(From left to right): Clayton Blackmore, Neil Webb, Viv Anderson, Dion Dublin, Frank Stapleton and The Score’s Ben Blake.
WHEN AN EMAIL landed in my inbox offering the chance to rub shoulders with a team of ex-professionals in a friendly five-a-side game, I saw it as an opportunity to live out a childhood dream and, maybe, even impress.
Sure, the opposition had won English league titles, FA Cups and European Cup Winners’ Cup medals and amassed somewhere in the region of 170 senior international caps between them for Ireland, England and Wales… but, look, that was decades ago and most of them were in their 50s now.
I, on the other hand, was at an age which people speak about players “coming into their peak”. Although my modest playing days never quite amounted to much and it would be generous to be called a journeyman currently lining out in the lower divisions of the Leinster Senior League, youth and fitness would certainly prevail against a side which would be short on legs.
So when our motley crew of sports journalists from radio, print and online stepped out onto the pitch to face the Manchester United ‘Legends’, it felt like we had nothing to fear.
The opening exchanges were arguably our strongest period as the pretenders buzzed around the enclosed artificial surface eager to catch the eye.
That lasted all of three-and-a-half minutes.
From there on out, it was patently clear that we would spend the best part of an hour chasing the ball and waiting to regain possession either by picking it out of the back of the net or when the other team occasionally misjudged a pass or wayward strike.
Ben and Dion Dublin contest a loose ball. David Maher/SPORTSFILE
It wasn’t as if they were exerting themselves physically but we just couldn’t get near them. While elder statesman Frank Stapleton never put a foot wrong and was all about doing the simple things right, Viv Anderson, also 57 years young, was more energetic than most of our lads and often gave running commentary to the play.
Trigger-happy Clayton Blackmore still has a decent strike on him, Neil Webb showed some nice touches and, at 44, the ‘baby’ of the group Dion Dublin looked like he could line out for Norwich City five years on from hanging up his boots.
When the official scorekeeper tried to claim it was 7-6 to the reds at half-time, more than a couple of us chuckled.
We did enjoy some bright periods in the latter stages of the second half but that may have had more to do with our opponents losing interest than anything else.
Anderson, always the joker, launched himself to the deck with a couple of dives even Ashley Young would be proud of.
Upon being awarded a penalty, the former defender turned away from the ball and back-heeled his spot kick into the bottom corner – leaving our goalkeeper red-faced.
You had to laugh.
When the final whistle did eventually go, most of us were just glad the beating had been called to a halt so we could get back to the day job — reporting on football from the safety of the sideline.
Before they hopped on a flight back to the UK, I spoke to the ex-pros about their time with Manchester United and the current state of the club.
Neil Webb – 1989-1992
Credit: Neil Webb is challenged by Warsaw’s Leszek Pisz
On signing for United
You don’t know what you’re letting yourself in for when you play for Manchester United. I left a better team Notts Forest to join but I thought I could help them win their first league title. Unfortunately that wasn’t me, it was a few years later with a chap named Roy Keane.
On Alex Ferguson
Don’t cross him. I think we had six fallings out over three and a half years. I was right three and he was right three. It was a draw but I lost because he sold me. You cross him once, it’s bad enough. I crossed him three times and that was it.
He dropped me for the Cup Winners’ Cup final in ‘91 at lunchtime of match day. He left me out for Mickey Phelan and I wasn’t best happy. Dummy’s thrown out of the pram and that. I was a sub but didn’t feel part of it. I had played in all the other games leading up to the final so I didn’t accept it. We went on the open top bus and I sat downstairs and sulked like a good ‘un.
We had a meeting a week later, I said I wanted to leave and wasn’t happy at how I had been treated. He said you’ll do what you’re told and it was pretty one-sided after that. I think I lasted another year.
Viv Anderson – 1987-1991
Credit: Duncan Raban/Duncan Raban/EMPICS Entertainment
It is very early. They were always going to be big shoes to fill and the fixtures didn’t help him. You say we’re playing Liverpool. Man City and Chelsea in the first month and it’s always going to be difficult. At the end of the day, it’s far too early. You come back and ask me the same question after Christmas and I can give you a truer opinion.
Manchester United is all about longevity. You look at Sir Alex (Ferguson) and Sir Matt (Busby). David Moyes is there, they’ve given him a six year contract because they think he’s the one to build up the club and I think he is stilling finding his feet.
When you take the job but you don’t release what’s involved until you get into the day-to-day work. Not disrespect to Everton but it’s a far far bigger club than that will ever be. It was Sir Alex who made the statement after his last home game that you’ve got to give him time.
I played in that game when Sir Alex was supposedly going to get sacked at Nottingham Forest that day. That was nine months into his tenure.
Clayton Blackmore – 1982-1994
Credit: Phil O’Brien/EMPICS Sport
On his current involvement
I probably do more at the club than when I was playing. A lot of the lads do work in the hospitality side of it, obviously watch the game. I also work with the academy coaching the U13s and U16s.
On Moyes and keeping players at the club
Moyes has come in and brought in Phil Neville, Butty, Scholesly is still around and Ryan(Giggs) too. A lot of people are nervous about the start but I think he’ll be fine. They’re going to be nervous because they don’t know what to expect and are used to success. You can’t really get better because of what Sir Alex did when he was at the club. He has helped to bring Moyes in and I think he has got the same passion as Sir Alex and will do well.
On hearing the news Fergie was retiring
I was about 100 yards away from Old Trafford and has just been on the radio saying there was no way he was leaving. Bum, he’s resigned. 26 years is a lot of interviews with the press. The football bit is not so bad but it’s everything that comes with it. There’s a lot of work outside the football part.
On changing tactics
What I thought he might have brought to the team was closing down at the front. At the moment, it’s the old saying ‘if it’s not broken don’t fix it’ because we won the league by 11 points last season. But I thought we could have been better if we had done a bit of pressing. All the top teams in Europe are pressing from the front and making it hard for teams at the back.
He’s got six years. For the fans to start turning on him won’t help the club so it would be very silly for him to do that.
He has now gone to a club where you’ve got so many played that the rotation has got to be done. At Everton, they played their strongest team most of the time. He has got to learn how to pick the right balance to win the game and Sir Alex was great at it. You’re going to get wrong now and again.
The Manchester United Legends Match was to promote the Setanta Sports Pack, which will broadcast five Manchester United games between 28 September and 1 December. For more information visit Setanta.com