LIAM MACKEY: The lives of Brian

Brian Carey arrived for the interview at a Cork hotel with a ready-made intro: by sheer coincidence, the Tuesday on which we were meeting turned out to be 24 years ago to the very day since he’d left his hometown, Cork, for England to begin a career in professional football which would take him to Manchester United, Leicester City, Wrexham, Doncaster Rovers and Wolves and see him experience almost all aspects of the game – from the glorious to the grim – as, variously, player, skipper, coach, scout, assistant manager and manager.

That someone so steeped in the sport should have found time for a trip home as the new season got under way was down to the sobering fact that, for the very first time in those 24 years, he found himself without gainful employment in the English game, his brief tenure as assistant manager to Dean Saunders at Wolves coming to a juddering halt in May when, having failed to keep the club in the Championship, the pair were ushered through the exit at Molineux.

Noting this had been the first time in all his years in English football that he hadn’t been involved in the frantic preparation of a pre-season, he suggested that the novelty of having so much free time away from the all-consuming pressures of the professional game hadn’t worn off just yet. “I haven’t missed the day to day so far,” he said.

Happily, he didn’t get much of an opportunity for that pang to present itself: within a matter of days, a call came through from Blackburn Rovers, with the result that Carey now finds himself a coach with the youth team at the club, helping to prepare a new crop of young footballers for life in a game he knows, almost literally, from top to bottom.

Growing up in Togher, Brian Carey played his early football with local club Greenwood before moving to Albert Rovers where Carl Humphries – “one of the best players ever to come out of Cork,” in Brian’s words – noted his potential and arranged for him to join Cork City.

He made his debut for the club under Eamonn O’Keefe and then, with the late Noel O’Mahony as manager, established himself as a centre-half in the side that reached the 1989 FAI Cup final.

Brian has fond memories of the legendary O’Mahony, who died in May. “Noel O’Mahony, the man, was lovely but Noel O’Mahony the footballer would go right through you,” he smiles. Carey readily admits he never saw himself in the same bracket as some of the top players in that Cork side, class acts like Patsy Freyne and Dave Barry, leaving him to ponder the mystery of why it was him and not them who got to make the move to one of the biggest clubs in world football.

“Someone asked me a long time ago did I always want to play for Man United,” he reflects. “The truth is it just happened. People say you must have had it as a kid. But, no, I didn’t, it’s just the way it went. I wasn’t desperately seeking to do something. I just had an enthusiasm for the game. I used to spend a lot of time practising. I was out home earlier on there today and I was looking up at the roof of the house and remembering that I used to throw the ball up on it and when it rolled off I’d try to volley it into the back of the net – and if I missed it was out onto the main road. That enthusiasm for the game was just in me from the start.”

But if he had a deep love of football, that passion didn’t initially equate in his mind to any serious consideration of the game as a potential career. Which would partly explain why Brian Carey became briefly infamous as the man who said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to Alex Ferguson. All these years later, he shakes his head at the memory and says: “I still can’t get over how I said no.”

The backdrop was that 1989 Cup final which City lost to Derry in a replay, a game the United manager attended. By that stage, Carey’s impressive progress as a centre-half had attracted the attention of scouts from Leeds, Celtic and Arsenal but his own primary focus was on completing his exams for a diploma in construction economics. Then, at about eight o’clock one morning, when he was still in his bed, his mother woke him to say he was wanted on the telephone.

“So I come downstairs, you can imagine the state of me, half-asleep, I say ‘hello’ and the voice says, ‘This is Alex Ferguson here’. He was the only manager to have rung me up. And then he says he’d like me to come to Manchester United. But I said, ‘no, I can’t, I have exams to do’ – I mean, what was I thinking of? Maybe to himself he might have thought ‘this lad is not for us’ but what he said was, ‘Okay son, you carry on and get your qualifications and maybe we can pick it up again. Do what you have to do’. I just didn’t want to dive into anything there and then, certainly not over the phone.”

Fortunately for the man who said no, the move was resurrected before the start of the following season, the 21-year-old duly arriving at Manchester United at almost exactly the same time as one of the club’s most celebrated men in green, Paul McGrath, was leaving Old Trafford.

After impressing in a few games for the reserves, Ferguson gave Carey his first big chance in Mike Duxbury’s testimonial game, the rookie lining out with the likes of Bryan Robson, Mark Hughes and Steve Bruce in a United-City derby at Old Trafford in front of a crowd of over 20,000. At which point, just when it seemed it could hardly get any better, it all started to go horribly wrong.

“So it’s my first game at Old Trafford and I remember this distinctly – a cross comes in and I go to clear it and it hits my shin pad and goes out for a corner. And I’m thinking, ‘what was that?’ It was a wild swing, a slash at the ball, and it must have been the tension, the stadium, trying to impress, trying to do too much — but this had never, ever happened to me before. I came off after an hour thinking I’ve had the worst game I’ve ever played in my life. Thinking, after all this, I’ve blown it. And I remember Nobby Stiles coming up to me the following day and saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ve all had games like that, just get on with it’. And that’s when I began what I call my apprenticeship, as a footballer and as a person”.

In all, Brian would spend four years at Old Trafford, during which time, as reserve team captain, he got to play frequently with the exceptional crop of emerging young talent which would go on to define an era at the club – Beckham, Scholes, Giggs and the Neville brothers. However, the closest he himself ever came to a competitive first team appearance was when he made the bench for an FA Cup game against Sheffield United.

“But I never got on,” he says. “This was the time of Bruce-Pallister, and Mal Donaghy was the sub coming on and I would have been the next in line.”

Still, he insists has no regrets about his time at Old Trafford – except that, if anything, he thinks he might even have left a little too soon. But leave he did in search of first team football, signing for Leicester City in 1993 at the age of 25, and even though the move meant he would go on to feature in the winning side in a Championship play-off at Wembley, get to sample Premiership football and, for a spell, work under the man who could be the next Ireland manager Martin O’Neill (“a fantastic experience”), it’s Alex Ferguson who remains the benchmark influence on his career.

“Now that he’s gone, a huge chunk of what football means to me in England won’t be there in the future,” Brian observes. “Just one measure of the man is that, after I’d joined Leicester and we beat Derby 2-1 at Wembley to win promotion to the Premiership, I got a letter of congratulations from him. He said, ‘I always knew you had the potential and I really take great delight now in the fact that you’re starting to fulfil your promise.’ And it was just a touch of class. A touch of real class.

“Somebody said recently you have to be a good man to be a good manager, and I think that summed him up really well. He’s such a rounded person, not a man of the world in that sense, but very knowledgeable, with a lot of character, personality and charisma. And a man with values and principles. Yes, he was tough, though not ever overly tough with me, but his bark was very much worse than his bite. The hairdryer thing is a caricature and it’s easy to write. But this was a man who went to the trouble of ringing me up at home. He would look after players, he’d know all about them and want them to have personality and character. And he probably put manners on me as a person and made me almost wake up from being the student with an anything-goes attitude to someone who wanted to grab it with both hands. And that steely determination he had rubbed off on so many people.”

After Leicester, Carey moved to Wrexham, a club he already knew well from a loan spell during his time at United which had peaked with the giddy high of his participation in one of the most famous giant-killing acts in FA Cup history, the Fourth Division side’s 2-1 defeat of First Division champions Arsenal at the Racecourse Ground in 1992. But much as he’d relished that experience, he reckons the Brian Carey who returned to Wrexham four years later – by now married to Mancunian Debbie and a father to daughter Jess with sister Aimee soon to join the family — was an altogether more responsible character, both on and off the pitch.

Made captain at the club, he began taking his coaching badges and also completed a BSc Degree in Sport Coaching and Exercise. “It all made a huge difference to my game,” he recalls. “I grew as a player and was now someone who could be relied on to ‘drive the bus’ — a term we use for players who can direct the traffic on the pitch.”

Over a span of some 15 years at a club where he became a totemic figure, Brian would experience almost everything the game can throw at a man, from injury and retirement as a player and a move into coaching at 35, to the financial woes which plunged the club into administration and, on one of the bleakest of many dark days, left the players stranded after unpaid bills meant the team bus didn’t show up.

But there were highs too, such as when, as caretaker manager, he was in charge of the team that won 3-1 against Boston on the very last day of the 2007 season in front of 12,000 at the Racecourse Ground, which kept Wrexham in the Football League.

On the basis of that escape act, he was given the job full-time, but things didn’t work out the following season and he was replaced by his former Leicester boss Brian Little. Carey stayed on as a scout at a club he had come to love but could only watch helplessly as they were relegated and slipped into non-league football.

Among the long-term positive benefits of his time at Wrexham, however, was the personal friendship and working relationship he had developed with Dean Saunders back when Brian was manager at the club and the former Wales, Liverpool and Aston Villa star had come in to give some extra coaching to the strikers.

When Saunders was in turn appointed manager in 2008, he asked Brian to be his assistant and, having gotten Wrexham back to winning ways, the pair moved in 2011 to Doncaster Rovers where, last season, they had the club pushing for promotion from League 1 to the Championship when Saunders got the call from Molineux where Wolves were faced with the real prospect of a trip in the opposite direction.

How things subsequently panned out — Saunders and Carey sacked as Wolves were relegated while Doncaster duly passed them on the way up – prompts the inevitable question about the wisdom of their decision to swap a team on the up and up for a team on the down and down.

“No, I still don’t regret the move despite how things worked out,” is the emphatic reply. “Yes, we had something good going at Doncaster, the lads were buying into what we were doing and it’s a decent club but Wolves was too big an opportunity to turn down. It’s a big club, a Premiership club, despite where they are now. And they will come back up. There’s a lot of bullshit spoken in football but the truth is there are no secrets to success and no magicians. I still believe that we did make a difference and that we got things going, but we were cursed by injuries to about four or five players and that cost us games.”

And ultimately cost Brian Carey his job. It was a painful blow, of course, but he knew enough about the ways of the game to see it coming, the possibility that it might all end badly, something which would have been openly discussed with his wife Debbie and daughters Jess (18) and Aimee (16). The family live in Manchester where Aimee religiously attends Old Trafford but, just before the new season kicked off, she remarked to her dad how she couldn’t believe that, for the first time since she would have gone to the Racecourse Ground as a child, the family wouldn’t have a team of his to follow this season.

Since the axe fell in May, Brian had been able to enjoy the luxury of spending more time at home, catching up on all the movies and music he’s missed, taking the odd trip back to Cork and generally doing the routine stuff which a 24/7 immersion in the football bubble can prohibit. He had been dipping his toe into a couple of football-related activities too, launching a futsal team in which he plays every Wednesday and, with a friend in Spain, running a few football tours between that country and England.

And, at the age of 45, he also finally found time to take stock.

“I recently filled out a cv for the first time in my life,” he says with a smile.

“Just to see what else I could do. Anything. It wasn’t even about applying for a job. I gave it to a couple of HR people just to see where I am. Am I alright? Am I insane? Am I on the right track? Just to see what was what.”

He’d work in a pub if it came to it, he laughs, but with his intelligence, wealth of experience and high standing among his fellow pros in the game, he shouldn’t expect to be pulling pints for a living any time soon. It remains to be seen if he will get back in the senior game, perhaps as part of the established Saunders-Carey tag team, but his immediate future is now bound up with the full-time role of helping develop the youth talent at Ewood Park

Certainly, Brian Carey has plenty to pass on. And, he insists, much to be grateful for too.

“The overriding feeling I have is that I’ve been hugely, hugely lucky to do what I’ve done,” he says. “It hasn’t been easy, I’m not saying that. But if, back at the start, you’d said to me that I’d be involved in professional football for 24 years I’d have said ‘you’re kidding me’. I’ve met some fantastic people, made some great friends. And who knows what’s still to come? I’d still have that old have-boots-will-travel mentality.

“Except these days,” he adds with a grin, “it would be laptop rather than boots.”


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