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'I told Fergie to shove his Manchester United contract and he told me to get out of his office'

Joe Hanrahan’s career included League of Ireland and FAI Cup medals, plus a spell at Old Trafford.

“AN AMBITION HELD by nearly every young lad who has ever kicked a ball” was how the move was described on the front page of the Limerick Leader on 24 August, 1985.

Just a few months after his 21st birthday, Joe Hanrahan from Ashbrook Gardens on the Ennis Road signed a two-year professional contract with one of the world’s most famous football clubs; a club he had supported for as long as he could remember.

Screen Shot 2018-04-18 at 13.34.37 Source: LimerickCity.ie

He was too young to recall how Manchester United became champions of Europe in 1968, but the FA Cup final victory over Bob Paisley’s Liverpool in 1977 — when Hanrahan was 13 — remained vivid in his memory. Arthur Albiston, who played in that 2-1 win at Wembley, was about to become his team-mate.

It certainly was a “fairytale story”, as Limerick’s local newspaper recorded it. Yet in spite of his childhood devotion to the club, moving to Manchester United wasn’t quite the realisation of the dream for Joe Hanrahan. Having grown up a stone’s throw from the Gaelic Grounds, his main sporting objective was to emulate his father.

The highlight of Michael Hanrahan’s hurling career with Limerick came in 1958 when he won an All-Ireland minor medal. Joe was planning to follow in his dad’s footsteps by representing his county at Croke Park, until life ultimately took him in a different direction.

“All-Ireland medals of any description are quite rare in Limerick, but dad has one — which he likes to remind us about,” he says. “When I heard that United were interested in me, of course it was very exciting. But the main aim for me was to win an All-Ireland hurling medal with Limerick. That would have been unbelievable and the highlight above anything else, had it happened.”

Hanrahan did go on to play Gaelic football for Limerick at underage level, reaching a Munster U21 final thanks to a victory over Kerry in 1984. However, his ability with a football contributed to a much more significant achievement that year.

“If you weren’t interested in talking about sport in our house, nobody would have spoken to you at all,” he laughs. “Funnily enough, given how prevalent the game is in Limerick, the only thing we didn’t do was play rugby.”

Peter, Joe’s brother, was the League of Ireland’s leading goalscorer when he won the title with Dundalk in 1991. Peter’s son, Ben, is currently a member of the UCD side chasing promotion from the First Division. Another brother, Dave, also had a spell in the League of Ireland, while Gary represented Ireland at underage level.

inpho_00007769 Joe Hanrahan pictured in 1997. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

The Hanrahan brothers made their names locally while playing for Vereker Clements. Joe’s exploits with the club saw him recognised internationally. He captained the Ireland team that qualified for the 1982 European Youth Championship, but was unable to play in the tournament in Finland as it clashed with exams.

Prior to that, as he approached the end of his secondary school education, Hanrahan was on the radar of Dr Tony O’Neill at University College Dublin. After scoring for the Ireland youths in a game against Wales in Galway, O’Neill offered him a scholarship to study and play football at UCD. But ‘The Doc’ wasn’t the only interested party.

Hanrahan explains: “In the summer of 1981 after I did my Leaving Cert at Ardscoil Rís, my father came home one evening after meeting the head scout at Wolverhampton Wanderers. He basically said: ‘Here’s your choice — you can go to Wolves or take the scholarship in UCD. It’s up to you’. That was the situation I was faced with.”

Although he was still only 17, Hanrahan’s decision would ultimately prove to be pivotal in shaping his life. Understandably, young footballers find it difficult to resist the lure of an offer from a club in the top tier of English football. Hanrahan went down the road less travelled in order to put a safety net in place.

“You have to remember that this was 1981,” he says. “Football in England was exciting, but it wasn’t what we see nowadays where fellas are getting paid more in a few days than what some of the best players back then were getting in a year. It was an entirely different kettle of fish.

“I was also thinking that I’d be finished the degree when I was 20 anyway, so an opportunity to go to England might come again. That’s why I decided to go to UCD and have that insurance policy in the back pocket.”

Making his League of Ireland debut as a 17-year-old left-sided attacker, Hanrahan describes his first couple of seasons as “a rude awakening”, as UCD constantly battled to stay away from the foot of the table. But the 1983-84 season represented a turning point.

Dr. Tony O'Neill 1996 The Doc: Tony O'Neill Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Dr Tony O’Neill opted to break with tradition by signing experienced players who weren’t UCD students, such as Paddy Dunning, Robbie Gaffney and goalkeeper Alan O’Neill. The change in policy brought about a top-six finish in the league, but the clearest signs of progress came in the FAI Cup.

They began with a 5-0 win over holders Sligo Rovers in a replay, in which Hanrahan scored twice. He then netted the winner in the semi-final against Waterford United, which set up a decider against a Shamrock Rovers side who had just won the first of four consecutive league titles.

After a goalless draw at Dalymount Park, a replay was required at Tolka Park five days later. Just before half-time, Hanrahan broke free down the left and tucked the ball inside Jody Byrne’s far post to give UCD the lead. Jacko McDonagh equalised from the penalty spot for Rovers in the second half, and the sides were still level when the clock ticked past 90.

In the sixth minute of additional time, defender Ken O’Doherty — who was later signed by Crystal Palace — saw an opportunity to make amends. Having earlier missed a penalty that would have doubled their lead, O’Doherty went forward in the dying seconds and prodded the ball home from a Keith Dignam free-kick to seal a win which remains the greatest footballing triumph in UCD’s history.

Rovers won the next three FAI Cups on the trot to supplement their dominance in the league. The missing piece in what would have been a four-in-a-row of doubles was that 2-1 defeat to UCD on Friday, 4 May, 1984.

“We beat the best League of Ireland team I ever played against,” says Hanrahan. “They were exceptional. I remember playing against them in a league match in Milltown before the FAI Cup final and they were superb. It was such a huge achievement for UCD. I was at a lunch recently and it was still being mentioned. It’s nice to have been part of something like that.”

In spite of increasing interest from clubs on the other side of the Irish Sea, Hanrahan stayed with UCD for a fourth season, which saw him feature in another memorable occasion for the college. Their FAI Cup success sent them into the European Cup Winners’ Cup. In the first round draw, they were paired with Everton.

JH Joe Hanrahan scores against Shamrock Rovers in the 1984 FAI Cup final. Source: YouTube (Retro LOI)

The late Dermot Morgan of Father Ted fame is reputed to have put his support of UCD down to an aversion to crowds. To that end, he probably wouldn’t have enjoyed the first leg against the English club, as an attendance of approximately 10,000 packed Tolka Park to see the likes of Neville Southall, Peter Reid, Kevin Sheedy and Graeme Sharp, all of whom had helped Everton to FA Cup success four months earlier with a 2-0 win over Watford.

The Everton side who came to Dublin in September 1984 is widely regarded as the greatest the club has ever produced. Nevertheless, UCD managed to hold them to a goalless draw at Tolka. Everton still progressed courtesy of Graeme Sharp’s first-half strike at Goodison Park, but a 1-0 defeat over two legs to a team of that calibre was something UCD could afford to be immensely proud of.

That victory marked the first step on Everton’s journey to winning the only piece of European silverware in their history. Their march to victory in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in May 1985 also included a 3-1 win over Bayern Munich.

Eleven days before they overcame Rapid Vienna in the decider, Howard Kendall’s side were crowned champions of England with five league games to spare. Only a piece of Norman Whiteside brilliance for Manchester United prevented the Toffees from retaining the FA Cup too.

To add further perspective to the extent to which UCD punched above their weight, the most recent Anglo-Irish European tie at the time had occurred in the Uefa Cup a year earlier, when Drogheda United were beaten 14-0 on aggregate by Tottenham Hotspur.

“To be drawn against a team like Everton was absolutely amazing,” says Hanrahan. “They were a really fantastic side. It was 0-0 at Tolka Park but it was 10 men behind the ball. We spent nearly the entire game in our own half. It was still a great result, especially as over two legs for the rest of the competition nobody else came within one goal of them.

“Even after the draw at Tolka Park, they were still expected to beat the sugar out of us at Goodison. It was a great experience. But did I think we ever had a chance of winning it over two legs? Not really. It was a traditional fighting performance from a League of Ireland team with the aim of getting a respectable result, which is what it was.”

Soccer - European Cup Winners Cup - Final - Everton v Rapid Vienna The Everton team that defeated Rapid Vienna in the 1985 European Cup Winners' Cup final. Source: Peter Robinson

Despite Hanrahan’s assessment, Everton were only the width of the crossbar away from being eliminated. UCD struck the woodwork late in the second leg, which would have seen them through on away goals.

“It was the biggest scare we had en route to winning the Cup Winners’ Cup that season,” Everton’s Irish international Kevin Sheedy would later admit. Peter Reid explained in a 2007 interview: “We beat them 1-0 at Goodison but in the last minute a lad called Joe Hanrahan had a chance and if he’d have stuck it in we’d have been out.”

However, Hanrahan takes the opportunity to debunk that myth. “I’ve seen that quote from Peter Reid and I think there has been a degree of embellishment. My memory of the game isn’t perfect, but if we did hit the bar I’m fairly certain it wasn’t me.”

In the summer of 1985, only a matter of weeks after Everton missed out on winning another FA Cup, Hanrahan was signed by the club who beat them 1-0 after extra-time at Wembley. After impressing manager Ron Atkinson while on trial, Manchester United paid UCD a reported fee of £30,000 to add Hanrahan to an Irish contingent that already included the likes of Paul McGrath, Kevin Moran and Frank Stapleton.

Upon his arrival in Manchester, the 21-year-old commerce graduate from Limerick shared a house with Mark Hughes, who was a key figure for United as they went undefeated in the first 15 games of the 1985-86 season. Hughes, who vacated the house the following summer to join Barcelona, scored 10 goals during that incredible run which looked set to propel the Red Devils to their first league title since 1967.

But the wheels gradually came off for United under ‘Big Ron’. A dismal second half of the season killed their title challenge, and after winning just three of their first 13 games to begin the following season, Atkinson was replaced by Alex Ferguson.

All the while, Hanrahan was generally on the outside looking in. He played and scored regularly for the reserves, but a first-team breakthrough never materialised. The passing of time has allowed him to be candid in his assessment of why that was the case.

PA-12136733 Hanrahan signed for United after they beat Everton to win the FA Cup in 1985. Source: Sport and General/S&G and Barratts/EMPICS Sport

“The first thing I would say is that I had a great time there,” he remarks. “It was literally like a busman’s holiday. Really fantastic. Great fun, even though I didn’t manage to break in.

“They brought me over as a centre-forward, which I never saw myself as. I was more of a left-sided attacker, but not a striker like my brother Peter was. I was quick, I had a good left foot, a bit of skill and I could cross the ball. They were my strengths.

“In the reserves, you were always conscious of the fact that the first-team was what it was all about and you were just waiting for a chance to get in. I’d like to think I got close a few times.

“I had a great pre-season in 1986. The reserves played a practice game against the first-team, the reserves actually beat them and I scored the four goals. Ron Atkinson then took me on a pre-season tour to Holland with the first-team but I got injured. That’s one of the big things you find when you go into a fully professional set-up like that. The body takes time to adapt and you find that you pick up injuries because the body is being pushed.

“I was probably close enough at that stage. In a piece I read recently on The42, Liam O’Brien mentioned the game in which he was sent off against Southampton. I was part of the wider squad for that game, even though I wasn’t actually on the bench.

“It was difficult. Because they saw me as a centre-forward, I was up against the likes of Frank Stapleton, Mark Hughes and Norman Whiteside. Big Ron bought Peter Davenport and Terry Gibson as well. There was a lot of competition.

“But the wider point I’d make is that until that stage, I had always played football for fun. It was only when I went to Manchester United that it ceased to be fun. It was a job first and foremost and you needed to treat it as such. Not everybody adapts.

“There are so many Irish players who go across to England with the requisite ability to succeed. But they’re missing some other ingredient. Sometimes it comes down to that realisation that this isn’t fun anymore. This is your living.

“Was I ever fully immersed in being a professional footballer at Manchester United? Was being a Manchester United player the be-all and end-all for me? Did I want it more than anything else in the world? If I was being honest with myself now, I would say probably not.

“The reality at the time was there was always an opportunity cost for me. When I was there, I was wondering what I was missing out on at home. I had a degree and I could have gotten into business while still playing football in the League of Ireland.

“After two years there, my hunger for it had probably diminished. You have to bear in mind too that today’s financial rewards weren’t there then. Not even remotely. There wasn’t so much of a difference between what I earned there and what I could earn at home.”

Although Hanrahan hadn’t made an impact at Old Trafford by the time his contract expired in the summer of 1987, Alex Ferguson was prepared to extend his deal to give him an opportunity to play his way into his plans. According to the player, however, the “derisory” terms of the offer brought the pair into conflict.

Hanrahan says: “I’m not afraid to speak my mind and nor is Fergie, as we now know. When he came in after Big Ron was sacked, I remember Gordon Strachan warning the rest of us because he had experience of playing under Fergie at Aberdeen. He said it was going to be a big change, and it was. It went from a very jovial kind of a place to being quite an austere place.

“He had a job on his hands but the reality was that a lot of young lads were frightened of him. Himself and Archie Knox, his assistant, were rough in the way that they dealt with people. In some respects I had protection in the form of my education. If I wasn’t happy, I was able to say ‘good luck’ and walk out the door. That’s kind of what happened.

Alex Ferguson/Man Utd/1986 Alex Ferguson after being unveiled as Manchester United manager in November 1986. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

“When we spoke he said I needed to prove myself, like everybody else. At the end of the season he offered me an increase in my contract for one year, but the increase was rubbish, which I pointed out to him and which he didn’t like. We had a row. I told Fergie to shove his Manchester United contract and he told me to get out of his office. The following day I flew to Shannon and never went back.”

While Hanrahan was no longer under contract with United, the club still had control of his registration. The Bosman ruling, which now allows out-of-contract footballers to move to a new club without the need for a transfer fee, hadn’t yet come into existence.

Dermot Keely and Louis Kilcoyne, who were manager and owner at Shamrock Rovers respectively at the time, were keen to sign Hanrahan, but the manner of his departure from United made it a complicated process.

“This was pre-Bosman, so United weren’t even allowing me to play in Ireland,” Hanrahan explains. “Fergie rang me at home in Limerick and said ‘you’ll never play again if you don’t come back’, because they were trying to sell me at that stage.

“In fairness to the late Louis Kilcoyne and Dermot Keely, they contacted me and asked if I’d play with Rovers if they could sort something out. I said ‘absolutely’. They eventually did, but the deal they came to was that if I ever left the jurisdiction again, United would get the transfer fee.”

Regarding his relationship with Ferguson, Hanrahan adds: “For his first four years at United he didn’t win a trophy and I kept telling people that I was right to have doubts about him. But I was very, very wrong. In fairness to him, he had a very difficult job when he arrived at United. I was probably too young to recognise that. I was only 22.

“You’ve got to be honest with yourself when you get an opportunity to reflect. I would say that having a job and playing football on the side probably suited my personality at that time a lot more than being a full-time professional footballer in England.

“If I was 22 today, it might be a different scenario. The rewards are just so incredible now that it might change the outlook. You’ve got to be getting paid as well as you can because it’s such a short career.

“But with hindsight, I do agree with Fergie’s assessment of me. To be fair to the man, he was right. It’s very difficult to be honest with yourself when you’re 22. I had plenty of ability, but did I have that inner desire that a Roy Keane had later on? No. Not to get to play with Manchester United at that level anyway.

“I always felt that my ability would be enough to bring me to the next stage, but in the professional ranks ability is only a component. There’s an awful lot more to it than ability, which is what I’d say to any parent today coming to me with a child who’s thinking about going after full-time football.

“There’s an awful lot more to it than simply having a good left foot or whatever it might be. What’s his head like? Is there a burning desire to do this? Can he adapt to a different lifestyle? It’s easy for me to say that now with hindsight, but that’s the reality.”

Hanrahan was a Shamrock Rovers player for the 1987-88 season, but perhaps most importantly from a professional point of view, the move allowed him to begin a long reign of employment in the financial sector in Dublin which continues to this day.

On the pitch, it was a difficult season for the Hoops as they sought to adjust to life at Tolka Park following their controversial departure from Milltown. After winning four league titles and three FAI Cups in the previous four campaigns, Rovers finished empty-handed in Hanrahan’s only season with the club.

“Rovers had just moved from Milltown to Tolka,” he says. “It had been an incredible period of success for the club but they were probably going over the other side of the mountain at that stage. There was a huge amount of discord with supporters wanting to keep the club in Milltown, so there were protests outside the ground and that type of thing. It was probably a very dark time in Shamrock Rovers’ history.”

inpho_00007140 Hanrahan playing for Dundalk in 1995. Source: INPHO

Hanrahan then moved on to play under Billy Hamilton with Limerick City, helping his hometown club to a third-place finish in the Premier Division. His form in Limerick attracted more attention from England, but the looming presence of Manchester United in any deal put paid to the prospect of another cross-channel transfer.

Hanrahan: “On the quiet I went over to Sunderland for a few days. They were looking to sign me and I would have been happy to sign because I was happy with the terms. I wasn’t itching to get back over to England or anything, but there was a slight sense of unfinished business. But Sunderland then saw that they’d have to negotiate with Manchester United, I wanted Limerick to get a few quid, and it fell into the sand from there.”

In 1990, Hanrahan headed north to join Jim McLaughlin’s Derry City, where he won the League Cup in each of his two seasons with the club. The first of those finals was a 2-0 victory over Limerick, in which he scored one of the goals: “I used to get dog’s abuse whenever I played against Limerick. In fairness, it was in a good-natured way because they knew I was still one of them.”

He adds: “Derry was a big commitment. There was a lot of travelling, going up and down from Dublin every weekend. I’d go up and train on a Saturday, stay in a hotel, play a game on Sunday and then come back down. So the social life was gone. It was tough but enjoyable.”

The 1992-93 season marked the beginning of a five-year spell at Dundalk, the highlight of which was a Premier Division medal that came in dramatic circumstances in 1995. On the final day of the season, leaders Derry City only needed to defeat lowly Athlone Town — who had already been condemned to a relegation play-off — to become champions.

However, with Derry held to a 1-1 draw at St Mel’s Park, and Shelbourne — who were level on points with Dundalk — only securing a point at home to St Patrick’s Athletic, Dundalk defied financial difficulties and a poor start to the season to win their ninth league title following a 2-0 win at home to Galway United.

Hanrahan, who had been reunited with Dermot Keely at Dundalk, says: “The Dundalk years were fun. Dermot just did something to get it right. We came from absolutely nowhere to win that league. The club had been hanging on. I remember everyone on the pitch at Oriel Park, waiting for the news to come through that Derry had drawn in Athlone. One more goal and they would have been champions. Incredible scenes.

inpho_00012376 Peter Hanrahan (right), Joe's brother, in action for Bohemians in 1997. Source: INPHO

“There was a great camaraderie in that group, a camaraderie that I hadn’t experienced since my days at UCD. That kind of completed it for me because my brother Peter won the league with Dundalk a few years earlier. It was great to be able to emulate what he had done.

“They say in Dundalk that Peter was a better player than me — and he thinks that himself anyway — so who am I to dispute that? It was a fabulous team at Dundalk, but unfortunately financial difficulties bedevilled Dundalk at that particular point. But I’ll always have an affinity with Dundalk after winning the league with them — even if they like my brother more than me!”

Hanrahan knew that the end was on the horizon when he left Dundalk in 1997, but he played on for two more seasons in the League of Ireland — first with Bohemians, then Monaghan United. But the years were beginning to take a toll, to the extent that Joe Hanrahan became known as Joe Hamstrings due to his injury troubles.

“I was 35 by the time I finished and I had been on the go at that level since I was 17,” he says. “If I was a car there would have been big mileage on me. I was getting injured a lot more often. I was just getting too old. The last few years were difficult. I was doing something I knew I wasn’t able to do as well as I did 10 years earlier.

“As well as that, the attitude was catching up with me as much as anything else. My levels of commitment were being seriously tested at that particular time. I think my last game was an FAI Cup match against Cork City in Monaghan. I got the shepherd’s hook at half-time and I knew then that it was game over.”

Having spent two years on the books at a club of Manchester United’s stature, as well as winning every major honour in Irish football, he adds: “I enjoyed the entire journey. I met so many brilliant people along the way, stayed fit, won a few medals and had lots of laughs with lots of very diverse people. I look back with absolutely no regrets.

“I suppose the education played an important role in that regard. Education is priceless, in my opinion. If you have your education, you’ll always have leverage with whoever you’re dealing with.

inpho_00003774 Joe Hanrahan: 'I look back with absolutely no regrets' Source: Tom Honan\INPHO

“If I did have one regret, it’s that I was born in 1964 instead of 1994. If I was going to Manchester United now, the starting salary would be massively different. But that’s hypothetical, of course, and I’m fortunate that I never had to consider any of that.

“I’m completely at peace because I can be honest about it. Did I have the ability to be a professional footballer in England? Yes. Maybe not necessarily with Manchester United, but for another club over there perhaps. But did I have the level of commitment that was required? Not enough. I was too distracted.

“If I was here [in Ireland], I would have been wondering if I should go over there. If I was there [in England], I’d have been thinking about coming back here. You can’t be like that. You need to be all in to succeed at that level.

“I’ll give the last word to Fergie on this. He was in Limerick a number of years ago for a Manchester United Supporters Club thing and he was asked about me by Alan English from the Limerick Leader. Fergie answered that they could never figure out what was going on in my head — whether I was in or out. That probably summed it up.”

If you ever happen to be on the hunt for financial advice in the Harcourt Street area of Dublin, there’s a good chance you’ll cross Joe Hanrahan’s path. For the past 12 years he has been working for Investec, where he’s currently heading up the retirement planning division. Yet even at the age of 54, he still hasn’t quite given up on his childhood dream.

“It’s 37 years since I left but I’m still very much a Limerick man,” he says. “I still keep an eye on the League of Ireland and I’ll always defend it, because I really enjoyed playing in it. But the hurling especially is still close to my heart, I have to admit.

“It’s 1973 since Limerick won a senior All-Ireland. If you asked me for one sporting ambition I’d have from now on — even though at this stage I’ll have to settle for watching instead of playing — it’s to be in Croke Park to see Limerick win the All-Ireland.

“I was fortunate to have had some great experiences, but that’s a dream I’ll never give up on.”

“They asked me about Effenberg. And I said: ‘If he thinks I was like his father, he played like my mother’”

‘Liam Brady ran across to me and said ‘Paddy, your Panathinaikos players are f***ing mad!”

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