversaw the development of every bright young thing from Gerard Pique and Paul Pogba to Marcus Rashford and Scott McTominay.
He says he can even remember the first time anyone in the United squad sent a text message – and not least because it was him, the story being a good example of his famously laconic dressing room wit.
“My brother-in-law was a BT engineer and explained to me how to text before anyone else had. People at the club were getting scared because they thought they were getting messages from the dark side. I used to text them, ‘Life’s s--- and then you die’.”
At 54 he sports a fulsome grey beard and lives in Edinburgh, where he relocated when he quit United in 2015 for a short-lived spell with the Scottish Football Association. He loves to walk for miles a day and old conventions die hard. Late for our meeting in Manchester, he mentions the Scot who brought him to United.
“People talk about ‘Fergie time’ in the sense of him always pointing at his watch but for me Fergie time is not being late. I’m late today and I feel embarrassed about it. If I arrange to meet someone I get there 10 minutes early because I still think if I’m late I’m going to get a row for it. Because at United we would get a proper row for it. I didn’t want to ever leave Manchester United so I didn’t want to give the manager any excuses, other than me trying to run about on the pitch.”
He is self-deprecating but no-one lasts 11 years under Sir Alex Ferguson, as McClair did after signing from Celtic in the summer of 1987, without some talent. Of no less importance to the nine major trophies he won as a United player is what he achieved after he retired, as youth and reserve team coach and then academy director. He helped to launch scores of professional careers at United and elsewhere, including many flourishing in Jose Mourinho’s current side.
“No one would have taken Jesse Lingard when he was 16 because he had the skeletal age of a 13-year-old,” McClair says. “We allowed him to take that opportunity. Scott McTominay had all sorts of problems with his growth. He was growing too fast and his body had to catch up and he missed time through injury. You support them in a different way. At one point we decided to tell him he has got an extra year because he’s fretting about it all the time.
“Jesse was one of the best players all the way through in each age group. He was brave. You just have to wait for them. They are always going to grow, you just don’t know when. They have all the other attributes. The biggest thing is to be patient with them. You have to be. They are going through all sorts of stuff.
“A few have a stellar rise later but you can ask who were the best players in the youngest age groups and the coaches will say Marcus, McTominay, Jesse - even at seven or eight. We had to believe that would continue. The biggest challenge for any young boy is getting through puberty: looking at themselves in the mirror, styling their hair, putting smelly stuff on and noticing girls. If they get through that and still love football they have a chance.”
McClair is just as delighted for David Gray winning the Scottish Cup with Hibernian as he is with Pique winning the World Cup. He mentions Michael O’Neill seeking him out once to tell him that the heart of his Northern Ireland team were all United boys – Jonny and Corry Evans, Craig Cathcart, Paddy McNair, Oliver Norwood - and valued for their leadership as well as their ability. McClair remembers nutmegging Chelsea’s Danny Drinkwater in training “for my own amusement, but he learned something”.
We try to list all those United academy graduates but there are so many. Darren Fletcher became a United stalwart and a fine professional who overcame adversity. Ryan Shawcross captains Stoke City. Tom Heaton is an England international.
McClair is also sceptical of the view that the enigma that is Ravel Morrison should be regarded as a failure “He’s had an adventure. He comes from Stretford, and he’s had a period of time in London, Rome and now he’s in Mexico. Don’t think he ever thought of that as a kid kicking a ball around.
“He’s a good lad but just a bit misguided at times. He had various things we couldn’t resolve and the manager decided it was best for him to leave. Ravel loves football. That is what he has always been about. We’d find him playing in pub car parks.”
McClair describes the United academy as “a workers’ cooperative” – “I got the blame if it went tits up, but I was fine with that”. He and Ferguson agreed one year that the boys should not wear coloured boots to remove unnecessary distractions and encourage them to concentrate on the core values. The response from elsewhere was instructive: Michael Keane’s team-mates in the England junior sides were so incredulous at his black boots they nicknamed him “referee”.
As for Pogba, the boy who cost United £89million to bring back, McClair feels he is not yet properly understood. “We viewed him as a creative player. I think people may get the idea because of his size he is a Patrick Vieira but that’s not what his attributes are about. His is about creating and scoring goals. He’s an old inside left.”
McClair is an ambassador for Red Army Bet, a betting cooperative in which 50 per cent of the profits go back to supporters’ trusts, which appeals to him. His children are enjoying success of their own: Siobhan, 31, a pharmacist; Laura, 29, soon to be a GP; and Liam, 26, once at United’s academy himself and now forging a career as a singer-songwriter. The question McClair says he gets asked most is whether he regrets not having his career 20 years later.
“It always seems to revolve around the pound-note shake-up and money doesn’t make you happy. I worked at United for 14 years as a coach and in that time every first team player would have been a millionaire or a millionaire several times over. I didn’t see them coming into the canteen running, jumping and laughing, joking and high-fiving each other. I didn’t see it very often. I think we had more fun. Maybe if I spoke to the generation before us they would say they had more fun.”
As an apprentice at Aston Villa in 1981 one of his responsibilities was serving the half-time tea to scouts which was where he met Bill Shankly, who would lecture him on working hard. Jock Stein encouraged him when he was a Scotland Under-21 and when he joined United he would drop in to Sir Matt Busby’s office for a chat. But of all the Scottish football aristocracy he has met there is one man whose methods he knows better than most.
“He [Ferguson] never swayed from what he was trying to do, he just needed the time to do it. And he was given the time. A main part of his strength was, without question, he made decisions. Weekly when he was picking the team and he made decisions about all sorts of stuff, players staying and players going, and the huge majority he got right.
"And the other thing about him: he’s a lucky b------. His brother-in-law told me if he fell into the Clyde he’d come out with a salmon in either pocket. I think that he signed players who he thought were lucky.”
“I’ve never asked him. But just look at me. Every club I was at they won something. Villa won the league, Motherwell won the first division, Celtic won the league and the cup. And United won a couple when I was there. How do you define it? Who knows?”