UTD Unscripted: Lucky Jim's remarkable story
I’ve always regarded myself as a lucky man. Throughout my life, there’s just been this element of good fortune that has almost followed me around.
When I was growing up in Stirling, it was at a time when Scotland was producing two types of player: the dribbler and the tough guy. You’d beat people or you’d nail people. That was the split, especially if you grew up in a mining village like I did.
I was a dribbler and I was alright. I wouldn’t say I was some incredible talent, I was just okay. One day, I came home to find that a scout from Celtic had been in contact to see if I wanted to go for a trial, but my dad had sent him on his way because he wasn’t a Celtic supporter! This was at a time when they had the most incredible team, so I was gutted. Call it fate, fortune or whatever, but things, pretty soon, turned out okay.
After playing one game for the local boys’ brigade against a team from a suburb in Stirling, I had a good game and we won 7-1. Afterwards, I was walking back to the dressing room to see if there was anybody heading back to my village, and this guy comes over.
“Are you Jim Ryan?”
Turns out, it was Matt Busby’s step-brother.
“We want you to go down to Manchester United for two weeks for a trial. Can you do it?”
“I’ll walk there if you want me to.”
A couple of days later, an envelope arrived at home with a letter, train tickets and all that. I packed a bag, went to the train station and that was it. That was the start. I went down on Thursday, trained on Friday morning and played on Saturday morning. It was a whirlwind.
What struck me most was the way those English guys talked…
“Ey up, luv.”
I can still remember thinking to myself: What the hell are they talking about? Listen to this accent!
I played with a lad from Wigan and I didn’t understand a word he was saying to me. He was an England Schoolboy, John Pearson. We became quite good friends, in spite of the language barriers, and we ended up going out in Wigan one night.“If we talk to any girls, you’ll have to translate for me.”
Anyway, before that, I played my first game on the Saturday morning after coming down. I played at inside-forward, and the other inside-forward was a lad called Cameron. He scored three goals. I didn’t score, or play well, so I honestly thought I had no chance. This lad was definitely going to be signed after scoring a hat-trick, and we were both going for the same position, so that was it as far as I was concerned. In a way, that kind of relaxed me straight away, thinking there was no chance and, as such, no pressure. I was enjoying training over the next few days, getting to grips with the accents, and then I played in another game the following weekend, had a blinder and scored. It was probably the best I’d ever played. Everything just seemed to fall to me.United asked me to stay on a little longer, after which I kept hearing little whispers and a couple of my team-mates were asking if I’d been offered a full contract. At that stage, there was nothing to report.
Then Matt calls me up to his office.
He tells me that United would like me to join, outlined the salary… he was saying all this stuff and I was just sat there, dizzy. I could hardly speak to him.
Busby mentioned that he was sending me to a specialist for a routine medical check over in the All Saints area of town. So, the next week, I go over to see him, have the test, breathe in, breathe out and so on. All seems okay, no problem for me. The specialist told me to sit and wait for him, and, after 10 minutes, he comes out of his office.
“I’m afraid you don’t have the lung capacity to play football, Mr Ryan. I advise you to pack it in and get a job.”
I’d had a week of being elated and he just advised me to pack it in.
I’d never felt there was an issue. Whenever we’d done running as a group of players, I wasn’t at the top but I wasn’t at the bottom either. I was completely gutted.
“I’m going to send a message to Mr Busby and tell him,” said the specialist.Then I lived in agony for about four days. Never told anybody about it. None of my digs mates. Friday afternoon, I get the message: Busby wants to see you.
I’ve never felt as bad in my life as when I was walking up to his office. Going up those stairs, it was like going to your own hanging.I was absolutely sure that he was going to tell me what the doctor had said: that I shouldn’t play football any more. I remember clearly, getting to his door.
I just stood there.I didn’t want to knock.
This can’t happen to me. I’m crazy about football. I’m at Manchester United. I’ve met Denis Law. I’ve met all these people, had all these experiences and he’s just going to tell me to go home.
I finally knocked and went in.“How’s your family? Everyone okay at home?”
I’m waiting for it.“Good, well. You’ve got to remember, you’ve got to work as hard as you can.”
He’s not mentioning it.Then, right at the end…
“We’ve got this stuff from the doctor. Doesn’t mean anything.”He threw it into the bin, right in front of me.
I couldn’t believe my luck. I felt like going out and celebrating – although I didn’t really drink at all, but I’ll come back to that shortly.
As part of my development, United gave me some one-on-one training because I wasn’t the biggest. That involved lifting weights, running up and down the steps inside Old Trafford and then, just to round it off, I’d have to wrestle Jack Crompton.
Now, Jack was a thick-set guy, a former goalkeeper. He’d put a mat down on the ground, I had to lie down and Jack would basically just lie down on top of me and I had to wrestle him off. I think the whole exercise stemmed from something the coaches had experienced in the army, which is where a lot of their exercises came from. So I’m supposed to push this big, strong guy off me and, of course, my arms were totally gone by the end of the session. After it had all finished, I’d go back to my digs, which were in walking distance of the ground, and I’d go straight up to my bed for a lie down.
There were perks as well, though. United had some incredible players at that time, and Denis Law was one of the very best around. He’d won the Ballon d’Or a couple of years earlier and he was just fantastic. I talk to my son, Neil, about football a lot, and what I always loved was a foggy night in Trafford Park, floodlights on, for an evening game against a European team, watching Denis Law play.
He was unbelievable. Everything about him fitted together. He was like lightning. He was hard as nails. I’d usually be sat at the back with Willie Anderson, my digs mate, watching the ball down at our end of the ground, we’d hear a big roar at the other end and the centre-half is lying on the ground. Next thing, Denis is walking off because he’s smacked the guy.
He was a hero of mine when I was up in Scotland, and I think the first time I saw him in the flesh was the third or fourth day of my trial with United. We had to take all the kit back to Old Trafford for washing, and when I got there, Denis was outside the dressing rooms. He had a ball. He was flicking the ball up to himself and volleying it against these big double doors. He was small but I’d never seen anybody kick a ball as hard as that. About six or seven times he does this, volleying the ball against the doors and it comes back to him. He’s taking some of them in the air, some on the drop, just unbelievable power and accuracy.
Then, he popped the ball. He hits the ball that hard against the door that he popped it. He just laughed to himself and went inside. I’d never seen anything like it.
So you had Denis. You had Bobby Charlton, who was smooth, elegant and powerful. You had George Best, who was phenomenal. I used to go out with George, though neither of us drank at that time. We’d go to a bar, get a bottle, spend the night looking for girls and, by the time we left, the bottles would still be half full.
Nevertheless, this one time I was called into Busby’s office about going out drinking. That was an unforgettable experience.“I’ve been getting some reports about you. I hear you’ve been going out. Why do you want to do that?”
And you could just feel this disappointment. He had this soft, quiet way of speaking to you. I hadn’t even been drinking, and I’m sat there thinking to myself: I need to tell him I don’t drink. But I couldn’t find a way and the moment passed.I hadn’t done what he thought I’d done, but I still felt like dropping to my knees and apologising for letting him down. That’s the one thing you couldn’t do. That was one of the big things of playing for Busby: you never, ever wanted to let him down. He made you feel so bad, you just felt guilty as hell.
So, every time you went out on the pitch, you were determined not to let him down.
That was the case at whatever level you played. After a couple of years at the club, I kept doing alright in the reserve team and, towards the end of the 1965/66 season, we had a Reserves game at Villa Park where we had to play for about 75 minutes with 10 men, and a lot of my role was to keep the ball and buy us time. I did pretty well and we ended up getting a draw. After that game, and after the likes of Wilf McGuinness had said positives things to me, I kind of smelled that I was in line for a first team call-up. The following week, they took me to West Brom and, when we got there, I found out I was starting.
A year or two earlier, George had made his debut against West Brom and I was up against the same guy who had marked him that day: Graham Williams. He was big and strong, he’d smack you if he could, but I was at the stage where I was confident and knew what was coming. I didn’t beat him every time I got the ball, but I did alright and kept my place for the next game, against Blackburn. That day, I remember vividly, as soon as the team sheet was up, John Connelly – whose place I’d taken – came up to wish me good luck. Fantastic. Unbelievable guy.
We’d drawn 3-3 at West Brom and we beat Blackburn 4-1, and I kept my place again for the next game: my home debut against Aston Villa. I’d been okay previously, but that one was nerve-racking. I felt like I was shaking. The stadium was full, the noise, playing with Denis Law… but once I got into the game I was alright.
I actually scored that afternoon at the Scoreboard End. It was a left-foot volley, penalty spot, after the ball popped out of a group of players. I just swung at it and people probably thought it wasn’t a bad goal, but it was jammy. I never used my left foot!
During my time at United, the club won the FA Cup, two First Division titles and the European Cup, but I never pinned down a regular place as my own. I didn’t want to leave and I turned down the chance to join Bristol City in 1969, but eventually joined Luton Town in 1970 because I just wasn’t getting any games. I couldn’t have picked a better club to go to in terms of being a good fit for me, and I spent a few really enjoyable years there before I moved to America to finish my playing days in Dallas and Wichita.
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.“Jimmy Ryan!”
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.
“What?”“When I’m there, we usually win the league.”
We didn’t win it in that first season, but, the year after that, we did. And we kept on winning it.There wasn’t a specific secret to all that success; good players usually give you a good team, when you’ve got a manager who can keep them at it and keep them working. The players knew who was boss and that was it. That was all you needed: good players and a manager who you knew was boss.
Alex’s team talks were fantastic. Always absolutely spot on. I was with him when we went to play Tottenham in 2001 and went 3-0 down at half-time. Half-time comes, I go into the dressing room and I thought there were going to be plates and cups thrown about; I’d seen that before.He comes in.
The players slowly come in and sit down.There’s a pot of tea; the manager goes across to it…
He gets a cup, pours himself a tea and just starts drinking it.The tension is growing, getting bigger and bigger.
I’m even thinking to myself: should I say something before he does?He turns and walks into a little side room, I think it was a medical room. He comes back a minute or two later, just drinking his tea. You’re looking at him, he’s looking at everybody and he looks like he’s boiling, but he drinks his tea, puts it down. Two or three minutes of the break are left now.
“We’re making a change. Mikael’s coming on for Denis.”The referee’s whistle goes, everybody starts to stand up.
He goes: “Okay, now get it f***ing sorted.”That’s all he said.
The players went out, scored within one minute and absolutely mullered Tottenham 5-3.I was Reserves manager at the time and couldn’t wait to take charge of them again. Next game, we played Sunderland, who had a strong Reserves team, and at half-time it was 0-0. I didn’t say anything to them. Just drank a cup of tea. I’d told Paul McGuinness beforehand that I was going to try doing what the manager had done. Just ignore them. I could see the players kept looking round at me, waiting for me to say something. Just as half-time was over, I said: “Now come on, get ready.”
We won 1-0. It wasn’t quite the same, but there you go.Whatever the occasion, the manager had the right words. Even the Legends Reunited game that took place last summer, with the Treble-winning squad against Bayern Munich.
Beforehand, he didn’t say a single word to me about what he was going to say to the group, but when the time comes, he gets all the players together sat down, a few jokes about this and that, and then talks about the game. Nothing ferocious, it’s an exhibition game, he makes that clear, but it’s all absolutely spot on. Just perfect.
I’m sat there, listening to this, just thinking: How lucky am I to be a part of this?
That’s the story of my life. Just lucky, I guess!