Jonathan Greening reveals how close Fergie was to retiring in 2001, says Roy Keane still has a lot to offer as a manager and talks about winning the Treble
In the second part of his exclusive interview with Ladbrokes, Jonathan Greening looks back on the Manchester United treble success of 1999 and how his time at the club went.
In part one, Greening discusses the job that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is doing and makes his prediction for this weekend’s Manchester derby.
Fergie told my parents I’d be making my debut before he told me… he invited my family to Old Trafford for the game without me knowing
Ferguson was brilliant with me; I remember on my debut, he didn’t tell me I was playing – he told me I’d be in the squad. About an hour and a half before kick-off the gaffer finally told me I was starting, and I was like ‘brilliant’. I wanted to get in touch with my mum and dad but Fergie had already invited them, along with the rest of my family – without me knowing; so they knew I was making my debut before I did. That was absolutely first class from him, and it brought the best out of me because I think I got man of the match in that game.
We won the game (against Bury) and I just remember thinking ‘how lucky am I?’ I’d just played in front of over 60,000 people at Old Trafford, got man of the match and set up a goal for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer; it was just incredible.
The problem I had was that every time I played I always did well, I even got another man of the match in the next game, and then set two or three up against Bradford, but the squad was just so strong and had such depth, that I couldn’t get a run of games. I never looked out of place in training, I was getting better and better, but I’d be playing one game then missing 15. I was playing a lot of reserve games but it just wasn’t the same. Whenever I came into the team I did well, I just couldn’t get a run of games.
In my first couple of years I just thought that was how it was for the younger players in the squad. But then in my final year, I was nearly 22 years old, coming into the team, doing well but not getting back-to-back starts. It was frustrating for me. I just needed to be playing week-in, week-out in the first team. I was scoring loads of goals in reserve matches but I just couldn’t break into the first team.
Signing for Man United, first chat with Fergie and scoring a couple of goals against ‘absolute monster’ Schmeichel as a trialist
I remember playing a reserve game for York City against Sheffield United where we’d beaten them 4-0 and I’d scored all four goals. The next day I’d heard a rumour that there was a Manchester United scout in the crowd that really liked me and discovered that I was only 18 years old, and that was sort of it for about six or seven months. Then I played a first-team game against Fulham where I didn’t think I’d played very well at all, but after the game my manager at the time brought me into his office and told me Alex Ferguson had been on the phone, Man United had been watching me for the last six or seven months, they really liked me and wanted me to train the following week for four days.
I thought the gaffer was joking at first, and obviously being a United fan all my life I just couldn’t believe it. So I ended up going to The Cliff, Man United’s training ground, meeting the manager on the Monday morning and I thought I was going to train with the youth team or the reserves, but he put me straight in with the first team – there’s Keano, Becks, Gary Neville, the whole lot. It was just such a surreal experience for me.
I remember doing quite well, scoring a few goals in training thinking I didn’t really look out of place. Then we got to the end of the week and I had to return to York because we had a game on the Saturday. Alex Ferguson brought me into his office and said “listen, you’ve done really well, we really like you, we have a lot of trialists come and go but nothing seemed to faze you, so we’ll be keeping an eye on you”. I went back to York thinking that was something he just said to everyone and that would probably be the end of it – even though deep down I knew I’d done OK.
Skip forward a week or two later and the two clubs had agreed a fee for me. I think it was £500k there and then and another £500k after 10 appearances or something like that. I ended up going to Old Trafford to sign with no agent – I brought my mum and dad with me and did the deal in about five minutes in Alex Ferguson’s office, and the rest is history. I had three years at one of the biggest clubs in the world.
One of the main things I remember from my trial was a running drill on one of the first days. We did this drill where I was absolutely blowing at the back. Usually I’d be at the front in that sort of exercise, but I was blowing up on this occasion. It really opened my eyes to how fit these top, top players are, and from that moment I knew I needed to be fitter and stronger. That was a key moment for me because I realised just how far off my fitness levels were.
A more positive moment from those early days came in a mini-game, I think it was eight-a-side and I scored a couple of goals against Peter Schmeichel. I can’t remember who the defenders were but I just remember doing a bit of skill, the old Jono chop, beating a couple of players and putting it past Schmeichel. I came off that day knowing I’d done well.
There were some unbelievable trainers, though. You could never get the ball off Paul Scholes, he was just incredible. If he wasn’t spraying passes, he was nutmegging you. He’d just take the mickey out of anyone he was up against. On the other side of things, you had people like Peter Schmeichel, who was an absolute monster. In shooting drills, he’d be shouting “no one’s scoring past me today”. There were so many players who demanded high standards, it just naturally rubbed off on everyone else.
I remember being nervous on my first day but as soon as I got out on the pitch, all of that just disappeared because they were so nice to me. These players were like superstars to me, but they were all so nice and down to earth, shaking my hand, asking me my name and where I was from. They didn’t have to do any of that for me – at the end of the day I was there on a four-day trial, but credit to the whole squad for making me feel comfortable because it really helped me settle in to the place.
When I went back to York after my trial at Man United, there was a lot of banter from the senior players at the club, telling me I’d had a stinker, they weren’t going to sign me and I wasn’t good enough – just banter trying to wind me up. I knew deep down I always had the potential to play at a higher level than York City – no offence to them because they gave me my big break, but I knew I was technically quite good.
There was a lot of concern from the first team that Ferguson was going to retire in 2001…
Looking back to 2001 and the whole situation about Alex Ferguson and his future, I think a lot of people at the club were concerned because he’d mentioned the word ‘retirement’ a few times, and I think he’d had a few problems in his private life with his horses and there were a few things going on behind the scenes there. He was probably thinking he was approaching retirement age at the time as well, even though he carried on for all those years afterwards. Another point is that he was probably trying to play the club to get a better deal out of them – he was a very clever guy so he was probably looking for a better contract and more money.
But at the time there were a lot of rumours that he was going to retire. I was one of the players in and around the first team and there was concern, of course. You don’t want the best manager in the world to leave your club. Put it this way, a lot of us were relieved when he decided to stay on. I think at the time he was probably just fed up of me knocking on his door asking for game-time and wanting to move on!
But he stuck around and went on to win so much more with the club, and he’ll always go down in my book as the greatest manager in the world.
Alex Ferguson was like a strict headteacher; I think he was frustrated with me when I said I wanted to leave
To be fair I never had that famous hairdryer treatment from Alex Ferguson during my time with Manchester United. He’s one of those guys who reminds you of a real strict headmaster. When you get to the training ground and you see him walking down the corridor looking all serious, you don’t say hello to him until he says hello to you. He’s just got that aura about him where you’re always treading on eggshells. He’s definitely got that fear factor.
I just wish the boss would’ve given me a run of 10, or even five games to prove myself consistently in the first team. That was the only disappointing part of my time at Man United. Looking back now I totally understand why it never happened, because there were so many outstanding players at the club.
The summer I left, I think they signed Ruud van Nistelrooy and Juan Sebastian Veron. I went into the boss’ office and I just said “listen, Middlesbrough are interested in me, I really need to start playing week-in, week-out.” He wanted me to sign a four-and-a-half year deal but I just wanted to play football and I had much more of that guarantee under Steve McClaren at Middlesbrough. I basically told the boss I really needed to make my own career somewhere else.
Man United were signing all of these players, but they still had this massive squad of unbelievably talented players, so I basically just said to the boss “please just let me go and kick on somewhere else”, and eventually he did. There were a few conversations between us before he settled on that decision, though. I think he was a little bit frustrated with me at the time because he’d told me to just be patient with him and that I’d get more game time. But he’d said that to me the year before, and the year before that, and it never happened.
I don’t think that he could understand at first why I wouldn’t want to stay at the biggest football club in the world, and a lot of my family members wanted me to stay as well – in fact, deep down I probably wanted to stay. I just knew I had to go, it was make or break. I went on to play over 100 games for Middlesbrough in three years so I’ve got no doubt it was one of the best decisions I made in my career.
It was a massive decision for me to leave Manchester United behind, of course. I was training every day with some of the best players in the world, but I really wanted to establish myself in the Premier League, and I just knew I wouldn’t have been able to do that as quickly as I wanted if I’d have stayed at the club. After a few conversations with Alex Ferguson – some horrible conversations – I used to be scared knocking on his door at times. A lot of the time I’d knock on his door then walk away. In the end I think he understood, and they definitely made more from me than they paid.
1998/99 Treble… the craziest 10 days of my life
Looking back on those 10 or so days back in 1999 in and around the end of the season, the FA Cup final and, of course, the Champions League, it was just such a crazy period. We’d won the league by beating Tottenham on the one weekend, all of us celebrating on the pitch lifting the trophy. I was a 20-year-old, playing for the team I supported as a young boy, and I’m celebrating with these players I looked up to for so long – we’re all going crazy on the pitch, and then there’s the after party – it was just one of the best days ever.
Then we had the FA Cup final the following weekend and I just have these memories of being measured up for my suit, being a part of the final squad going down to Wembley. I think it was me and Wes Brown who ended up being left out of the squad for the actual game, although we were there as part of the team on the day when we beat Newcastle.
Winning the FA Cup was such a massive accomplishment for the squad and to be a part of it all was a dream come true – again the parties and the celebrations after that final were unbelievable. I remember thinking ‘we can’t have a party, we’ve got the Champions League final on Wednesday!’, but everyone was steaming, up all night drinking, celebrating. I couldn’t believe it.
Then came the build-up to the Champions League final, where we flew out to Barcelona on Concorde which was a great experience. We got to the hotel and I just remember things being really relaxed, the lads were so relaxed, the manager was so relaxed, we’re all just really confident. At this point I’m thinking basically this time last year I was training on pitches with jumpers for goalposts, and now I’m flying Concorde to the Champions League final – how crazy is that?
Going into the day of the final, I just remember waking up and being nervous because it was out of me and John Curtis as to who was going to make the bench, with Roy Keane and Paul Scholes both missing the game. It was a horrible moment waiting to see who was going to make it onto the team, and we didn’t find out until we got to the stadium. I remember walking into the dressing room and I saw my shirt hanging up, with my shorts, socks and boots – all of a sudden I just got so nervous. I was just thinking ‘what happens if I have to come on and I make a mistake and we lose?’ But I soon got that out of my head.
Just to be on the bench for an occasion like that, at 20 years of age, I was absolutely delighted. It wasn’t the best of games, to be honest. It was scrappy, we were missing a couple of key players, we went a goal down and it was just generally a pretty horrible game, which all changed in those final few minutes.
When that first goal went in, the whole bench went mental. Everyone ran down into the corner, Alex Ferguson is going crazy, Steve McClaren, all the backroom staff, everyone is going mad celebrating. Then we get back to the bench and it all sort of settles down a bit, and I remember Steve McClaren saying something to Alex Ferguson about us needing to be clever and shut up shop to take the game into extra-time and go again, and that we couldn’t do anything stupid.
And then all of a sudden we went on an attack and won another corner. We’re all thinking ‘no chance, it can’t happen’. I think I was hugging Wes Brown and maybe Phil Neville or David May – either way we all had our hands around each other, and the corner whips in, the ball drops, we’re all looking at where it’s going to end up, and next thing you know it’s in the back of the net and we’re going crazy and we sprinted over to celebrate with the players again. We just could not believe it.
I remember getting back to the dugout and my heart was pumping that much because I’d sprinted all the way to the corner and back, then had to do it again for the winner, my heart was going and all I could think was ‘we’ve won the bloody Champions League!’.
Obviously the final whistle went and we burst onto the pitch to celebrate the win, and I just take a moment where I think about what’s actually happening. I’m celebrating with all of these players I was supporting a few years ago. It was just such a surreal feeling.
Roy Keane was the best trainer at Man United… I still think he can offer something as a manager
In terms of setting standards, the best trainer I played with at Manchester United has got to be Roy Keane. He demanded the highest, highest quality in every training session, so that’s not giving the ball away in rondos, not giving the ball away in possession. Without Roy Keane in that squad, Manchester United don’t win as many trophies as they did. He demanded excellence in every session. You could not give the ball away in training with him; if I gave it away, he would absolutely rip into me. You had to be on your A game in every single session.
He’d always say to us that if you put in the groundwork, giving your absolute best in training from Monday to Friday, you’ll have a good performance on the Saturday. I think he said something recently about some of the toughest matches he’s played in have been in training at Manchester United, and it’s probably true.
Roy Keane has always just said what he thinks, and I absolutely love him for it. I love him as a pundit and I know him well, I know what he’s like and I know how serious he is. Sometimes his comments are very tongue in cheek, but with most of them he’s being deadly serious and he believes exactly what he says.
He was unlucky in management because I thought he did well up at Sunderland before he had a fallout with the chairman, then things didn’t quite work out well for him at Ipswich. For me, personally, I love him as a pundit, but I think he’s still got a lot to offer as a manager. I think if somebody gave him a chance at management again, I think he’d do a good job. He wouldn’t let people down.