Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was ‘forced’ to throw a number of young players into the first team in the 1988/89 season, says former midfielder Tony Gill.
After becoming Manchester United manager in 1986 Ferguson set about overhauling the youth system at the club. Of course over time that approach was a huge success with the Class of 92. The tag of ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’, however, came about much earlier than that. And Tony Gill, one of the players from that time, says that was more accident than design.
The following is an exclusive extract from the book “Fergie’s Fledglings”, one of a series of extracts that will be published on WeAreTheBusbyBoys over the coming weeks, in anticipation of the publication of the book in paperback and ebook for the first time.
As one of the more elusive players who rarely gives interviews, Gill’s chapter gives compelling insight into his time at the club.
“At the back end of Ron’s time at the club, one or two of the coaches had talked about me making the move into the first team, so someone had identified I was ready,” says Tony. “But as soon as Alex Ferguson came in, there was an instant difference in that you felt that you were being watched.
“The first match at United after he came was a reserve game and he was there – I scored in a win. The big difference was that he was there to see it. He would be in the dressing room before games, and we had never seen that with Ron. Alex Ferguson would watch the reserves training away from the first team and that never happened under Ron either. That was understandable in a way because Ron had to be interested in the first team, but there was a huge shift in focus when Alex arrived.”
The game which Tony refers to is a 3-1 win over Middlesbrough on the 11th of November 1986, which was actually three days after Ferguson’s first game, the infamous defeat at Oxford. However, the Middlesbrough reserve game was the first that Ferguson had an opportunity to watch, which illustrates how keen he was in the early days to digest as much football as he could at his new club.
Gill was an Old Trafford veteran by comparison and though he would be seen as a youngster cutting his teeth under the new manager, his first team debut for the club came a full five and a half years after he’d first signed schoolboy terms.
“I can remember it vividly, going down to Southampton to stay in the Crest Hotel,” Tony recalls of the game at the Dell on Saturday, 3rd January 1987. “I remember the manager taking the piss out of me because at the meal the night before, I’d eaten about eight chocolate profiteroles. We were in a posh restaurant and I was a kid making hay while the sun shone.
“I roomed with another young lad named Martin Russell and my thought process regarding the game was that John Sivebæk was touch and go. Having played most of my reserve team football at full back I felt that it depended on John’s fitness whether I’d play or not. I also felt that was why I was in the squad. The next day – it’s very clear – we were at the team meeting in the hotel with the manager announcing the team. He starts out with Chris Turner in the net, and at right back Mick Duxbury. I’ve got to say at that time, I switched off. It was a big surprise when he got to central midfield and said it was me and Liam O’Brien. I’d never played for United as a central midfielder until that day.”
Despite the increase in interest and obvious attention to Gill’s development, the new manager gave nothing in the way of encouragement to the player who was about to make history in terms of what Ferguson would achieve over the next quarter of a century. “There was nothing at all really,” Tony remembers. Wearing the number seven shirt, Tony and his team-mates were only too aware that he was standing in for the injured Bryan Robson – Gill was literally stepping into his shoes. “It could not be more apt,” he laughs. “A lot of the lads had New Balance boots, because Bryan wore them and had brought in a load of free boots as freebies from the sponsor. A lot of the senior lads were taking the piss out of me as I put on my number seven shirt with my New Balance boots. ‘You’re not Bryan you know, who the fuck do you think you are’. I was certainly given an introduction there!”
If such an approach was to put the new kid at ease, he was given a stern test just moments into his debut. Liam O’Brien was making only his fourth appearance and was given one of the quickest red cards in league history. “I think they said after the game that it was the quickest red card in about sixty years and it just so happened to be my debut,” says Tony. “I didn’t think about it too much – the manager moved Frank Stapleton back into midfield and Terry Gibson was up front on his own. It was all hands to the pump as the Dell could be a difficult place to go.
“My perception of my performance was that I’d done very well and that was what the manager said as he brought me off with about ten minutes to go for Peter Davenport. I was very positive about my contribution and it was good to have that vindicated by the manager and Archie Knox. To do myself justice in such a game and such conditions in a position I’d never played, was something I was very happy with. I said the word before but it remains true, I was comfortable when I was in the first team, and I think the same could be said for any young player who gets in to the United team. Because they’ve grown up with it, and the size of the club, it’s easier for them to handle the pressure than it is for perhaps someone coming from the outside, a club that’s not so big. We’re used to watching full houses for United against Liverpool, that’s our environment, so you know what’s expected of you. I don’t want to sound blasé about it but it was the norm, if there was any weight of expectation then that came from the manager and the dressing room, not the fifty odd thousand sat outside.”
United drew 1-1 at Southampton but as well as Tony had done, for the rest of the season he continued his progress in the reserves though he was kept in the squad for the FA Cup win over Manchester City the week after his debut. The following campaign, he suffered an achilles injury that would keep him out for almost a full season.
“In the pre-season, I picked up the injury which more or less did me for the year. I had two operations and remained on the sidelines. I was just getting somewhere near, had a chance of fulfilling my dreams, and there was nothing more frustrating than suffering such a serious injury. I had a number of setbacks along the way by trying to resolve it without surgery, then I had to have it. When I finally got back to fitness it was difficult to get back into the swing of it.”
To look casually at Gill’s career statistics you would draw the conclusion that he served a purpose for a short while when United were struggling, and was then released. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Following his year out, Gill found himself a regular in the reserves alongside a number of players who would go on to be regarded as the first wave of Fledglings. Mark Robins was scoring goals for fun and Russell Beardsmore and Deiniol Graham featured often in a team that was arguably more entertaining than the first team in the first few weeks of the 1988/89 season.
He was called up to the squad to face Southampton, ironically enough, in November 1988. He maintained his place in the squad, making another five league appearances before the FA Cup clashes with Queens Park Rangers which were the trigger for the media to pay close attention to what Ferguson was doing. Gill had plenty of confidence and assurance about his own ability but feels that the sheer volume of youngsters used, particularly in the first replay at Loftus Road, was not necessarily of the manager’s choosing.
“His hand was forced, we had so many injuries,” he admits. “He needed us to be able to step up and to be fair he must have had confidence in us to do that. Mark Robins didn’t play in that game but he was an incredible finisher who was getting his chance along with David Wilson, Deiniol and Russell. We were a good reserve side and enjoyed our football, so playing in the first team with the others who were making that step up with you made everything a lot better. Throw Lee Martin and Lee Sharpe in – for six of us to be in that game was a huge gamble by the manager.”
Gill made a huge impression. “The manager had told me to make movements from the right wing infield. I made one such run, received the ball, my first touch was good and I smashed it with my left foot. Though I played from the right, I did quite often play on the left as well and was comfortable on either side. I was delighted to see it fly in.”
Deiniol Graham’s equaliser made it 2-2, leaving the press and those in the game purring about the impact of these kids who had seemingly come out from nowhere. A little strange then for Gill, who had by now been at the club for almost eight years and had a complete journey and recovery back from a long term serious injury, to be named alongside a group who had “burst on to the scene.”
“It wasn’t odd, it was just comfortable at that point, like it was all natural and fun,” insists Tony. “I was loving every minute of it – it was the reward for what we’d worked hard for that entire time. I guess it was strange that Gary Walsh and I had broken through a long time before and without those injuries maybe I’d have been more established, but in real terms, it’s easy to understand why I was viewed the same way as the others. It was a second coming but the perception was that it was the first time we’d been seen.”
With that being the case and the attention that followed, Gill’s reaction was perhaps a little predictable. Fergie’s Fledglings is very much an alliterative nod to the Busby Babes but inside the club the players did their best to keep their feet on the ground. It’s important, then, at this point, to acknowledge that this was as much an education for Ferguson as it was for the youngsters. Later on, he would be famously protective of the class of 1992.
Fergie’s Fledglings is published in paperback by Rudling House on October 21st. You can pre-order it now. The Kindle edition is available now – you can get it by ordering here.