Dempsey's fascinating story about his return to Old Trafford
Mark Dempsey is a key member of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's backroom team at Manchester United, having played twice for the Reds' first team in the 1980s.
The Mancunian played in midfield for the likes of Sheffield United and Rotherham United after leaving Old Trafford but now is back 'home' working with Ole, having been with the Norwegian in his homeland at Molde and also managing in Sweden.
He has a fascinating tale to tell about life as a youngster coming through the ranks at the club, his shot at the big time under Ron Atkinson and the path that led him to the Aon Training Complex in a coaching capacity, with his passion and love for the game just as strong as his lifelong love of the Reds.
We discovered the full story when speaking to Mark recently...
So, you started out with United as a youth player. Can you talk us through that time please?
“Yeah, I came as a young boy when I was 12. They used to bring us through in the holidays, things like that, and I signed as a 14-year-old on the old schoolboy forms. I think Tommy Docherty was the manager then, yes in 1978 it was Tommy Doc, and then Dave Sexton as well. I got an apprenticeship and became a pro in 1982. I was in Eric Harrison’s first youth team. It was good to see some of the old faces at Eric’s funeral, despite it being a sad occasion, and we reminisced a lot about Eric. We had a good team – Mark Hughes, Norman Whiteside, Graeme Hogg, Clayton Blackmore, Billy Garton – many players came through. We got beat 7-6 by Watford in the [two-legged] final. They had John Barnes and Jimmy Gilligan, people like this. From then, I was always in and around the first-team squad from 18 to 21. But they had some decent midfield players at the time – Bryan Robson, Ray Wilkins. Paul McGrath and Norman Whiteside played in there. I was a little bit lightweight, if I’m honest, and obviously wasn’t good enough to cement a place. I got a couple of games but moved on, by my own choice as they wanted me to stay, but I wanted to play league football. I went to Sheffield United, on loan initially, and then signed for them. But they were fantastic times. I travelled all over the world and played with some great players. It’s my club as well. My dad’s side were all Reds, my mum’s were all Blues, and it was a dream. Being a little ‘un, I used to go to The Cliff to watch them train. I can remember Denis Law there so it was always a dream. They were very happy times."
Do you remember much about your first-team appearances? I bet you can recall every second!
“I do, funnily enough. Against Spartak Varna in 1983, I came on at Old Trafford when we were 2-0 up. I had a good half an hour. I came on for Kevin Moran, which surprised me when someone asked me the question as I thought I came on for Robbo or Ray Wilkins, but I actually came on for Kevin. I hit a fantastic shot. Frank Stapleton laid one down at the edge of the box and I hit a great half-volley. The keeper just threw his arms up but I’d hit it so sweetly, it just struck him and went high up. Maybe, if that had nestled in the top corner…! I made my league debut against Ipswich in 1985 as Robbo was out. I wore the no.7 shirt, which was nice! I tell my grandkids I wore the famous no.7! I did okay. We won 1-0, Frank scored the goal when Jesper Olsen crossed it in. I remember waving to my mates in the Scoreboard End, as that’s where I used to stand, and they were shouting ‘Demmo’, ‘Demmo’. I did okay and got some good reviews. On the Friday, I thought I was in the team against Aston Villa as we were playing them the following week. I was taking all the set-plays, the corners and free-kicks, in training so I thought I was in and I told my dad I was in. So they went down with a contingent from the Labour Club or the Cleveland in Crumpsall, I can’t remember which one, as our lad’s playing so we’ll go down. On the day of the game, at the pre-match meal, Big Ron said I’ll just make one change and said ‘Demps, you’ve done great but I’m a bit worried about Steve Hodge’s running today’. So, I’m like okay, I can’t track Steve Hodge? But anyway, he said he was bringing Clayton in. Ironically, Clayton came in and smashed in a free-kick, which would become his trademark goal, so yeah…”
Is that just football? Clayton scores his free-kick while your shot was saved by the goalie and things could have ended up very differently?
“Listen, if I’d have been good enough, I would have got in. If you’re good enough, you’re going to get in. I wasn’t quite at that level. I suppose I had a decent career after that, I became a bit of a journeyman but I had a great grounding in terms of my education. Being around great players, good coaches and the standards we set as a football club, travelling all over the world. It was a great foundation for my future coaching, I feel for my future as a coach, going into the game and learning from those past experiences. It’s stood me in good stead over time. The first youth coach was a guy called Syd Owen. He was great but I only had him for 12 months. He was synonymous with the Leeds youth team – Billy Bremner, not Johnny Giles as he was here but Paul Madeley, Paul Reaney, he brought them all through. He was a decent human being and a really good coach, a little bit ahead of his time. He was a cultured centre-half so everything we did on the training ground revolved around the ball. There were lots of passing drills so he was a little bit in front of some of the others. He won Man of the Match [as player-manager] in the 1959 FA Cup final against Nottingham Forest for Luton Town. He was a good coach and then Eric [Harrison] came in. Everything that has been said about him is spot on. He taught you the game, how to man up and be a man. So he was very influential in our seeing of the game.”
Were you getting these influences all along, after moving to Sheffield United and seeing football at a different level too?
“It’s a different type of football, going into the Championship or Division Two as it was then. I’d been a little, pretty playmaker at United but, all of a sudden, they wanted me to get in the channels, pick up the second balls and all that type of thing. So then you’re learning a different type of football, if you like. I remember the first time I ever got 'topped' in a game was against Plymouth Argyle. It was my second or third game for Sheffield United and I’d never been 'topped' before. John Matthews – he did me. It was like – welcome to the real world. I thought: ‘Wow, I’d better grow up here’. We had a lad called Steve Foley in midfield, a Scouser, and he said: ‘Demps, this is what it’s about, lad’. I was like ‘flipping heck!’ I had to grow up and I never ever really got back to being the player I was at United, in terms of the type of player I was, as I moved down the leagues. I went from Sheffield United to Rotherham and became functional, if you like, although when I moved into non-league, many years later – I played a long time, I played until I was 40 – I returned to being a playmaker again and enjoyed it. But I still had this other bit of learning that type of football which stood me in good stead. I’ve had so many experiences through football.”
Is that a good lesson for all young players – if you can evolve your game and develop it?
“Well, it’s better to be at the top all the way through with the best learning if you can have the best practice every day. But I don’t think it can do anyone any harm to experience different learnings and different environments, different dressing rooms, different pitches and that type of thing. It doesn’t do you any harm, of course, but only if you learn and you realise it’s something you can learn from. Sometimes you don’t even realise you’re learning from it until you’re thinking what do I need here and you remember we did that in practice or I remember the coach saying this or we did that. So you can use it to your benefit and, hopefully, for the benefit of the people you’re working with and coaching with day in and day out.”
Did you always want to be a coach?
“Yeah, I did always want to be a coach. My dad was a coach, if you like. He wasn’t a professional coach but he had been an amateur at Manchester City and Southport and he had, he still has, this unbelievable passion about the game. United are his life, United and pool at his local club. He’s getting old now but he gave me a passion for the game, a desire for the game to want to learn and get better. He used to have me in the park and we’d be working on things, watching players and, of course, he’d watched the Busby Babes and grew up all the way through with some great United players. It was in me. I was always vocal from being a kid. I remember being the school captain and that kind of thing. When I went to Sheffield United, the manager was called Billy McEwan – a Scotsman who was very passionate about the game. A good coach and a good manager. When he picked me up at Sheffield station, as I got the train there when I signed, I got in the car with him and he said: ‘Okay son, listen to this’. He put a Bill Shankly tape in – you remember the cassette players they used to have, he popped it in and it was Shankly talking about football and all this. I used to sit with him and get the pepper pots and spoons out and he used to say to me: ‘You’ll be a good coach one day, you son’. I was only 21 or 22 at the time but then, in later life, I had three boys and they all played football. I coached all their teams so it began from there a little bit.”
“My boy, Billy, my youngest son. I was community officer at Radcliffe Borough and part of my role was to look after the five-a-sides. Kevin Glendon was the manager at the time and a young Bernard Manning Jnr was the chairman. They asked me to put on a tournament, as they’d done it years before and it had been successful, so they asked if I could do one for the local teams in the area. It was a lovely, sunny day at Stainton Park and there were hundreds of teams and thousands of kids. My lad played for one of the teams – Boundary Park, I think it was where Nicky Butt played and my cousin, Chris Makin, played. He got scouted by a lad called Phil Brogan, who’s not here any more, and I received a phone call two days later in my office at Radcliffe. It was Paul McGuinness and he said: ‘Can I speak to Mark Dempsey, Billy Dempsey’s dad? It’s not you, is it Demps?’ And I said: ‘Yeah, it is and the first thing he said was: ‘Wow, is he as good as you?’ I said: ‘He’s better than me.’ So Paul invited him on trial and I came through to watch them train, they trained at Ashton-on-Mersey school then, and it was Fraizer Campbell’s age group, Danny Simpson and all of them. They’d just come back from somewhere, the Dallas Cup I think, and it was a good group. He joined in with them and, the next day, Paul asked me what did I think. I just threw a remark out there that they’re great and it’s a higher level than he’s ever been used to but they all play a bit quick at times. I think someone should take a breather, put their foot on it and find a pass here and there. He said they’d just been talking about this with Eric and invited me down to Littleton Road to meet Eric two days later. We just talked football. I’d not seen Eric for 10 years, maybe more, but, on the back of that, he invited me to come and help out a little bit with the Under-11s with a lad called Andy Smith. That was 1999, a great year that! Through there, I got my Academy coaching badges and you needed the UEFA badges. The club put me on a course to get my UEFA B licence, a great course at The Cliff. Andy Welsh of the PFA ran it at the time and it snowballed from there. I developed myself as coach. I think this club gives people opportunities that they think warrants it and I came in full time in 2002.”
Your name came up when we were speaking to some of Marcus Rashford’s youth coaches recently as you helped get him on the MANUSS programme ahead of schedule…
“Yeah but I didn’t really work with Marcus. I remember dropping him off once as they asked me to give him a lift home one night as he lived not far from here, but it was funny really as my progress through ran in line with the group that had Jesse Lingard, Ravel Morrison, Will Keane. It was a great group – Ryan Tunnicliffe, Larnell Cole, Tom Thorpe. I jumped up in age groups and became head of Under-16s in 2009 and they were 16 then so I’d come through with them. There were a lot of other players in different age groups I worked with – Danny Welbeck, Matty James and people like that. It was an amazing time I had as a coach here, working with Tony Whelan and Paul McGuinness, just in the way we did things. It was a great time, we travelled all over the world for tournaments and I was learning every day. I was sat in the canteen every day listening to the gaffer [Sir Alex Ferguson] at the table, you could hear him so I was picking up little things. It was like a university of football with Jimmy Ryan here too. I had a wonderful time as a young, developing coach here as it was invaluable for me when I went on to the next bit.”
So that next step was with Ole as you ended up going away to Norway to learn your trade…
“Well, I left here in 2009 and went to Scandinavia. I went to a club called Tromso. I spoke to Ole about it but I didn’t know Ole that well. I’d done little bits for Ole – he had started an Academy out there, so I did little bits for him. In the last year I was here, he often came over to do talks with the kids and tell them about being a player and the standards. He’d come over and watched a couple of sessions and we just talked football. Then, when I got this offer to come to Norway, I spoke to Ole about it and he said: ‘Well, you go out there, do well, learn the language and learn the league because, in a couple of years, I’m going to be out there. I took it as an ‘okay…’ but he was true to his word. He got the job in 2011. I’d been here since 2009 and he rang me up and asked me to go in as his no.2 at a club called Molde, whom he had played for. He took over the reins there and, again, I just had a wonderful time from day one. Not day one actually but it clicked and we won the league. They’d never won the league before and it was their 100th year, the centenary year, so it was a big year and we pipped Rosenborg, who are a big team over there. To be fair to Ole, he’d done a gaffer. He said we need to knock these off their perch, like Sir Alex had said about Liverpool. Ole said the same about Rosenborg and we did it in the same season and repeated it the year after. They were happy days with Molde. We know each other well and travelled around a lot together in the last seven or eight years, sharing many car journeys and having a good working relationship.”
When did the call come and where were you when you found out you’d got a job back at United?
“He invited me to come down to the training ground to watch training. So I came through on Friday 28 December – it’s my mum’s birthday so I’m not going to forget it. There was no talk of a job or anything like that. I’d come to watch training and had all this Norwegian gear from one of the clubs I’d worked for. I had on one of their rucksacks with my clothes in, as it was cold and I wanted to wrap up but I thought ‘great, I’m ready to go there and it’s great I can watch training. I can take some notes. I said hello to Kieran [McKenna] and Michael [Carrick]’. I walked into the office with him [Ole] and we were just talking football and I said this is amazing. He said: ‘I’ll just leave it with you for a couple of minutes’ and away he went. I sat there, looking around this office, like ‘wow’, and then he came in and, as he’s gone past my shoulder, he had all this stuff around and it was kit with my name on it. He said you don’t have to think about going anywhere else just yet because I want you here, I want you in and around me, and that was just amazing.”
You’re a Manchester United man through and through, so what did that conversation mean to you?
“It’s all a little bit surreal, isn’t it? It happened but has all been a little bit surreal. No, I expected it with Ole, to be honest, as I always felt he had the capabilities to be Manchester United manager. He's done relatively well in his time here and demonstrated he does have the ability to manage at this level and work with the players. So, no, it was wonderful and great to tell my family, my mum and dad, my wife and children. They’re all Reds as well. I think they were more delighted, if you can be, than me so that was fantastic too.”
What is Ole like as a manager? You know him so well – is there so much more to him than putting smiles on faces?
“Of course. Yeah, I have to be careful now, as he’s my boss. Look, I don’t think I’m out of turn saying he is a wonderful human being who understands people. I think that is vital in the profession we’re in. But he’s certainly not soft and certainly not kind. He’s kind at the right time but, when he needs to be hard and ruthless, he will be. He doesn’t suffer fools. I think the most important thing to manage at this level is he has a wonderful knowledge of the game. He has wonderful tactical acumen. He understands football and sees things. Sometimes, I think how has he seen that but he sees it. I think it’s been well documented how he studies the game. He played Football Manager on X-Box and all this. I don’t know if it helped him but he has many of the attributes you need to manage at the top of any profession. In terms of what he brings with his leadership, he has to improve in certain areas. Everyone can be better and he understands what this means. I think he has learned. He’s been a manager for a long time – 250 games. He’s managed in Europe, in the Premier League with a team struggling in a situation that was very, very difficult for him. He would hold his hands up, and I’m not talking out of line here, and say he could have done some things differently. But he learned from that and the most valuable thing to do in life is learn so he’s on the right lines of becoming a top manager. He’ll be a top, top manager, in my opinion.”
Is it important for any leader to have people around that you respect, trust and listen to before making decisions?
“I think he’s inherited a really good team here. I think that’s important. He’s come in and the transition has been easy for him. The two coaches, Kieran and Michael, do a fantastic job. I’m not just saying that as I’m sat here. I’ve known long enough to recognise people with qualities and they are spot on, how they operate. They’re meticulous, both young, both hungry and both want to improve. It’s evident in the work they deliver day in and day out, on and off the training field. Of course, he’s got Mike [Phelan] who has been there, done it and seen it all before. He understands and looks at things a bit differently to other people. He’s more laid back and able to absorb information and observe and I think he’s been great for him [Ole] as well. So he’s been fortunate in that regard but it’s been really encouraging to be in and around that environment every day. For me, working with these people is great.”
It seems a good mix of coaches but there is United running through the core of it…
“I think so. I think that’s healthy. You’ve seen them on the touchline. They talk, they communicate. It’s not all yes, yes, yes. They all have an opinion, which is healthy again and you have to have that. At the end of the day, he’s the gaffer and will be the one who decides. One thing about Ole he has always, and will always, court opinion and enjoy opinion, enjoy ideas and unravel it back with what he feels is the best solution. Again, it’s part of being a good leader. He doesn’t have a big ego. He doesn’t think he knows all. He’s receptive to ideas and receptive to other people’s opinion and that’s really healthy.”
Finally, how excited are you for the future?
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“I’m just excited every day! I can’t wait to get into work every single day. We’ll take every day one at a time, that’s the best motto in life, don’t look too far ahead. Live in the moment in life. I think that is what everybody is doing now in this football club and it’s fantastic to be part of it.”