Those who only associate Mike Phelan with the roles of manager and assistant at Hull, Norwich, Stockport, Blackpool, and, for many fertile years, Manchester United, are missing a significant slice of his contribution to the game.
Fact is, Alex Griffiths saw Phelan play for England against Italy back in 1989, at which point the late runs leading to their inclusion in the 1990 World Cup squad of Gascoigne and Platt had barely commenced.
Is it fair to say you were higher in the pecking order at one stage than both Gazza and Platt when you were all vying, with Robson, McMahon, Webb, Hodge and Rocastle, for a place in England’s midfield?
Bobby Robson might have been getting close to naming his squad [for the World Cup Finals] when he gave me my debut at Wembley, but I’ll never know what was in his thinking, so who knows, it was just terrific to come on. Neil Webb had got himself injured on England duty in an earlier game but did make it back in time to go to Italy for the tournament.
I actually went close to scoring from some distance that night, but even though I made six or seven squads altogether, it’s all in the timing, isn’t it.
What would Phelan the manager have made of Phelan the player?
I think the Americans first coined the term water carrier, but I was fit as a flea and able to help other players do what they did best. Players are now highlighted more and more for their skills and specialisms than they were back then, but I’d call myself an assist man cos I couldn’t hit a barn door!
When United first got interested I was the Norwich captain [he was added to their Hall of Fame in 2002] in a side that finished top six consistently, I’d scored at Old Trafford in a 2-1 win, and the manager wanted to shake things up with Whiteside, McGrath and Strachan on their way out.
He wanted fresh blood, players really hungry to achieve, and he must have seen certain leadership qualities in me, even if he did not have one particular position in mind, as I ended up at full back and even on the wing at times, as well as all over midfield.
There were two dramatic United games in particular when referees happened to be replaced due to injury, so firstly how much do you recall of your debut, when your new team beat champions Arsenal 4-1… and even missed a penalty?
Forgive me for forgetting about the ref that day, was it Lester Shapter! [It was David Hutchinson, injured just before half-time and replaced by John Richardson]. It was also Neil’s debut and he scored a great volley, but readers may remember that game being overshadowed by something else entirely…
The ref must have been a victim of the notorious ploughed field which passed for our pitch, long before a change of roof and technology helped to transform it. It did for me once, too!
You’d think the match would have been more important, but my memory is dominated by all the excitement caused beforehand with Michael Knighton putting a full kit on, juggling the ball all the way to the Stretford End and being introduced as the new owner.
Most of the excitement generated that day was premature, of course, but the second instance came at Old Trafford again in 1993, when John Hilditch swapped his yellow flag for the whistle of the injured Michael Peck, and awarded Wednesday a penalty straight away?
I do remember I was in my tracksuit that day but played no part, except to join in lots of celebrations. The original ref going off, you could argue, played as much a part in shaping United’s history as anything else!
There was a huge commotion over the time added on, which went on and on, and Steve Bruce took full advantage by scoring his second goal as we came from behind and went on to win our first Premier League a few weeks later.
The emotions that prompted were memorable enough, but people forget we were scoring late a lot in those days; we always felt we could score and it became a big part of our mentality.
The boss was on the pitch with Brian Kidd going barmy, but when you stop and think, it was actually the ref’s misfortune which led to the Reds’ fortune!
Very good, you stick to the answers and I’ll do the wordplay, OK! So when it comes to referees, does anyone stand out from times past?
I’ve always liked Clatts for his personality and his character, whereas you could call Mark Halsey more old school the way he went about his business, in a good way.
I won’t name names because it’s widely known that the issue at the moment is how many referees seem to lack strength. With both Marks they would speak openly and rely on common sense.
Going back further, George Courtney definitely stood out as another talkative chap. He might have fancied himself, but I thought he was OK. For being one of the lads, though, you could not beat Neil Midgley. Such a funny guy, he would fight fire with fire and, whatever decision he had given, he made you want to just get on with it, if you know what I mean.
For me, it’s not about being invisible so much as the best ones don’t over-blow their whistle, and don’t go looking for trouble, either.
As Hull boss this season you had Mike Dean at Stamford Bridge and Roger East at the KC Stadium against Arsenal, so what were your observations?
We actually had a run of penalties, one being at Anfield, which somehow made the Arsenal situation worse. Jake Livermore was sent off for a debatable handball and then they have scored before he had left the pitch. But I don’t bear any grudges..
I do feel individuality is increasingly going out of style with refs, but even so I found I could work with that. One of the more enjoyable moments in the Hull job this season for me came in seeing old faces before kick-off and catching up with certain referees.
Even when people assumed the pressure was really on, there were opportunities to relax and share some old tales without any of the scrutiny.
I think Chelsea was one of those times where I have warned players, look, this or that will more than likely get you a yellow today… with Mike Dean it made sense just to run through his strengths and weaknesses.
But most of the time I even got on well with the fourth official, and I do think it’s helpful, whoever agrees or does not agree with me, when you have someone there to explain their point of view in a reasoned way. It can often feel like you are on your own out on that touchline, so it does do plenty of good.
While some managers, and again no names are necessary, will insinuate other things, I always make sure that, if I am criticising a referee, then the furthest I will go is to say a decision was not correct. I might beg to differ, but I’ll remain respectful.
What would you change?
I do feel they need help, whether that’s more technology or whatever it might be. They may all be trained up the same way, but it’s not fair to treat them all as clones.
As they are already miked up, I would ask them to communicate reasons for decisions there and then, not wait until after, when the assessors can get in the way and everybody is getting after them. I do realise that could only lead to more problems with certain managers, but it’s worth giving it a go. I’ll freely admit it, though, I would not fancy the referee’s job in a million years.
What is the extent of your reffing experience, then?
There’s been a few times when I’ve been out watching park football of a Sunday, actually, although it will usually only tend to be running the line when they are a man short. I’d even do that in my playing days, to be fair, and it gave me real respect for the shoes they give you, even when it’s kids, because you are in among their parents who are taking last night’s skinful out on you.
That aspect has not really improved or got worse, you’ll still see refs out there on their own, doing their best to be polite with all that provocation and, all too often, no protection.
It’s too intense at times, when the banter turns serious, and you are relying on everyone to self-police. While I’ve never witnessed it boiling over physically myself, that tension is impossible to ignore when it’s there.
Finally, it would be remiss not to mention a certain balloon you popped, only to get a mouthful from your former boss, here…
It probably took him 24 hours but at least Fergie did see the funny side of it, to be fair to him.
It just feels weird that I’m better known for that than anything I won in a United shirt. My mind should have been on the game at Chelsea that day, but I remember just getting distracted by this balloon and thinking, “if that comes near me, I’m having that.”
I could not stop laughing, until I suddenly thought, that has just cost me my job, it’s back to the reserves for me! I’d only been made assistant just before, so I thought, what a way to go out, just weeks into it.
If I only had a quid for every time that had been shown I would have retired by now! As it is I want to get back in and manage, so I’m coaching coaches and keeping an eye on players until I get another crack at it.