Maurice Watkins.

Sir Alex leads tributes for Watkins

Monday 16 August 2021 13:38

Manchester United is deeply saddened by the passing of Maurice Watkins, who served the club with great distinction as a director for more than a quarter of a century.

Having represented the club as a solicitor since 1976, Watkins joined the board in 1984 and became a highly trusted and influential figure behind the scenes at Old Trafford for the next 28 years.

Known as a reliable source of calm and wise advice, even in the most trying of circumstances, Watkins was involved in almost every significant deal done by the club on and off the field during that time. That made him a key actor in some of the most pivotal moments of a tumultuous and ultimately glorious period in United’s history, starting with the appointment of Alex Ferguson as manager in 1986.

Later, after Sir Alex announced plans to retire in 2001, it was Watkins who helped broker the agreement for him to remain in charge after the Scot changed his mind about stepping down. United went on to win a further six Premier League titles and the 2008 Champions League before Sir Alex did finally call it a day in 2013.

Maurice Watkins faces the press with Eric Cantona.

Paying tribute to Watkins following news of his death, Sir Alex said: “Maurice was really supportive during my time as manager and great company. In my 26 years, there were some rocky moments, and he was always there with wise advice. He had great energy as well – involved in so many organisations.

“He was unflappable. During some tense games, I’d look over and he would be calmly reading the programme.

“His legal experience was invaluable. When I called him to say I wanted to stay at United, he said they had already sorted a new manager but, not to worry, he would dig us out. And he did. He was a true gentleman.”

Perhaps Watkins’s most famous moment as United’s chief legal adviser came in 1995, when he helped the club and Eric Cantona handle the fallout from the Frenchman’s infamous altercation with a Crystal Palace supporter during an away match at Selhurst Park.

Represented by Watkins, Cantona had an initial 14-day custodial sentence for assault reduced on appeal to community service. At a press conference following the verdict, Watkins was sat beside Eric when he made his legendary speech declaring: “When seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea."

Indeed, Watkins had even helped Cantona draft the enigmatic statement beforehand.

“We sat down and drafted it out,” Watkins once recounted. “Eric wrote it out and he checked the meaning of certain words. ‘What’s the big boat that catches fish? What’s the big bird that flies over the sea?'

“He had a drink of water, said his piece and then left me to explain it."

After stepping down from the United board in 2012, Watkins went on to reinforce his reputation as one of the leading lawyers in world sport with a number of further prominent roles.

As chairman of British Swimming, he oversaw the resurgence of the Great British swimming team, which culminated in their best-ever Olympics medal haul in Tokyo this month. He also had spells as chairman of Barnsley FC and senior positions with the Rugby Football League, the Greyhound Board of Great Britain, and Lancashire County Cricket Club.

Away from sport, he helped raise over £68 million for hospitals as chairman of the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital charity appeals board, and he was made CBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours 2011 for services to charity.

Everyone at Manchester United sends their deepest condolences to Maurice’s loved ones. He will always be remembered with affection and respect by all of us at Old Trafford.