Of the many tasks Alex Ferguson relished when taking the Manchester United job in 1986, addressing the chasm between the club and Ireland featured prominently.
Traditionalists could cite the presence of Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran, Frank Stapleton and Liam O’Brien in the squad he inherited from Ron Atkinson as evidence of the continued link with the Emerald Isle, yet the Scot felt much more was needed.
First-team players come and go, as proven with that quartet’s exit within three years, but Ferguson’s vision for developing United ‘the club’ — rather than just ‘the team’ — had Ireland at the forefront. If it’s a truism that Fergie’s fledglings saved his job with FA cup success in 1990, then the work he had carried out behind the scenes with such considerable zeal during the interim period helped underpin the empire that would gradually rise within the club.
He felt it a duty of Manchester United, as the best-supported English club in Ireland, to give fans every chance to see their heroes in the flesh.
Six months into his reign, he brought his side to Milltown for a friendly against Shamrock Rovers, a gesture repeated in 1992 at Lansdowne Road and 18 years later for the reopening of the stadium.
His early legwork meant no longer were United peripheral players in recruiting the best young talent from these shores, even if it meant the first-team boss convincing the target face-to-face.
Indeed, Ferguson made it policy to stage a meeting with the player and their family before either party committed to a contract. Guarantees of fast-tracks into the first team didn’t figure in the charm offensive, rather an assurance that hard work and an attitude to learn from his youth coaches would result in a chance to follow the likes of graduates Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and Paul Scholes towards the big time.
Robbie Brady was that teenager six years ago. Keen to close the deal on a player courted by Manchester City and Liverpool, the United boss invited Brady and his family to Old Trafford in March 2007 for the Champions League last 16 tie against Lille. Once he had announced his line-up to the squad in the dressing-room, Ferguson used the warm-up period to make a dash upstairs to his office where the Brady bunch had arrived.
“He looked me in the eye and said I’d get the best football education any youngster could ask for,” recalls the winger, now with promoted Hull City. “I trusted him and he became a major influence on my career.”
Celtic were also casualties of Ferguson’s persuasive powers in 1999 when John O’Shea opted late in the day to turn them down for United.
The same fate befell Blackburn boss Kenny Dalglish six years earlier as Roy Keane slipped from his grasp.
High on Fergie’s wish list from the outset was the creation of a satellite academy in Ireland, similar to the centre in Belfast where Jonny Evans and Darron Gibson received specialist tuition on a weekly basis. The United supremo arranged to meet then FAI boss Bernard O’Byrne in Dublin with his Irish scout Joe Corcoran and outlined the plan.
It didn’t proceed without a hitch, however, as a proposal to align with the Dublin District Schoolboys’ League was mothballed due to resistance from the big clubs.
A rethink was enforced, prompting United to partner with one club, Shelbourne, and former Arsenal midfielder John Devine was appointed United’s director of football in Ireland.
It is understood that part of Ferguson’s new role as director and ambassador of the club will entail cementing those alliances he was so central to establishing.
Corcoran, Ferguson’s right-hand man in Ireland throughout his 26-year tenure, is certain the canny Glaswegian will maintain his close connections with his country. There was no indication from the boss of his upcoming decision on Tuesday when the long-time friends and colleagues held their weekly phone conversation, proof of the secrecy surrounding the decision.
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