Mike Phelan opens up on the day he got the call to be Solskjaer's No 2

I made my Manchester United return in a car park! Mike Phelan opens up on the day he got the call to be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s No 2, David Moyes’ decision to release him and why he places greater demands on academy graduates than anybody else

  • Mike Phelan was a player when Sir Alex Ferguson won his first United trophies
  • He’s now almost 59 and current boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s right-hand man
  • Phelan was let go by David Moyes in 2013, much to Ferguson’s annoyance
  • But he decided to return to United after a phone call from current boss Solskjaer 

Mike Phelan realised Manchester United were box office from the start. He heard a commotion outside the dressing-room before his first game against Arsenal, popped his head into the tunnel and saw the club’s prospective new owner Michael Knighton juggling a football in full kit ready to make a grand entrance.

‘He felt it was his debut as much as mine,’ chuckles Phelan at his unorthodox introduction to the Old Trafford circus.

The levels of drama haven’t dipped in more than three decades. Phelan was a player when Sir Alex Ferguson won his first trophies after calls for his sacking and assistant-manager by the time the great man retired as a legend.

Mike Phelan realised that Manchester United were going to be box office from the start

Phelan was a player when Sir Alex Ferguson won his first trophies after calls for his sacking

One player Mike Phelan worked with made even Cristiano Ronaldo look sluggish but raw pace wasn’t enough to turn Usain Bolt into a top player.

Phelan was sporting director at Australian club Central Coast Mariners when they signed 32-year-old Bolt, a Manchester United fan.

The Jamaican was arguably the only sportsman more famous than Ronaldo – who Phelan coached at Old Trafford in 2008/09 – but he’d left it too late to make a career in football.

‘You could see why it was an opportunity for us to sign the fastest man in the world. He was committed to giving it a go but deep down he didn’t think he could make it at his age.

‘Usain was unbelievably enthusiastic and great around the dressing-room but it was difficult from a training point of view to get him prepared. It was always a long shot.

‘He had a fantastic physique and could play football but he’d gone through years as a sprinter so his technique and training were just for that. Put a ball around him where it was constant touch, move, pass, fall down, get up, he hadn’t experienced that.

‘It captured the imagination of everybody in Australia and that side of Asia but it was a blank sheet of paper. The time scale wasn’t long enough for him to get anywhere.’

Bolt left after eight weeks having scored twice in a friendly but not played a competitive game in the A-League.

He’s now almost 59 and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s right-hand man as United try to reach the summit again. If anyone has been through the hype surrounding Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford, it’s Phelan.

‘You never really appreciate Manchester United until you are in it,’ he recognises. ‘From the outside, you realise it’s a special club but don’t know what it is until you get there. Wow, the enormity of the arena is something else.’

For five years, Phelan was lost to United, let go by David Moyes in 2013 much to Fergie’s annoyance.

He didn’t even visit Carrington during that time until a dramatic afternoon’s events at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLAN).

‘I was doing some coaching for the students when at one o’clock someone told me Jose Mourinho had lost his job,’ he recalls.

‘There was another coaching session in the afternoon, when I got back to my care at four, I turned on my phone and ‘beep, beep, beep’. Ole wants to talk to you, so-and-so wants to talk to you, Sir Alex wouldn’t mind a phone call.

‘It came out of nowhere. I took the calls for a couple of hours sitting in the college car park deciding to go back to United to help Ole before I’d even talked it over with my wife. It was remarkable.

‘Ole was a learner even as a player. I’d worked with him when he was reserves-team coach. And it got to a position where United found themselves needing someone who knew the club and been part of the history.

‘They had gone outside of that after Sir Alex and I think the powers-that-be had a little look at themselves, thought how do they address it. That’s how it seemed.’

If treble-winning Solskjaer was part of the most successful team in United’s history, Phelan understood the process of getting to that stage. When he signed from Norwich City, United hadn’t won a trophy for four years and spent most of his first season fighting fires until ending the drought by beating Crystal Palace to win the FA Cup.

There is a comparison to be drawn with the team that faces Wolves on Sunday. A team that is clearly improving but not yet got over the line by winning silverware.

‘I can see and feel certain similarities,’ agrees Phelan. ‘The difference is at my age I want everything to happen quickly. We’ve achieved a lot under Ole but not quite got it done and every season, the expectation is magnified.

‘We’ve done a lot of good things. There is definitely better harmony around the club but the Premier League is a monster, massively competitive.

‘It makes everything more intense though the rewards are greater if you do achieve.’

He’s now almost 59 and current United boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s right-hand man

Sitting behind a desk at Carrington, Phelan is affable company. He’s not lost the Burnley accent and is proud that his brother once played club cricket against town’s favourite son Jimmy Anderson.

It’s his job to cut through the jargon of the modern football and deliver frank opinions and simple home truths when required.

He’s known some of the United superstars since they were young men. Paul Pogba was a youth-team player when Phelan worked alongside Fergie, captain Harry Maguire was his player during a brief stint as manager of Hull.

Looking back, Moyes’ decision to release him was a blessing, though it didn’t feel like it at the time.

‘Once Sir Alex decided to leave, everyone was vulnerable, I’d been in the game long enough to realise that,’ he acknowledges.

‘I accepted it but was a little bit surprised in how the decision came about. I’d had one or two meetings with David and eventually he decided to cut the ties.

If anyone has been through the hype surrounding Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford, it’s Phelan

‘I took it as a time to reflect, because it had been 24/7 with Sir Alex. I went on a few holidays, had a few coffee mornings that turned into wine afternoons. I didn’t tune into football for six months.

‘Then I was asked to do a presentation evening, they read out what I’d done and I realised ‘Not bad, I wouldn’t mind having a go again.’

Norwich ended his 18-month exile with a coaching job. He then went to Hull as Steve Bruce’s assistant, later becoming manager until Marco Silva arrived.

When Phelan got to the call to return, he assumed it would be short-term until Solskjaer pulled off a Champions League win against PSG and was given the job on a permanent basis.

‘I was nervous going into Carrington on the first day. I’d been away for five years. But the moment I stepped in, it felt like I’d never been away,’ explains Phelan.’

For five years, Phelan was lost to United, let go by David Moyes (above, front) in 2013

‘That first season, we went off like a rocket, then dropped like a bomb. But the players felt a release, they felt happy. The things we brought back were just us being Man United people.’

He speaks to Ferguson less often than he used to because of the workload of the job but the pair remain close into a fifth decade.

‘The moment Sir Alex decided that was it as a manager, I got the feeling he was relieved. He’d done his turn. He had no apologies to make,’ says Phelan.

‘Everybody at United will be judged on what Sir Alex did. It happened before us, it will happen beyond us. I know him well enough he only wants the best for the club.

‘I’d talk to him in the early part, find out what the general feel was. He could see what had happened previous to Ole coming in. It was interesting.

‘The phone calls are different now because time has moved on you feel his presence at Old Trafford when he’s there.

Phelan went to Hull as Steve Bruce’s assistant, before later becoming manager of the club

‘I don’t really sit in the dug-out at matches, I stand at the bottom. Every time I look back towards the dugout, he is there for everybody to see. It’s good to know he’s there and would give you the most honest opinion, no frills. But you don’t want to ask him too many questions because then you are not seeing it for yourself.’

As a player, Phelan would interact with a manager, coach and physio. Now clubs like United’s are giant corporations with different departments. Phelan’s experience e and ability to listen make him a good liaison between all the working pieces at the club.

He also has the capacity to go old school. ‘I still toil with some of the terminologies that have crept in,’ he admits. ‘The first team used to be trained rather than coached but now there is a lot more analysis. You have to adapt but there are occasions when I try to cut through thing. Sometimes you have to remember the purpose of your work.

He’s always taken a special interest in players who have come through the United ranks.

United captain Harry Maguire (R) was Phelan’s player during a brief stint as manager of Hull

‘I first met Paul Pogba as a youngster, not the brand he is now,’ says Phelan. ‘He’s a man not a boy but when you speak one-on-one, he wants to achieve, I don’t think his personality has changed.

‘The other side, I don’t get involved because that’s not my role. We all know there are things you can control and things you can’t. I don’t go chasing trouble if it’s not there.

‘I’ve always liked the young element. You can put Mason Greenwood and Marcus Rashford in that.

‘My demands on them are greater than anybody because I can see where their careers can go. I want it for them.

‘We’re lucky at Man United that we’ve seen a lot of players walking over from the academy and becoming seniors, growing, making mistakes, learning. That’s essential, as well as adding a few superstars now and again!

‘Deep down, I am simple. If you ask my opinion, I will give it. Sometimes cutting to the chase requires a pretty outspoken opinion, and then it’s over to the powers-that-be.’

Phelan says he puts greater demands on Rashford and Greenwood as he ‘wants it for them’

One of the great moments in United’s history came when a beaming Sir Matt Busby watched from his seat at Old Trafford as the team were crowned champions again under Ferguson for the first time in 26 years.

It would be similarly emotional for Ferguson to see his former players Solskjaer, Phelan and Michael Carrick were to win the Premier League having finished second last season.

‘I don’t think it’s fantasy. That is what we are in the job to do,’ said Phelan.

‘I remember my time before we won anything. People would say ‘You’re not as good as that George Best team’. It is amazing how quickly it dispersed once we’d started winning.

‘Beating Crystal Palace in the FA Cup gave us a definite surge. When we won the league, there were tears from supporters, guys on the street, in the boardroom. It was unbelievable.

‘There are similarities with where we are now. I do believe Man United can win something, When? I am not a fortune teller.’

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