There are many players who pass through the doors of Haig Avenue that go on to make a name for themselves in the world of football. Whether they turn out to be International managers such as Billy Bingham or international footballers such as Peter Withe, as a Sandgrounder there is a sense of pride all the same that your club has played a part in their journey.
Last night at the FA’s second Annual Coaching Awards one former Sandgrounder was inducted into the Licensed Coaches Club Hall of Fame.
Yorkshire born Eric Harrison may not be remembered in the wider football world for his time as a player but since hanging up his boots he has gone on to be one of the most highly thought of Youth coaches in the country. Credited by all for the development and nurturing of the Manchester United Class of ’92 Eric’s contribution to football in this country can not be overstated and the respect for him shown by some of the top players and managers in the country is there for all to see.
The following article was published in the Telegraph in 2001:
The other Eric behind rise of United
By Colin Malam, The Telegraph, 10th February 2001
It was what you might call a pivotal moment in the rebirth of Manchester United, post-1986. Having just been appointed manager of the then underachieving Lancashire giants, Alex Ferguson had called youth team manager Eric Harrison into his office to discuss the club’s development of young players and was making it plain he was not at all satisfied with the contribution from that quarter.
“I was a bit touchy,” admits Harrison now as he looks back on that rather tense scene with the fearsome Ferguson of 15 years ago, “because I thought he was having a go at me. So I pointed out that Norman Whiteside and one or two others had come through to play in the first team. He said, ‘Yeah, I accept that. But I want more than that.’ And when I said, ‘How do you mean, you want more that that?’ he replied, ‘I want more players!’
“So, always having been a bit confident, I said, ‘Right, we’ll do a deal. You get me better-quality players, and I’ll get you more youngsters in the first team.’ And he said, ‘Done!’ So he revamped it and worked extremely hard, as he’d done at Aberdeen. They’d had a lot of young players there and he said that was the way forward. He had meetings of scouts and he re-motivated everybody.”
The rest you know. After a slow and sticky start, Ferguson has gone on to make United one of the most successful and powerful clubs in the world, aided enormously by the unusual productivity of their youth policy. When, in Spain on Wednesday, they face the first of two difficult Champions’ League games against Valencia in quick succession, there could be as many as eight of Harrison’s old boys in the squad.
Most of them were members of that extraordinary class of 1992 and 1993, the one that reached successive FA Youth Cup finals and showered United with six future first-team gems in Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers. But Wes Brown and Luke Chadwick are continuing proof of the rare gift for refining raw, young talent Harrison has demonstrated over and over again during his 20 years in United’s service.
As is revealed in his forthcoming autobiography, this Halifax-born son of a Mancunian father came to Old Trafford in 1981, recruited by the manager at that time, Ron Atkinson. They were old friends, having played for the RAF together during National Service, and Harrison was looking for a fresh challenge after spending nine years at Everton, the last three of them as assistant to manager Gordon Lee. When Lee was sacked, Harrison decided it was time to move on.
Now, at 63, he has been retired as United’s youth team manager for three years. There is no keeping a good, active man down, though. He still coaches the kids twice a week and, as coaching co-ordinator, oversees the development of all the youth teams from under-nine to under-16. Not only that, but he also helps out one of his earliest star pupils, Mark Hughes, as assistant manager of Wales in his spare time.
Looking back on his 17 years in charge of United’s youth team, Harrison would like to think his greatest contribution to the development of the club’s young players has been psychological. A “journeyman footballer” at Hartlepool when Brian Clough was cutting his managerial teeth there, he was deeply impressed by the great man’s ability to fill people with confidence and stored the memory away for future reference.
“At his team talks on a Monday morning,” Harrison recalls of Clough’s unique managerial style, “you were literally shaking if you’d done something wrong on the Saturday, or hadn’t played so well, because he’d slaughter you. But if you’d done well, he made you feel 10 foot tall. So I thought I’d get the positives out of that and try to make players feel 10 foot tall most of the time. With young players, I always say, it’s about 90 per cent arm round the shoulder, 10 per cent kick up the backside.
“If I’ve had an influence – and I hope I have – it’s a mental one. I used to sit young players down and have one-on-ones with them, because you do enough talking in a group. It’s taken hours and hours, but probably the biggest impact I’ve had is by telling them individually how good they are. If I thought they were going to play in the first team, I’d tell them so.
“I’d have to be right, too, because it would have been soul-destroying for the kids if I’d been wrong. I don’t think you had to be too clever to know that the likes of David Beckham was going to play in the first team, but it was a massive, massive motivating factor for them and I think it’s a role that should not be underestimated.”
Even now, Harrison can barely conceal the excitement and pleasure he felt at coaching that freakish abundance of talent in ’92 and ’93. “It was fantastic,” he says. “They played like a mini-first team, they really did. I couldn’t wait for the games to come. I loved the training, too, but when 11 o’clock on a Saturday morning came along, it was a bit special. And the fans turned up at The Cliff in their droves to watch.
“Basically, there are two reasons why it was fantastic to coach them: they were so gifted technically and they had so much desire and determination. I had to teach them quite a lot about team play, though. I work a lot on team play and some people don’t think you should do that with kids. But I’ve got a saying: `Don’t let it be a shock to you when you play in our first team!’
“You want a confident young player going out there in front of 67,000: you can’t die. And the lads know they have to go in and make quite a big impact straight away because we can’t afford to lose any matches. So they’ve got to be prepared properly if it’s not to be a shock to them when they play in our first team.”
It’s an enduring source of enjoyment for Harrison to see his proteges prospering on the biggest stages the game has to offer. His chest swelled with pride as he watched the United contingent train with and play for England during the 1998 World Cup finals and he was practically beside himself with delight when his youngsters helped the club win the European Cup in 1999 and complete a unique treble.
“That was such a magical moment,” he recalls almost sheepishly of the dramatic, last-gasp victory over Bayern Munich in the Nou Camp. “At the party we had afterwards in a hotel in Barcelona, I mingled with the young players. I didn’t make a nuisance of myself, but they all came over and we had a bit of a cuddle and all that.
“It’s fantastic to see them now, superstars in the first team. It’s something money can’t buy. If you are a youth team coach or manager for a long period of time, you are never going to get rich – even at Man United. But I’ve got something that a lot of other people – managers, assistant managers and first-team coaches – up and down the country have never had.”
In fact, Harrison’s only concern is what happens when Sir Alex retires as manager next year. It is, however, a very real concern, because he sees Ferguson’s insistence on giving young players every chance of reaching the first team as central to the club’s traditions and success. His fear is that the new man may not adhere to that policy with the same degree of commitment.
“I’m worried to death,” he confesses. “I’m just praying that whoever takes over from the manager, the tradition stays the same. And with the manager staying on in some capacity, I think it will. I don’t think he’ll interfere in any way, but he might just give a few whispers along the way saying, `We’ve got to keep this tradition going’.
“I suppose I’d like it to be Steve McClaren (United’s assistant manager) who takes over because you would imagine everything would just tick over as normal. But I might be being disrespectful to whoever’s going to come in. If he’s any sense, he’s going to turn round and say, ‘We’re not going to tamper with this!”‘
The View From the Dugout by Eric Harrison (The Parrs Wood Press) is available for £8.95 post FREE in the UK. To order please call Telegraph Books Direct on 0870 155 7222 or write to 32-34 Park Royal Road London NW10 7LN.