Published: Happy Days Issue 8 and StateOfTheGame.co.uk, 5th January 2007, http://stateofthegame.co.uk/2007/01/05/manchester-united-and-northern-ireland-a-special-bond/
At the beginning of last year, while visiting a friend in Manchester I decided to make the most of the opportunity and head down to Old Trafford. Manchester United is a club steeped in history, and the on-site museum ensured that I was reminded of this. The Munich air crash of 1958 followed by European success ten years later, the troublesome seventies and the Fergie Era. The stories which had been written on the football field were being treasured and told to a younger generation some 50 feet away. However the one display that dominated the ground floor of the club museum was a tribute to the then recently deceased George Best. It served as a poignant reminder of a Northern Ireland connection with arguably the most famous club in the world. Indeed a glance at the museum’s International honours list shows an impressive number of players who have represented both the Red Devils and Northern Ireland. No club can boast more Ulster representatives than the Manchester outfit.
Whilst George Best is undoubtedly the most recognisable link, no fewer than 28 players have appeared in both the Red and Green shirts, notching up over 750 caps between them. Recognisable names like Best, Sammy McIlroy and Jimmy Nicholl jump out from the engraved list. History makers too such as John Peden who scored Ireland’s first hat trick and Norman Whiteside who became the youngest ever player to appear in a World Cup in 1982. Survivors of the Munich disaster, Harry Gregg and Jackie Blanchflower are names held in high esteem on both sides of the Irish Sea. The crash ended Blanchflower’s career and Gregg became a named associated with courage, although the big Coleraine man is quick to stifle any attempts to label him a hero. It is true he should be remembered for his performances between the sticks, yet many people seek to define him through what he did that night on the runway.
Recent years too have seen Irishmen emerging from the home dressing room at the Theatre of Dreams. Keith Gillespie and David Healy may not have featured highly in Alex Ferguson’s plans but their pedigree upbringing has benefited the national team immensely. The same cannot be said of Pat McGibbon and Phil Mulryne who never lived up to their youthful potential. The former finds himself back home in the Irish League with Portadown and the latter who is reaching the supposed peak years of his career has yet to find a club for the 2006/07 season. Roy Carroll did make a name for himself at Old Trafford, although unfortunately it was more due to some high profile mistakes rather than his shot stopping ability. He remains however, the only Ulsterman to have won a Premiership medal.
And the future for both club and country is bright. Whilst Derry born Darron Gibson has opted to play for the Republic, Jonny Evans has the opportunity to prove to Ferguson he has every right to be involved in the first team if he performs well under another Irishman, Roy Keane, at Sunderland. His younger brother Corey and Craig Cathcart who are also on United’s books, are two more names that might just be engraved in that honours list someday. As long as Northern Ireland keep producing, and Manchester keeps nurturing, there will always be a special relationship between the two, and some successful teams as well.