Choccy’s Diary: Pre-season beastings and meeting Mandela

Albeit a little later than normal, we’re at that stage of the season when everyone is usually gripped with excitement and anticipation ahead of the new campaign.

For me, however, it’s a time of year that still fills me with dread.

Apparently, when recently asked who of their former colleagues was the worst when it came to training, some of my former Manchester United colleagues unanimously pointed the finger at yours truly.

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To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of running. In fact, I was once asked in an interview years ago if I could invent something, anything, what would it be? And I said a training pill.

Of course, I wasn’t referring to any kind of performance enhancing stimulant, merely a tablet that’d mean I could be in peak condition without actually having to put the work in.

Being of fair skin I’d always have to cake myself in sunblock during pre-season training, which would inevitably run into my eyes and leave me half blind.

If that wasn’t enough, the gnats would invariably feast on my rich blood as if it were a fine beaujolais or perhaps Buckfast – and it’s not as though this was in the Amazon rainforest – it was at Celtic Park or Salford.

Pre-season preparations 

It’s quite possible my dislike for pre-season preparation dates back to when I was an 18-year old at Motherwell, who were managed by Jock Wallace at the time.

Jock was a former military man who’d take us to the sand dunes of Gullane on the east coast of Scotland for our summer training camp.

We’d run up and down these humpy hillocks until players were physically sick, to which Jock would scream at them: “THAT’S IT SON, YOU FEED THE SEAGULLS!”

He would then make us run along the beach and tell us not to stop, “even when we reached the water,” before taking us for lunch and a few pints of heavy afterwards.

It didn’t get much easier when I went south to Manchester United, either, as Alex Ferguson had realised that much of the side he’d inherited weren’t fit enough at the time. A little harsh in my opinion seeing as I’d just come down from Celtic.

As a result, he adopted some of the strict regimes he’d picked up from the likes of Jock Stein and others in his efforts to get us into shape.

If that wasn’t bad enough, when Brian Kidd took over as Ferguson’s assistant, he opted for the same work ethic he’d picked up from John Aston and Matt Busby in the 1960s when player welfare was far from the forefront of a manager’s mind.

They say you learn from the best and I would eventually exact my revenge when I went into coaching, as I continued such back-breaking methods myself, knowing just how effective they were – not to mention unpopular.

When you watch the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool, who press and push from the first whistle to the last, and Leicester City, who won the Premier League due to their ability to break at speed, it’s clear to see the benefits of doing the hard work in the summer months.

Far-flung fields

It wasn’t all bad, though, as pre-season often meant tours to far-flung places I probably would never have been fortunate enough to have visited being a humble lad from Airdrie.

On my first-ever summer tour with Celtic to Switzerland, not only did I obtain a new nickname, I also discovered that my teammate, Frank McGarvey, was something of a part-time philosopher.

Sitting on the balcony one evening and looking out into the starry sky above, he turned to me and said: “Choccy, just think, somewhere out there is another Frank McGarvey.”

Someone later described Frank as “the sort of guy where the lights are on but nobody’s home”, but even by his standards, I think he had the curtains closed that night.

Fortunately for me, when I joined United, it was around the time the club was starting to visit places such as Japan, Hong Kong and the Far East, though one of my favourite excursions was to South Africa.

It was a fabulous country to visit and made all the more special by meeting Nelson Mandela, who not only made a point of coming to shake my hand, but also knew my name – Brian, that is, not Choccy.

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Another standout memory is when we went on a mid-season tour to Bermuda in my first year at Old Trafford. While there, we played two games against the Bermuda national side and Somerset Trojans.

In the first match, due to injuries and incarceration, we could only muster 10 fit players, so had to conscript a local police officer to play for us.

By the time we got to the second match, things became so desperate that Alex Ferguson (who was 45 back then) and his number two, Archie Knox, who wasn’t much younger, named themselves as substitutes.

With numbers dwindling, they made the call to bring themselves on for the second half and the lads decided it’d be funny if none of us passed to the gaffer, which as you can imagine, made him absolutely furious.

To make things worse, Knox scored a wonder goal that night while the boss was unable to respond due to the fact that nobody would give him the ball. If only Opta stats had been around back then.

One game doesn’t make a season

Needless to say, I was always delighted to see the first game of the season roll around, as it signalled the end of my summertime torture.

I’m often asked if getting off to a good start really matters in the grand scheme of things and in my opinion you can make of it what you will.

Take the beginning of the 1989/90 season at Manchester United when we thumped champions Arsenal 4-1 in the opening game of the season, only to almost get relegated before eventually winning the FA Cup.

On the other hand, when United finally won the league for the first time in 26 years in 1992/93, we got off to a dreadful start, losing our opening two games of the season before going on to win the title by 10 points from Aston Villa.

On a personal level, I still believe David Beckham would never have scored that iconic goal from the halfway line on the opening day against Wimbledon at Selhurst Park in 1996 had it not been for my defence-splitting two-yard through-ball.

Move over Messi, Kane’s the perfect fit for United

As much as I’d like to think Manchester United would be a huge draw for any player, including Lionel Messi, I really don’t see the six-time Ballon d’Or winner heading to Old Trafford.

In fact, I’m not sure he’ll even go to Manchester City judging by the amount of contract complications and red tape that seem to surround his potential signing, meaning he might end up staying at Barcelona, after all.

Acquiring Messi would certainly be a coup, but I’m not really sure he’s what the club need at the moment and the history he has with Pep Guardiola would certainly suggest City are firm favourites to obtain his services.

For me, the player United should really go all out to sign is Harry Kane, as a proven goalscorer is just what the club need right now.

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Yes, Rashford is a threat and Martial can find the net on his day, but to me it’s all about whether he’s interested and half the time that doesn’t look to be the case.

With Kane, you know what you’re getting and he’d certainly suit the type of football that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side are trying to play.

I mean, would the likes of Jürgen Klopp or Pep Guardiola have Martial in their starting lineup? I think not.

Here’s Donny!

As I write this, Donny van de Beek has just become Manchester United’s first signing of the summer and though he’s undoubtedly a fine player, what I would question is whether they actually need another midfielder.

Personally, the areas I would have looked to strengthen would have been the defence and the goalkeeper, as well as the front line.

Yes, he’s a box-to-box player, not to mention a competent passer with both feet who would no doubt fit into a midfield alongside Paul Pogba and my player of the season Bruno Fernandes.

But it might mean a promising youngster like Scott McTominay would have to make way – unless van der Beek has been signed as a replacement for Pogba.

Eventually I could see Scott moving into the heart of defence to partner Harry Maguire, though if truth be told.

At least for Donny’s sake, he’ll arrive at the club just as pre-season training is coming to an end. Though as far as I know, there aren’t too many sand dunes around Carrington, so he might be okay.

Until next time.



Read Brian McClair’s monthly column exclusive only on The Set Pieces.

Choccy’s Diary: Pre-season beastings and meeting Mandela
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