The Importance of Manchester United Coaches from Murphy to Phelan

Sam Pilger@sampilgerContributing Football WriterJuly 9, 2013

Over the last seven decades a succession of first-team coaches have had a significant influence on Manchester United’s success.  

Arguably the most influential Manchester United first-team coach of all time was Jimmy Murphy, who formed a revered partnership with Sir Matt Busby for a quarter of a century from 1945. 

The pair had met during the war in Italy, where they forged a friendship that would become the driving force behind United. 

Over the years, Murphy did most of the training at United and played a greater role in developing players. 

“There have been few better teachers of the game, and I am greatly in his debt,” Sir Bobby Charlton has said in his autobiography My Manchester United Years

“Alf Ramsey helped me a lot with England, and so, of course, in many ways, did Matt Busby. But Jimmy got to my guts.” 

Murphy gave players their football education. The fiery Welshman would take them aside or stay behind after a session to focus on helping their game. Charlton credits Murphy for improving his passing, stamina and his famous long-range shooting. 

It was Murphy who held United together in the aftermath of the 1958 Munich air disaster which claimed the lives of eight players, and in the following years as Busby retreated from the training pitch, Murphy took charge of the daily sessions. 

After the relatively brief reigns of Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell, it was Tommy Docherty, assisted by Tommy Cavanagh, who arrived at Old Trafford in December 1972. 

The United squad embraced Cavanagh’s training methods, warming to his motivational skills and sense of humour. 

“We used to come off the training ground with smiles on our faces; we had a laugh,” the late Brian Greenhoff recalled in the Manchester United Encyclopedia. “That’s important when you’re training every day. Tommy Cavanagh had a knack of breaking the monotony.” 

During Ron Atkinson’s reign between 1981 and 1986, he took his place at the side of the pitch and left training to his assistant Mick Brown. 

“They ran United on much the same lines as they had done at Albion,” Bryan Robson who joined them at United in October 1981 wrote in his autobiography. “Mick would concentrate on the day-to-day training with Ron picking players up on some of the finer points. [Mick’s] enthusiasm for football is incredible and it rubbed off onto the United players.” 

In 1986, Alex Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford from Aberdeen with his trusted assistant Archie Knox. At Pittodrie, it was Knox who had taken charge of the daily training sessions, and he eventually did the same at United. 

Knox mirrored Ferguson’s disciplined approach and determination, and he helped transform the club in his five years before he moved on to perform the same role at Rangers in 1991. 

The vacancy alongside Ferguson was filled by former United player and 1968 European Cup winner Brian Kidd. 

For the next seven-and-a-half seasons, Brian Kidd’s work on the training pitch played a major role in United enjoying their most successful ever era.  

Kidd was always keen to learn about new ideas and scoured the world, visiting clubs in Spain and Italy for any innovations to improve his training sessions. 

“The players respected Kiddo, he was also liked, he was human and approachable,” wrote Roy Keane in his autobiography Keane. 

“There was always a sense of purpose to the work, a good footballing reason for the little games and drills we worked on. I loved training at United, felt it was essential to prepare as if your life depended on it. I loved the graft and the banter. Kiddo’s skill was to accommodate all the different types of players to harness in to a collective purpose.”

In his autobiography, David Beckham wrote:

Brian Kidd and the manager made a great team. He did a great job working between the boss and the players. Everybody in the dressing room thought Brian was ‘One of Us.’ After training or a game no one needed to watch what they were saying or doing. Kiddo would be having a laugh along with the rest.

When Brian Kidd became Blackburn Rovers’ new manager in December 1998, halfway through the treble-winning season, Ferguson was forced to look for a new coach and lured Steve McClaren from Derby County

McClaren had built a reputation as one of the country’s top coaches by embracing a host of new ideas. 

At Derby, he had employed a full-time fitness trainer, a sports psychologist and used the Pro-zone system that tracks a player’s every move during a game. He also created a “preparation chamber” for his players to sit in vibrating chairs before training and watch motivational images and footage on a large screen.  

Manchester United’s players quickly took to McClaren, liking his unerring eye for detail and how he prepared for games. 

Roy Keane wrote in his autobiography:

He brought his different and very much his own qualities to the job. His technical ability, his organisation, his passing on of information to the training pitch were absolutely outstanding. He had a really open mind too. If Steve heard about something new, he would try it. If it worked, we’d use it.

Unsurprisingly, Steve McClaren was soon in demand, and in the summer of 2001 he succeeded Bryan Robson as manager of Middlesbrough

By the start of the 2002-03 season Ferguson had recruited the former South Africa and Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz to assist him. 

After helping win the Premiership title in his first season, the Portuguese coach disappeared to manage Real Madrid for a season before returning to Old Trafford. 

“It is a very close, very strong relationship between me and Sir Alex,” Queiroz told me in 2005. “My preparation of the team is supervised by the manager, there is nothing that we do that we don’t discuss together, and he has the final say. He watches every training session. It is important to have some distance, and he will discuss what he has seen with me. You lose the global picture. His observation is very important.” 

“I have a global approach to training, a systemic approach. It is not usual to split the training between the different components. We try to develop a total and integrated preparation of all components of technical, tactical and physical. The concept from the past was training sessions dedicated to skills, fitness or tactics. That is finished. Everything we do has an impact on both fitness and skills.” 

When Queiroz left again in 2008, the former United player Mike Phelan was promoted and served next to Sir Alex Ferguson for five years before the United manager retired at the end of last season. 

While Phelan was reluctantly the face of United on the BBC during Ferguson’s refusal to speak to the broadcaster, overall he played a low-key role at Old Trafford, but he was highly valued by Ferguson and popular with the players. 

Last week, new United manager David Moyes appointed Steve Round, Ryan Giggs and Phil Neville as his first-team coaches. 

It now falls to this trio to seek inspiration from their coaching forefathers and develop their own way of being a conduit between the manager and the playing squad. 


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