My United: Rugby union legend Brian O'Driscoll
Brian O’Driscoll is a bona fide legend of rugby union after a glittering career with Leinster, Ireland and the Lions, but he is also a massive Manchester United fan with a lifelong passion for the Reds.
When and why did you start supporting United?
“Throughout the 1980s in Dublin there were two soccer teams that most people supported – United and Liverpool. And with it being Liverpool’s heyday, it was predominantly Liverpool that people supported. I probably should have supported Liverpool because most of my buddies were Liverpool fans. But I had cousins who were from Manchester and they came over to Dublin to visit when I was about four or five. They asked me who I supported and I said I didn’t really know. So they said, ‘That’s it, you are supporting Manchester United. That’s the end of it’. Ironically, one of my cousins who is involved in that family is Gary O’Driscoll, who used to be the Irish Rugby doctor and later worked at Arsenal – it was his family who were the original instigators as to why I support United! I just missed the Stapleton, Moran and McGrath era; I remember collecting the United stickers for the Panini album around 1987/88 and I remember buying those chunky VHS tapes of United games – I think Hughes and McClair were United’s top scorers. That was the start of me becoming a really passionate United supporter. I would have known the tape backwards.”
“Oh jeez, that’s some comparison! I identified that there were a couple of ‘fatties’ – a couple of forwards defending together – in the middle of the park and any time I see that before me I’ll always fancy my chances of putting the step on them. So I shouted at Jonny Wilkinson to give me the ball nice and early – I knew that I was going to have a cut one way or another. I had a step and then found myself through. I had a quick glance around to see who I could offload the ball to because Matt Burke was closing in on me, but there was nobody there. I saw him coming at me like a steam train! So I just side-stepped and he missed me. Normally you would get a bit of an arm or some scrag to slow your momentum – the fact that he didn’t get a touch on me meant I was able to just accelerate. I kept looking forward thinking, ‘This is like a hot potato… how do I get rid of it?’ But there was no-one there. So I pinned my ears back and made sure I dived for the line nice and early because I could see Joe Roff coming across, he was the only real threat to me. When I looked up I was probably on the 22, but the posts seemed like a marathon away! But then there is nothing like a bit of panic and a load of Aussies chasing you to get up to speed quickly.”
“Mark Hughes. I had a friend who lived near me – he was a McClair fan but I liked Hughes. He had an edge, a nasty edge! At that time he wasn’t that era’s stereotypical centre-forward, the striker who only scored goals and who didn’t have to track back or get stuck in, not in the way that strikers are expected to now. Hughes picked up his share of red and yellow cards but you liked that because he was such a competitor. And he scored spectacular goals – those phenomenal volleys! He wasn’t a guy for tap-ins, was he? He was so abrasive and so physical – a man’s man, everything you want in a striker. I can only imagine him in the dressing room. He would be somebody that would inspire the team but I imagine he wasn’t somebody who would do a lot of talking off the pitch. He did his talking on the pitch.”
“I would have been about five or six. We were over in Manchester visiting family but I can’t for the life of me think who it was against. I remember we did the tour of Old Trafford before the match. I think United won, though it wasn’t a classic match, but that just copper-fastened my love for United at that time.”
Can you pick a personal favourite goal?
“It’s hard not to love Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s goal against Bayern Munich in the Champions League final in 1999 – even if it was one of the most hideous things to look at I was in my local in Clontarf, where my folks live, with a couple of buddies. I was watching it with my head in my hands… and then came the two minutes of ecstasy. It was ridiculous! Bayern were an incredible team but to be table to just graft out a victory when you’ve not played well, to believe in yourselves… it’s an art.”
“One goal that very rarely gets mentioned is Eric Cantona’s goal in the FA Cup final against Liverpool in 1996. It was a lovely volley. Rob Jones was on the line – he should have handballed it and taken one for the team! Cantona needs a mention in this interview.”
How would Cantona have fitted into one of your rugby sides?
“I get the impression that he was a great professional and because of that, straight away you get respect from your other players. You’re going to lose them every so often, these types of players, to the wildness. But that genius/madness gene – you have to accept that good with the bad, providing they put the graft in and work hard, which is what Cantona did. You got this with Roy Keane, too. All the best players have it, that edge.”
What United players from the past do you wish you had seen play?
“I would probably go back and see George Best. Yes, there is plenty of footage of him playing for United but you can’t get a full appreciation of these types of players until you watch them live. I went to the 2003 Celtic v Porto UEFA Cup final, when Jose Mourinho was manager of Porto, and I remember watching Henrik Larsson. I was watching his movement, which was incredible, but I would have had no appreciate of that from watching it on television.”
Brian O'Driscoll was speaking to the March 2016 edition of Inside United magazine. Subscribe now for future editions.