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کتاب: زندگینامه من- الکس فرگوسن / فصل 9

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A WIND of change was coming. But it was not here yet. From the summer of 2003 to May 2006 was one of my least fertile spells. We won the FA Cup in 2004 and the League Cup two years later, but Arsenal and Chelsea were the League’s title-winning outfits in that period.

Before Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney could become the core of our 2008 Champions League winning side, there was a rocky road when we attempted to implant experienced players, many of whom failed to make the expected impact. David Beckham had left for Real Madrid and Verón was to leave for Chelsea. Barthez was replaced in goal by Tim Howard, and Kléberson, Eric Djemba-Djemba and David Bellion were among the new faces. Ronaldinho might have been, too, had he not said yes, then no, to our offer.

You can’t dodge the truth about those years. We rushed down the path of buying in proven players – who we thought would match our standards right away. Kléberson, for example, was a World Cup winner with Brazil and was only 24. Verón was an established player with a worldwide reputation. Djemba-Djemba had been playing at a decent level in France. They were easy or obvious signings, a fact that worried me. I don’t like easy signings. I like having to fight for a player on the grounds that a battle to extricate him means you’re acquiring something valuable. I liked it when the selling club were desperate to hang on to their man. But the players we bought around then were easy to recruit.

It felt as if we were signing every goalkeeper in the country. Mark Bosnich was a prime example. The Bosnich buy stemmed from Peter Schmeichel announcing in the autumn of his final season that he would be retiring, which caught us on the hop. We jumped into decisions.

We met Bosnich in January, despite reports filtering through to us about his conduct off the pitch. I sent someone down to watch him in training. He was doing nothing in the sessions that convinced me he was the right man for Manchester United. So I changed tack and went for Edwin van der Sar instead, spoke to his agent and then to Martin Edwards, who told me, ‘Alex, I’m sorry, I’ve shaken hands with Bosnich.’ That was a blow. Martin had shaken Mark’s hand and would not go back on his word, which I respect. But it was a bad piece of business. Bosnich was a problem. His training and fitness levels were below what we needed. We pushed him to a higher tier and felt we did quite well with him. He was terrific in our victory over Palmeiras in the Intercontinental Cup, in which he ought to have been man of the match, ahead of Giggs. Not much later, we played down at Wimbledon in February, and Bosnich was tucking into everything: sandwiches, soups, steaks. He was going through the menu, eating like a horse.

I told him: ‘For Christ’s sake, Mark, we’ve got the weight off you, why are you tucking into all that stuff?’

‘I’m starving, gaffer,’ he said.

We arrived back in Manchester, and Mark was on a mobile phone to a Chinese restaurant to order a takeaway. ‘Is there no end to you?’ I asked him. ‘Think what you’re doing.’ I just couldn’t make an impact on him.

You don’t recover easily from losing a Peter Schmeichel. He was the best goalkeeper in the world, and his presence, his personality, were suddenly no longer there. We should have replaced him with Van der Sar. His agent had told me, ‘You’ll need to be busy, because he’s talking to Juventus,’ but we missed the boat. I had to return to Edwin’s agent and tell him we had already agreed to take someone else and that I would have to withdraw my interest.

I should have taken him as well, as a second purchase. We’d have soon found out about Bosnich and Edwin would have played from the end of the Schmeichel era pretty much to my last years in charge. I wouldn’t have needed to spend money on Massimo Taibi or Barthez, who was a good goalkeeper, but had problems back in France.

Later we saw that Van der Sar’s qualities were in the same league as those of Schmeichel. There was little between them, talent-wise. Schmeichel pulled off saves he wasn’t entitled to make. There were moments of wonder. ‘Jesus, how did he do that?’ I would ask. He had such spring, such athleticism. With Van der Sar I would point to his composure, his calmness, his use of the ball, his organisational ability. It was a different style of goalkeeping but still invaluable. It affected people around him in a good way.

Schmeichel, by contrast, had a love–hate relationship with Steve Bruce and Gary Pallister. He would come out screaming and bawling at them and Brucey would say, ‘Get back in your goal, you big German tart.’ Schmeichel hated that. ‘I’m not German,’ he would hiss. They were great buddies off the field, though. On it, Schmeichel was a volatile individual.

In the dressing room, Van der Sar was very emphatic about performances. He had a strong voice, a Dutch voice. ‘No messing about here!’ he would bark. Schmeichel would impose his voice on the team as well. I was lucky to have the two best goalkeepers of those three decades. An honourable mention would have to go to Peter Shilton, and to Gianluigi Buffon; but to me, Schmeichel and Van der Sar were the best from 1990–2010.

There is more to the art than the goalkeeping. It’s a question of the personality you bring to the job. Not only do keepers have to deal with the business of making saves, they must cope with the process of making errors. You need a big character at Manchester United to handle the aftermath of a high-profile mistake. I had scouted Schmeichel half a dozen times. Alan Hodgkinson, the goalkeeping coach, had told me: ‘He’s a certainty. Take him.’ At first I was ambivalent about bringing foreign goalkeepers into the English game. One of Schmeichel’s early games was against Wimbledon. The ‘Crazy Gang’ were blitzing him, dropping bombs on top of him and elbowing him. Schmeichel was going crazy, shouting for the officials to help him. ‘Referee, referee!’

I watched this scene unfold and thought, ‘He’s got no chance.’ The ref couldn’t get back up the pitch and away from the conflict zone quickly enough. In another of his early matches, Peter came out for a cross at the back post and missed it by about two days. Lee Chapman knocked it in. So he did make mistakes while he was adjusting to the game in this country, and people were saying, ‘What have we got here?’ But he also had an incredible physique, he covered the goal and he was brave. His distribution of the ball was marvellous. All those qualities came to his assistance in those torrid early days.

Van der Sar oversaw a lot of change in our defence. Schmeichel stood behind the same back four just about every week. Parker, Bruce, Pallister, Irwin. They played virtually every game. Van der Sar had to get used to different centre-backs, new full-backs. There was flux. In those circumstances it’s a great credit to him that he was able to organise that part of the team so well.

This was a time when Peter Kenyon was our chief executive in charge of transfer dealings. Arsenal’s Patrick Vieira was one we liked a lot. I asked Peter to phone Arsenal to inquire about Vieira. He told me he had. One day later I mentioned it to David Dein and he looked at me as if I had horns on my head. There was no recognition of what I was talking about. One of them was playing his cards close to his chest and, to this day, I have no idea which one it was.

Time and again I had agents phoning me to say, ‘My man would love to play for Manchester United.’ I never doubted the claim. But I also knew they would have loved to play for Arsenal, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and all the other elite teams. Players obviously like to get to the big clubs. The agent gets more out of it, too. It was in that phase of playing the market that we fixed our gaze on Verón.

The team was altering. It’s not an easy thing for a manager to see change coming from a long way down the road. The old back four broke up fastest. When these sudden changes strike, you realise you don’t necessarily have the backup. Later I made it my policy to plan much further ahead.

Verón was a superb footballer with immense stamina. I confess I found working with Argentinian footballers quite difficult. There was deep patriotism towards Argentina. They always had the flag round them. I had no problem with that, but the ones I managed didn’t try particularly hard to speak English. With Verón it was just, ‘Mister.’

But what a good footballer. His intelligence in the game and his engine were first-rate. The problem? We couldn’t find a position in which to play him. If we played him in the centre of midfield he would end up at centre-forward, or wide right, or wide left. He just hunted the ball. We found it increasingly hard to fit him, Scholes and Keane into a midfield.

Although he played some terrific games for us, you couldn’t see the shape of the team forming. You couldn’t see the positional stability that you look for normally. Beckham had left us, Ryan was getting older, as were Roy and Paul, and we were looking for that freshness to give us the impetus to evolve a bit. Although there were spectacular contributions, Verón just couldn’t play in our team. He was an individual. He was the sort who, if you played red v. yellow on the training ground, Verón would play for both teams. He just played everywhere. He went wherever he liked. If I managed him for a hundred years I wouldn’t know where to play him. He was the wild card, the joker. Somebody once said to me: ‘Have you ever thought of playing him in a sitting position, holding, in front of the two centre-backs?’ I replied, ‘Are you dreaming? I can’t get him to stay in any other position, why would he stay in that one?’ Apparently he had played there for Lazio and been magnificent. But he was a free bird, flying everywhere.

There were moments when he would take you to the heavens. In one pre-season game he beat a couple of men on the by-line and knocked it in for Van Nistelrooy to score. He hit a pass for Beckham with the outside of his foot, and no back lift, and it bent away round the defence. Beckham ran on to it and lobbed the goalkeeper. In moments he could be sublime. Talent-wise there was absolutely nothing wrong with him. He had two fine feet, he could run, his control was magnificent, his vision was brilliant – he just couldn’t fit into the team. The English game was not a barrier to him. He was brave. He always had the balls to play.

There was talk during his time with us of Verón falling out with other players, but I don’t think he did, partly because he never spoke to anyone. He was alone in the dressing room. He didn’t speak the language. He wasn’t antisocial; he just wasn’t a communicator.

I’d come in for work: ‘Morning, Seba.’

‘Morning, mister.’ And that was it. You couldn’t drag anything from him. I do remember a fall-out with Roy Keane, after a European tie. That became a bit ugly. There was another with Gabriel Heinze at Portsmouth. Heinze was ready to fight him. But no, he was not a disruptive influence.

We were trying to alter the way we played in Europe. Two years after the 1999 European Cup win, we went to play Anderlecht in Belgium and PSV in Eindhoven and we were battered. Only on the counter-attack. We played the traditional United way, 4–4–2, and were thumped. I told the players and staff that if we could not keep the ball better and stay solid in midfield, we were going to suffer more that way because opponents had sussed us out. So we switched to playing three in the centre of the park. Verón was part of that development.

Managing change, which I had to do so often over that decade, I came up against many players I admired. I tried so hard, for example, to get Paolo Di Canio. The deal was all done. We had made an offer that he had accepted, but then he came back saying he wanted more. We couldn’t agree to the new demand. But he was the sort of player Manchester United should have: one who can put bums on seats and get people off them, too. I had players like that for the whole time I was there.

Then there was Ronaldinho, another who slipped the hook. I agreed a deal to bring him to Old Trafford. Carlos was there and would vouch for that. The attempt to buy Ronaldinho reflected the fact that United have always sported talismanic players. I was always hunting for that kind of talent. My line of reasoning was, ‘We’re getting twenty-five million pounds for Beckham, and we’re getting Ronaldinho for nineteen million. For God’s sake, wake up. It was a steal.’ On the way home from our trip to America, we stopped in Newfoundland to refuel, at a tiny outpost. Only a single hut marked the landscape. As we waited for the refuelling, the cabin crew opened the door to let fresh air in and a small boy was standing at the fence, alone with a United flag. We weren’t allowed to disembark. We could stand on the steps but not the tarmac, so all we could do was wave to this little United fan, pressed against a fence in the middle of nowhere.

Returning to Europe, for a stop in Portugal, we sold Verón, who had told Quinton Fortune he would be joining Chelsea. I wouldn’t let him go for less than £15 million. Chelsea offered £9 million. I said, ‘No way, he’s not going for nine million.’ But in Portugal, Kenyon told me, ‘I’ve agreed the deal – fifteen million.’ Then came the game against Sporting Lisbon and Ronaldo v. John O’Shea. I can still hear myself shouting at John, ‘Get close to him, Sheasy.’ ‘I can’t,’ came the plaintive reply.

One month later David Gill rang and said, ‘What about this, Kenyon is off to Chelsea.’ David took over and was fantastic – a big improvement. Peter Kenyon, I felt, tried to take on too much and was consequently unable to deliver on some of the most important tasks. The expertise you need in a chief executive role is a talent for completing missions.

When David Gill moved into the hot seat, I suspect he was uncertain about his function. David was an accountant by trade. My advice was, ‘On the back of Peter Kenyon, don’t take on too much. Delegate.’ Without doubt he was the best administrator or chief executive I ever dealt with. First class. Straight as a die. Very approachable. Kept his feet on the ground and knew the value of the game. Understood it, too. Martin Edwards also had a good knowledge of the game, but there were no complications with David. He might tell you something you didn’t like, but he would not shirk from saying it. That was the only way to be.

Although Martin supported me at the most important times, I was always underpaid until David took charge. There is no substitute for being appreciated at work. To be told you are doing a fine job is all very well, as far as it goes, but there has to be monetary recognition.

Dealing with changes in ownership is immensely difficult for club directors. After a takeover the whole picture changes. Do they fancy you? Do they want a new manager, a new chief executive? The Glazer buy-up was the toughest period for David. The media focus was intense. The debt issue was never out of the news. But David’s accountancy qualifications gave him an advantage in that respect.

My vision of the club was as a place where young talent could develop. To sustain that aim we needed to preserve the foundation of Giggs, Scholes and Neville. And Roy Keane. We had enough backbone to enable us to shop around for potential. Van der Sar was another foundation player. He was one of my best-ever signings.

The search for the new Bryan Robson had led us to Keane. Eric Djemba-Djemba struck us as potentially another top central midfielder. I went to see him playing in France and he did really well. He understood the game, nipped attacks in the bud very well and was available for 4 million euros. I was at that game to see the Rennes goalkeeper too: Petr Ĉech, who was 18 or 19. I told myself he was too young for us.

Sometimes you lost one player but gained another of similar merit. We missed out on Paul Gascoigne, for example, but landed Paul Ince. We didn’t persuade Alan Shearer to join us but we did sign Eric Cantona.

The balls are always in the air. You have a range of targets and compensate from the list when one gets away. The unifying aim was to develop whichever player we ended up with. Cantona was in his mid-twenties, but our normal target area would be younger than that. Rooney and Ronaldo came as teenagers. After 2006 or so, we redoubled our efforts to avoid falling into the old trap of seeing a team grow old together. We refocused on that. With Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke and Teddy Sheringham, there was either a falling off in performance levels or an advance in years. In those circumstances, the demands on the scouting network intensify. The heat is on the talent-spotters. You are saying to them all the time, ‘Come on, what have you seen out there?’ The Kléberson signing came after he had excelled for Brazil at the 2002 World Cup. He was still playing in his homeland when we signed him. But he was an example of the risks associated with making a purchase in a hurry. What we were looking for was someone to take over eventually from Keane, which is how Vieira had entered the picture. He would have been ideal. He was used to the English game, an imposing figure; a leader. One sign of a great player is that the opposing fans sing songs against him. Opposing fans always sang songs against Patrick Vieira. That tells you they feared him. Alan Shearer was another. Always on the wrong end of chants from the opposition.

Kléberson was a talented player. But he exemplifies my point about careful examination of background and character. We acquired him too easily. It made me uncomfortable. When the boy arrived, we discovered he had married a 16-year-old girl. He was 23. She brought all her family over. In pre-season training in Portugal at Vale do Lobo, only the players were meant to come to breakfast before training. Kléberson brought his father-in-law. He seemed to have no authority in that area. Lovely lad, but he lacked the confidence to learn English.

In games he displayed terrific stamina and a high degree of skill but was unable to impose his personality. Perhaps the way Brazil had used him was not the way we wanted to employ him. With his country he sat in front of the back four to help Roberto Carlos and Cafú bomb on from full-back.

When there is a sudden rush to solve problems, mistakes are made. We were at our best when we worked from a plan, over years, and studied players, compiled detailed information. We knew all about Cristiano Ronaldo before we signed him. We tried to get Rooney at 14, and tried again at 16. Finally we cracked it when he was 17. You could plan for Rooney. He was an obvious target for us. That was Manchester United’s scouting at its very best. The Veróns and the Klébersons were improvised. Not panic buys, but rushed.

Djemba-Djemba, another smashing lad, was hammered by the press for not being a signature signing. They always liked the marquee names and took a much dimmer view of players with a lower recognition rating. They loved Verón, at first. They were lukewarm about Kléberson and Djemba-Djemba. David Bellion was young and we felt we could develop him. He was lightning quick, a charming boy, a Christian, but also very shy. He had been at Sunderland and had come on as a sub against us. Tore us apart. We made a move for him when his contract was up. Had we looked into his background more, we’d have known he was diffident. We sold him to Nice for 1 million euros, and he moved from there to Bordeaux, which brought us an additional fee. The Bellion transfer was not one you could classify as an attempt to lay a foundation stone for a new side. He was an add-on who was available at a good price.

The turning point in this whole chapter was capturing Ronaldo and Rooney, which gave us the signature signings we needed: talismanic, match-winning players, in line with our tradition. Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidić, in January 2006, were to be other stellar acquisitions. The first point in our notes on Vidić was his courage, his determination. He could tackle, head the ball clear. We were looking at a typical English centre-back. Vida hadn’t played since the end of the season in Moscow, in November. In his first game for us, against Blackburn, he was breathing out of his backside. He needed a pre-season. That was the gist of it.

At left-back, in Denis Irwin’s old position, we had Heinze briefly but then moved on to Evra, who was used as a wing-back at Monaco, where he featured in the Champions League final against Porto.

With full-backs it’s like searching for a rare bird. When we first saw Evra, he was playing as a wing-back, but he had the speed and was young enough to switch to full-back in our system. We knew plenty about his attacking capabilities. He was quick, had superb technique and a strong personality. Very strong. Heinze was another matter. Ruthless, would kick his granny. But an absolute winner who could also play centre-back. In both cases we were successful.

As all United fans will remember, Evra’s debut came in the Manchester derby at Eastlands and was a total disaster. You could see him thinking, ‘Why am I here?’ Eventually he settled and developed. Heinze, on the other hand, had a mercenary streak and I always had the sense he was scanning the horizon for his next deal. After one year he wanted to leave. We were playing Villarreal, and stationed in a lovely complex outside Valencia, when his agent came to see me to say he wanted to move.

Things were never the same after that. The following day he injured his cruciate. We did everything possible to accommodate him. He was allowed to pursue his rehabilitation in Spain. He was there for six months and came back for a single game. We did our best. But at the end of December he came back wanting away, wanting new terms, a new contract. When he returned fully from injury, he went to see David Gill with his agent and we agreed we would be better off without him. We agreed to let him go for £9 million. They went straight to Liverpool, who said they would take him.

Gabriel was told, with no ambiguity, that historically Manchester United do not sell players to Liverpool, and vice versa. Heinze’s advisers then tried to make a legal issue of it, which led to a meeting in London, in which the Premier League sided with us.

During that process, the chairman of Crystal Palace contacted David Gill to say someone representing Heinze had asked them to buy him so they could later sell him on to Liverpool. We used that information as part of our evidence. The judgment came down in our favour and eventually we offloaded him to Real Madrid. These guys move around. Heinze had been at two Spanish clubs already before he went to PSG, from where he came to us.

Alan Smith was another addition from that time, in May 2004, for £7 million. Leeds were in financial trouble by then and word came through to David Gill that Alan could be bought for around £5 million. I had always liked Alan. He was what I called an attitude player, with a good character. He could play a few positions: wide right, midfield, centre-forward. He was a Mark Hughes-type player: not a great goal-scorer but useful to the team. We later sold him to Newcastle for £6 million. Alan did a fair job for us and put in some smashing performances. His leg-break at Liverpool in 2006 was one of the most horrific I’ve seen. I’ll always remember rushing to see him as he lay on the Liverpool treatment table – Liverpool’s doctor was exemplary, I should say – while they injected him to stop the onset of trauma.

His foot was pointing in all sorts of directions. Bobby Charlton, who was with me, winced. And he had been through the Munich air disaster. Alan, on the other hand, was unperturbed. He was sitting there emotionless. It was a horror of an accident. Alan’s reaction told me that some men’s pain thresholds are higher than others’. Jabs terrify me. I’m hopeless with needles. In my pub-keeping days in Glasgow, during a keg-change one Sunday morning, I was releasing a spear to let the air out when a rat jumped on my shoulder. I leapt back and the spear of the keg sank into my cheek. You can still see the skin graft. I drove the two miles to the hospital, afraid to touch it. The nurse whipped it out and I fainted as soon as they put the needle in me. The nurse said: ‘This is the big centre-forward of Rangers Football Club and he’s fainting.’ I was dying there. Alan was sitting with one of the worst injuries I’ve ever seen and not a bit of stir in him. That’s what Alan was: a supremely brave lad.

He was a good, honest professional, too. What he lacked was the real top quality you need to excel at the biggest clubs. When we were offered the money by Newcastle, we had to let him go.

Our final use of him was as a defensive midfielder. He tackled well but didn’t read the game like an authentic holding player. He was a midfield player who could tackle, wherever the ball was. In his centre-forward days, centre-backs seldom had an easy time with Alan. But the whole process of replacing Roy required us to find a player who could sit in good areas of the pitch, the way Owen Hargreaves did for a while. Alan wasn’t that type, but he was a good, honest player who loved playing for us. It took me a long time to persuade him that I couldn’t guarantee him a game. The team had moved on.

Louis Saha was another major signing, from Fulham in January 2004, but persistent injuries counted against him, and us. We watched him a couple of times at Metz but the scouting reports gave no indication that he would be a target for the biggest clubs. He turned up at Fulham, and every time he played against us he gave us a ‘doing’. In an FA Cup tie at Craven Cottage, he turned Wes Brown on the halfway line, flew at our goal, cut it back and Fulham scored. From then on we watched him all the time, and by January were ready to make our move.

Dealing with Mohammed Fayed, Fulham’s owner, was a complicated process. Word came back that a figure had been agreed and we were told: ‘This is the best you’re going to get.’ It was a middle position: £12 million.

Of all the centre-forwards we employed, when you talk about their talents (two-footed, good in the air, spring, speed, power), Saha would be one of the best. He posed a perpetual threat. But then came the injuries. Louis, who lived about 50 yards from me, and was a lovely lad, had to be 150 per cent to play. It was agony for us. And it wasn’t a case of him being out for weeks; it tended to be months. The reason for selling him was that no matter how talented he was, I could never plan around him, could never say, ‘This is my team for the next two or three years.’ Saha was young enough to be viewed in that way, as a cornerstone player, but the uncertainty caused by his constant non-availability rendered it impossible to look far down the line.

It became so vexing to him that he considered retiring. ‘You’re a young man, you don’t give in because of an injury, you’ve just got to work to get back. This can’t last forever,’ I told him.

He was assailed by guilt. He thought he was letting us down. He would send me apologetic texts to that effect. I tried to impress on him that he had been unlucky, and that unlucky players could be found throughout footballing history. Viv Anderson was one. When we were assessing Viv’s playing record at Arsenal, we noticed that in four years he missed four games. Suspension, every time. Viv came to us and was never fit. We gave him a free transfer to Sheffield Wednesday and he played there for three years and hardly missed a game. I used to give him stick about that. I’d say, ‘I don’t think you wanted to play for me.’ He’s a big United fan and was desperate to shine for us, but was halted by persistent knee trouble.

Louis knew his injuries were hampering his form, and that’s where the guilt complex began biting away at him. Carlos devised a two-week programme for him to enable him to be fully ready in a fortnight. This was tailored work, which he did on his own. We explained that to him, and he embraced it – shooting, turning, and generally throwing himself into these preparatory exercises. He was flying. Friday, the day before the game, and Saha walks off, saying he had felt something in his hamstring. We were never going to conquer that physical sensitivity, so we reached a deal with Everton in 2008.

Everton copied our approach and tried to raise Louis to a level where he would be confident of playing. It might have helped him to be away from the pressure of Manchester United. He was a fantastic centre-forward, though. In the 2009–10 season, I thought France would be mad not to take him to the World Cup.

A constant in our discussions about young players – in terms of whether they could handle the demands of the Old Trafford crowd and the short patience span of the media – was temperament. Would they grow or shrink in a United shirt? We knew the make-up of every young homegrown player who came into the United starting XI, from the training ground, from reserve team football.

You can’t leave your character in the dressing room. It has to come out of that room, down the tunnel and onto that pitch.

In the 2003–04 season we finished third in the League behind the Invincibles of Arsenal, but finished off with a 3–0 win over Millwall in the FA Cup final in Cardiff. Ronaldo was majestic in that match, scoring our first goal with a header before Van Nistelrooy added two more, one from the penalty spot.

The year had been overshadowed by the death of Jimmy Davis in a road accident. Jimmy, 21, was one of those bright, breezy individuals. He had a chance too. He would have had a career in the game. We had loaned him to Watford. On the way to an academy game at our place that Saturday morning, I heard that Watford’s game that afternoon had been postponed. There were no details given. Then I was told, at the academy game, of Jimmy’s death in a road accident.

He was a tenacious wee lad, very popular. A large number from the club attended his funeral. Two years later, at a wedding, I felt a creeping sense of déjà vu. As the photographs were being taken outside, the minister came over to me and said, ‘Would you like to come round and see Jimmy’s grave?’ I hadn’t made the connection, and it chilled me to the core. It was so sad. He would not be forgotten by Manchester United.

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