Even though we were over in America, my son was raised as a United supporter. He was 12 years old by the time we came back to England and, given my links to the club, I called Ken Merrett – the club secretary – to ask if I could bring Neil in and take him around Old Trafford, just so he could see it for the first time.
“Absolutely, come and see us,” he said.
We go down to the ticket office at the front of the stadium. Neil’s got his scarf on, he meets Ken Merrett, Ken Ramsden and so on, talking about America, and the door opens. It’s a tight little office, so I have to get out of the way for the door to open.
In walks Sir Matt.
I haven’t seen him in over 12 years. He looks at me.
How the f*** does he remember me? I played less than 30 games for the club. With all the players that go through his hands, I found it incredible that he remembered me.
“What are you doing here?”
I told him I was there to show my son around the ground.
“Right, we’ll do that then.”
So he takes us on a tour round Old Trafford, including up to the tea ladies for tea and Penguins for Neil. He personally walked around, asking me about what we’d been up to. Neil had grown up supporting United in Wichita, where nobody had the faintest clue who United were, and here he was meeting the man who he knew was the leader of the club.
I was just flabbergasted that Busby still knew who I was. That ability to make sure he knew who people were and knew a bit of information about them.
Though I didn’t know it at the time, I was on my way to crossing paths with someone who had that same skill: Alex Ferguson.
During my time in America, I’d been blacklisted by the professional league because I’d taken part in a planned players’ strike (even though most of the other players didn’t go through with it!) so, in order to actually play football, I’d had to sign up to play indoor football with Wichita Wings. I really enjoyed myself and I’d ultimately went back to England with the intention of starting an indoor football league there. I was three-quarters of the way through the plans to do that when I was offered a role at Luton, on the condition that I had my badges.
I did. I’d flown home one summer and got them on this surreal course where virtually nobody had any football-relevant experience at all. In one drill, a guy booted the ball into a nearby field and hit a sheep, which bolted, and ended up racing around the field, followed by all the other sheep. Anyway, long story short, I had my badges, so I was available to take the job of Reserves-team coach at Luton.
That role led to my involvement when Luton entered an indoor competition called Soccer Sixes in Manchester. We beat United in one of our games and, afterwards, we were waiting to go back to Luton when Alex comes over to me, saying we’d done well, congratulating us on progressing in the competition. He started chatting to me about our tactics, then referenced the fact that I’d previously played for United. I thought nothing more of it after that, beyond that he was a nice guy.
I carried on coaching Luton, became manager, carried on to the end of the 1990/91 season, stayed up, but I was sacked. By the time that season finished, the Luton team was basically all the kids I’d been coaching in the Reserves and had brought through to the first team and they stayed up against all the odds. Nevertheless, the club sacked me.
So, on the day I sorted out my severance from Luton, I came back home from the bank, made a big meal for the family to cheer everyone up and the phone went.
“Is that Jim Ryan?”
“This is Alex Ferguson.”
I thought it was my mate taking the p***.
“Listen, are you interested in being a coach at Man United?”
“Yeah, I think I am.”
“Can you come up this weekend?”
As it happened, I was going up north to a party that weekend anyway. So I told him this, and he told me to come in and see him Saturday morning. I got up, drove to The Cliff, met him there, ended up talking about my time there as a player.
At the end, he offered me a position and said:
“Why don’t you go and have a think about it?”
Except I misheard him and thought he said he was going to have a think about it.
The next day he rang me again.
“Well, have you decided?”
I didn’t even know I’d been offered the job, so I had to think on my feet.
“Absolutely. I’d love to come back to the club.”
It was a good job he rang!
I was thrilled to be going back to United, and I enjoyed working with the manager. We both had really detailed knowledge of Scottish football, so we would talk about that at length. Soon I got a deeper sense of the kind of guy he was. A few weeks after I started, I went in for a minor operation, but I never told the manager I was going in for it. It was an evening operation and an overnight stay, then up and off about 10 or 11am the next morning. I thought another of the coaches, ‘Pop’ Robson, could fill in for that morning’s training, then I’d be back. The consultant said I’d be alright if I took it easy, so I never even thought to tell the manager. Pop would be working on the same things we’d been working towards, so I didn’t see a problem.
I went into hospital in the evening, had the operation around 10pm, woke up the next morning and I was waiting for the doctor to tell me how things were and when I could go. The door opens…
In comes the gaffer.
“How are you? You alright?”
What’s he doing here?
“I heard you were having this done.”
It was before 8am. He came to the hospital to see me, see if I was alright, before training.
We had a chat, I explained the procedure and I told him I’d see him at the training ground in a bit.
“No, no you won’t. You get yourself home and if you feel okay tomorrow, come in then.”
He left and I had the time to contemplate everything that had just happened. I wasn’t a close friend of his by that point, the first time I met him was at the Soccer Sixes. Here was this guy who had come in to see me in hospital, after a minor operation, and I thought to myself…
Yeah, I’m ready to work for him.
I was invigorated by the fact that he, with all the things he had going on, made the time to come and see me in the morning before training, when I hadn’t even told him I was going to be in hospital.
Just knocking on the door and walking in, the way he talked to me, it was a transition for me from being the new man working there to being part of Manchester United. I went home and all the way home, I kept thinking to myself: I’m going to really graft for him now. I became an almost rabid United fan. It wasn’t just a job. I didn’t just want us to win; I wanted us to win playing incredible football. From then on, whatever I could do, whatever needed doing, I’d do.
That carried on over the course of many years, and one summer I was on holiday in the west coast of America, paddling in the Pacific, and he rang me to say he wanted me to go to France. A friend of his had told him about a young lad who would be playing at a tournament in Paris. All he gave me was the name of the town and the name of the player who’d be playing in a tournament.
I tracked down this place, found the pitch, saw the boy he wanted me to look at, went to all the trouble and he ended up not really doing much in the game, so we didn’t sign him. But I was prepared to do it because I wanted to do it for him and United. Like I say, I was absolutely desperate for us to be the best, so I’d do whatever was needed of me.