By Dave Hannigan
When the New York Yankees signed a marketing merger with Manchester United last month, the Bronx Bombers weren’t just buying into England’s leading soccer franchise but also to an outfit that enjoys a special, historic relationship with Ireland.
From the taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, in one generation, to former world snooker champion Ken Doherty in another, this unique bond long predates Roy Keane becoming the team’s captain and most important player. That there are two shops in Dublin hawking nothing but United merchandise tells its own story.
Other English clubs have had fond and lengthy associations with Ireland, but none has endured and grown quite like this one. The first Irishman to play professional soccer anywhere was a Belfast-born left winger by the name of Jack Peden. A petulant type, he plied his trade in Manchester in the 1890s when the team that would be called United were still known as plain old Newton Heath. Seventy years later, an even more gifted left winger from the same town as Peden, a guy by the name of George Best, would encounter success and excess in Manchester.
In 1948, Johnny Carey captained United to FA Cup success and became perhaps the first genuine Irish footballing superstar. A consummate sportsman, he saw service in nine different positions for the club. Half a century on, a young Waterford defender called John O’Shea has made such an impression during the third season of his apprenticeship at Old Trafford that Alex Ferguson has dispatched the teenager on loan to Belgian club Royal Antwerp to accelerate his development. From Peden to Best, from Carey to O’Shea, the line is drawn.
"When I was growing up in Cork in the ’40s, boys dreamt of one day playing for Cork United," said Noel Cantwell, who himself captained Manchester United to their 1963 FA Cup victory. "But I only ever dreamt of playing for Manchester United. And that was because of Johnny Carey. Once I saw him captaining them, that was it. United were always the ambition."
That a preponderance of Irishmen have worn the United colors through the years only goes some way to explaining the attraction. While every fan has his or her own personal epiphany, there are moments that remain landmarks for all. In February 1958, on the darkest night in Manchester United’s history, when the team plane crashed at the end of a Munich airstrip, three of their first-team squad were Irish, and one of them, Harry Gregg, was the hero of a dreadful hour. Ten years later, on the greatest night in their history, more than a quarter of the first XI was Irish, and one of them, the peerless Best, was the hero of a better hour.
Supporters of a certain age have invested the demise of the Busby Babes in Munich with the same significance that others accord the assassination five years later of John F. Kennedy. That the mercurial midfield talent Liam Whelan, one of Ireland’s own, was among the dead, only added to the poignancy. The outpouring of grief during Whelan’s funeral on the northside of Dublin was the defining moment for a pre-pubescent Bertie Ahern. After that, there could be no other club for him, and so many thousands more of a similar age.
"I must confess to being a lifelong supporter of Manchester United," Ahern wrote some years ago. "My affection for United dates back to my earliest days when as a young lad kicking a ball around on the streets of Drumcondra, I used to pretend to be Liam Whelan. There always seemed to be an Irish connection at United. I was always impressed by Matt Busby. He was a charismatic and dignified figure, a devout Catholic and United were considered to be a Catholic club, which is another reason Irish people identified with them."
If the powerful symbolism of a catastrophe like Munich and the magnetic lure of the victory over Benfica at Wembley in 1968 easily explain how people were inexorably drawn to United, the relationship has been attended by some fanciful myth-making as well. In the years after the departures in quick succession of Frank Stapleton, Kevin Moran, Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside, before the arrival of Denis Irwin and Keane, a bizarre legend grew up that Alex Ferguson had something against the Irish.
Ignoring the obvious fact that Whiteside was a Protestant from East Belfast, the notion was predicated on Ferguson’s perceived anti-Catholicism. In its way, it was as misguided as the belief in another era that Matt Busby’s faith caused him to discriminate in favor of the Catholics in his charge. Busby’s staunch personal Catholicism, and his closeness during his formative years to his maternal grandfather, an Irish immigrant by the name of Jimmy Greer, formed the unwieldy premise for that fallacy. In practice, Busby, like Ferguson, picked the best players, regardless of denomination.
"Matt loved Ireland and I think he felt that Manchester United should go over there at least once a year," said Paddy Crerand, another Scot of Irish descent. "Our first game after winning the European Cup was a friendly in Dublin, a testimonial for Liam Whelan’s brother. You have to remember that one in three people in Manchester claim some sort of Irishness. He was honorary president of the Irish club in Chorlton, and he didn’t hold the position just for the sake of it. It often seems to me that Manchester United is the only thing that Ireland is united over."
Fan, player bond
While Carryduff is neither the biggest or the oldest branch of the official United supporters’ club in Ireland, it can perhaps lay claim to being the most progressive. Coming from the southern fringes of Belfast, a city riven by a sectarianism that spills over into sport in general, and soccer clubs in particular, their ecumenical approach to their abiding passion backs up Crerand’s view.
"When a bus carrying our supporters is heading over to a United match, no member can get on board if he is wearing a Republic of Ireland jersey with Roy Keane’s name on it or a David Beckham England jersey," said Carryduff secretary John White. "The only colors that we allow on the bus are Manchester United’s and that means everybody, Catholic, Protestant or whatever, can feel comfortable joining us."
If having so many Irish provided a lineage to which United supporters could lovingly adhere, there is a sense of real comradeship between the Irish players themselves, too, through the years. Despite coming from very different backgrounds, Whiteside and McGrath became fast friends once they met at Old Trafford. In his book "A Strange Kind of Glory," Eamon Dunphy, a former United apprentice himself, recounts an instructive tale about how Noel Cantwell once engaged him in a mutinous conversation about the rudimentary nature of Busby’s training sessions. Of the established pro talking to the neophyte, Dunphy writes: "I was Irish. He could confide in me . . . "
There is too the impression of a kinship that traverses the different eras. Cantwell has met Roy Keane and Denis Irwin often enough in the last 10 years to know that Irwin is a bit of a bandit at golf. Cantwell was there on the February afternoon in Cork 38 years ago when Paddy Crerand made his debut for United in a friendly against Bolton Wanderers at Flower Lodge.
"I’m never allowed to forget that game," Crerand said. "Roy Keane’s father, Mossie, claims he got sacked from his job for taking a half day to come and watch us in that game." Mossie Keane was a supporter then. His son is captain now. Every Irish fan has his dream.