Belfast Telegraph

How former Manchester United coach Eric Harrison's qualities are missed in modern game, explain ex Northern Ireland aces

Much respected: Eric Harrison with members of the ‘Class of 92’, (from left) Phil Neville, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Wes Brown
Much respected: Eric Harrison with members of the ‘Class of 92’, (from left) Phil Neville, Gary Neville, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Wes Brown

By Steven Beacom

To the iconic Sir Alex Ferguson, Eric Harrison was "one of the greatest coaches of our time".

To a host of young footballers from Northern Ireland, Harrison was the man who paved the way for them to enjoy professional careers across the water.

From Norman Whiteside to David Healy, Keith Gillespie to Pat McGibbon and Philip Mulryne to Colin Murdock, all have a special place in their hearts for the former Manchester United youth coach, whose death at the age of 81 was announced yesterday.

Harrison was credited with developing United's famous 'Class of 92' which included David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt. They all went on to enjoy spectacularly successful first-team careers under Ferguson at Old Trafford.

While Harrison was immensely proud of their achievements, he was also pleased to see others make the grade despite leaving Old Trafford.

Murdock was one. He played in Harrison's youth team but never made a first-team appearance for United though went on to win 34 caps for Northern Ireland, shining for clubs such as Preston, Hibs and Rotherham.

Now running Murdock Sports Group, a respected football agency in England, the ex-defender said: "Eric was very fair and honest and he did genuinely care about his players.

"At the time he seemed very tough on you but that was helping you develop as a person and mould you as a player and be able to deal with criticism.

"He was very good at identifying your strengths and weaknesses and in turn he was absolutely outstanding at addressing those areas of your game where you were particularly poor and needed improving. He would ram it down your throat until you were blue in the face just to help you.

"He was really hard on me but for good reason and I really liked and respected him. I always felt that despite the fact he could be incredibly harsh there was always the feeling it was to help improve you.

"Those qualities are really lacking nowadays. The reluctance to give players frank and honest feedback is missing and as a result some players don't move forward as much as they could because they are a little bit deluded thinking they are doing well when they actually aren't doing enough.

"The stuff about Eric that is reported most is around David Beckham, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt but there were numerous players that came through under Eric and had good careers like our own David Healy, Pat McGibbon and Philip Mulryne.

"Eric was a good man who could squeeze the most out of a young player."

Another ex-Northern Ireland defender, McGibbon, who played for United as a youngster prior to becoming a hero at Wigan, added: "The biggest thing with Eric was you knew where you stood with him. He was a hard taskmaster but he was very fair.

"I went over as a young pro and didn't do the apprenticeship thing but in the afternoons I would have trained with Eric and he taught me a lot. He was an honest, genuine fella.

"He had great knowledge of the game and he also had great personality traits. Everything about Eric showed he was a top-class man. He was genuinely passionate about what he did and helping kids develop."

Winger Gillespie said: "It was heartbreaking news. He was an inspirational man and a total one-off. He taught us all how to be men. Young players could learn so much from him today."

Northern Ireland World Cup star Norman Whiteside, who made his United debut at 16 having been coached by Harrison, said: "It was very sad to hear about my Eric's passing. He was a born winner and he installed that in all his players."

With his family by his side, Harrison, diagnosed with dementia four years ago, passed away peacefully. He became United's youth team boss in 1981 having played for Halifax, Hartlepool, Barrow and Southport. He stayed at Old Trafford for 27 years and had four as assistant to Welsh boss and former United hero Mark Hughes.

"Eric was straight talking and I admired that in him," said ex-United manager Ferguson. "He built character and determination in young players and prepared them for the future. He was a teacher and was able to impart education to the young which made him one of the greatest coaches of our time."

On Harrison, former England captain Beckham said "we owe you everything" while Gary Neville described him as "our mentor, our coach and the man who made us".

Belfast Telegraph


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