UTD Unscripted: My life as Wilf McGuinness's son
Paul, son of Wilf. I always had that when I was growing up.
I always used to hope that one day, they’d introduce him as Wilf McGuinness, dad of Paul, but it’s never happened and I don’t think it ever will. That’s fair enough, for lots of reasons.
He represented England at every level from schoolboys upwards, captained England schoolboys with Bobby Charlton in his team, was a Busby Babe all the way through to the first team at Manchester United, became a full England international, broke his leg and had his career ended at 22. Then, he coached England to the World Youth Cup when he was 25, helped with the senior England World Cup squad, became United manager at 32, then went on to have more managerial experience at other clubs in different places. When you look at it all, it’s unbelievable.
He’s an extraordinary guy who has had an extraordinary lifetime, but it’s only when you sit and think about it that you realise all the setbacks and adversity that he’s gone through amongst that.
For starters, he only missed the trip to Red Star Belgrade – and the return via Munich – because he was injured, so he should really have been on the plane. He wasn’t, but a lot of his mates were, so he had to live through so many of his mates dying in a plane crash.
The fact that United got to the FA Cup final that year on a wave of momentum was one thing, but the season after the Munich air crash was absolutely unbelievable. This decimated team came second in the league, which is one of the biggest achievements the club could ever have had. Bobby Charlton talks about my dad in one of his books, and said that in 1958/59, he was everywhere, all over the pitch, playing well enough to get an England call-up. Just knowing him, you would know how much he would put into every game because he’d have been thinking about those players. You can imagine what he’d have been like, running himself into the ground for his mates who couldn’t be there.
Being a Busby Babe defined my dad’s life. He was so proud of being a part of that special group. It’s his core identity: entertaining, flamboyant, forever youthful but resilient – he never let that disaster and sadness stop him from being positive. No doubt their loss was a barometer for him to gauge his personal setbacks against and brush them off as so much less significant.
For example, two years after Munich he broke his leg and that ended his playing career at 22. That’s unbelievably tragic, but he didn’t let it beat him. My dad always used to say that he would have been one of the top players in the country, one of the best in the world (he was never short of confidence) if he hadn’t broken his leg. Now, I grew up with all the stories of Matt Busby, Jimmy Murphy, the Babes, Duncan Edwards and it was fantastic. I was just immersed in it from birth and I felt like I was part of the United family straight away. Growing up, my godfather was Gordon Clayton, who was United’s goalkeeper. For years, we had uncle Bobby and aunty Norma come round to our house with their kids, but I didn’t know exactly who uncle Bobby was for a while. Then I started seeing him on tv, seeing the amazing goals he was scoring, and one time it dawned on me: “Bloody hell dad, you’re not even the best player in our living room!”
These were the people that I grew up around. When I was a teenager, there used to be charity games with United, City, Piccadilly Radio and all sorts. The ex-players were all in their 40s, and dad would tell me to come along and bring my boots. I’d almost always get some playing time, and I ended up playing with Bobby, George Best, Nobby Stiles, Paddy Crerand, David Sadler, Alex Stepney, but also the City legends too, like Colin Bell, Mike Summerbee, Franny Lee, Tony Book, Glyn Pardoe. It was just incredible. This was sometimes just on school fields or non-league grounds, and Bobby was just awesome in every single game. He scored three or four every time.
Dad loved using those games to do tricks and skills and doing something different. He was always working on his tricks and encouraging me to do the same. We’d go on the school fields near us and practise. I had an England international crossing for me to do headers, overhead kicks, volleys, but then he wanted me to do the same for him too. His best trick was one he took from Gento at Real Madrid. He’d ask me to ping a cross in, head-height, and he’d do this overhead handstand backheel. I’d cross, he’d dive forward onto his hands and bring his heels up and volley it into the net. We’d go on the field, other kids of all ages would come over and ask to join in. We’d take one or two of them, then take on all the rest, so it would be three or four of us against 15 of them. One game he scored with one of those overhead backheels! He loved them. He used to do them before the Bury games too when he was physio there – the actual physio was on the pitch doing tricks before the games! He was so full of this need to do something different.
He was also super competitive, and he brought that home with him. He’d say that he was the king of head tennis at Old Trafford. We’d play at home, set up a net on the front drive, with table tennis rules: first to 21, best of three or five sets. Bear in mind that I was 12, 13, 14 at the time. He’d beat me 21-0, 21-0, 21-0. He never gave me a single point. He cheated as well. He’d shout “chalk dust!” if the ball was anywhere near the line. He’d go to the net, turn around and smash the ball down with the back of his slaphead. He’d compete and treat me like a first-team player. I’d be serving at 0-20, match point, and he’d still be going: “Ooooooh, getting nervous now,” just to get in my head.
I think a lot of that stemmed from the way Jimmy Murphy and the other coaches were tough with the players back then. That’s how it was in those days. You couldn’t show you were hurt, couldn’t let anyone get carried away with themselves.
The standards were relentless. I scored a hat-trick in a cup final and when I came off, he told me off for remonstrating with the referee during the game. In a primary school match, I scored 10 goals and my main memory of the day is getting an absolute b******ing for leaving mud in the bath afterwards and not sticking to the right standards. To this day, I rinse the bath and shower down afterwards, every single time!
Like a lot of kids, I wanted to follow in my dad’s footsteps. I also wanted to follow in Jimmy Murphy’s footsteps because he was the one I heard the most stories about when I was growing up. I have a couple of favourites.
Firstly, as a young player, dad had been told to go to a bit of space behind the Stretford End – they trained on ash cinders there sometimes – and Jimmy told him to go and practise with his left foot against the wall and told him he’d be back in a bit. He forgot about my dad, realised two hours later and went back to find dad still kicking the ball against the wall. “You’ll do for me, son,” was Jimmy’s response. “If that’s your attitude, then you have a chance.” I think Jimmy took a shine to him because of that, plus because he was a worker and a ball-winner, like Jimmy.
Secondly, before dad made his debut against Wolves, Jimmy could see he was a bit nervous – he was only 17 – so he went over to him to gee him up.
“Wilf, I hate black and gold.”
“I hate black and gold too, Jimmy.”
“You know what? There’s a player you’ll play against today called Peter Broadbent and you have to get in first. Get that ball first, not him.”
“Oh, I’ll get that ball first, Jimmy.”
“If he gets there first, Wilf, he’s gonna take the bonus out of your pocket and you won’t be able to go home and treat your mam and dad tonight.”
“Give me that ball.”
And he stormed out of the dressing room. When he got out there, it turned out that Broadbent was a real gentleman footballer, who later played for England, and he came up to my dad beforehand and said: “All the best today, Wilf, son.”
“P*** off, ya thieving b******.”
That’s how good a motivator Jimmy Murphy was.
So I aspired to be like dad and Jimmy. I didn’t want to be a manager because, over time, dad’s experiences really put me off it, but every school holidays I’d be with him at whatever club he was with at the time. At York, Hull and Bury, I’d go and join in with the apprentices while he worked. I’d be 12 playing with 16-year-olds, 14 playing with the reserves, 16 training with the first team. All that kind of stuff, plus just having him as my dad, gave me a massive head start when it came to coaching.
He’d take me to games and tell me to pick out the best players and explain why, and he’d always study what was happening in the game and tell me what was going to happen next, and he was always right. He’d tell me who was going to get booked, or if a team was over-committing and leaving themselves prone to conceding, and he was always right. That really helped me learn the game at a young age.
I ended up making the move into coaching at United and I always tried to point things in the direction of individual tactics and skills. I focused on the way players drag the ball, disguise their intentions, and I try to push that even today, now that I’m working for the FA. I was surrounded by people at United who were also thinking that way. Don’t get me wrong, it was all about the fundamentals: hard work, out-running the opposition, but skill was king. There had to be that sense of style. I was surrounded by people like Jim Ryan, Eric Harrison, Tony Whelan, Rene Meulensteen and so on.
Tony and I coined a phrase, that we were the guardians of the Manchester United spirit and, if you think about it, it was very much a family thing passed down from generation to generation. My dad was coached by Murphy and Busby, so they passed it on to him, he then coached Brian Kidd, Nobby Stiles, Tony Whelan, Jim Ryan, John Cook, who were then coaching with me. There was then a number of us who’d been coached by Eric Harrison as well. There were connections there that ran down through the club through generations. You’ve got to have people from outside the club as well – Rene was a great influence on skills development – but you have to explain to them that it’s almost a feeling that you get from being part of a family. You belong to something special that has come from passing down stories and anecdotes from people, then watching players down the years and trying to emulate them. It’s massive. We’d tell the lads that they were following in the footsteps of greats, just like we were on the coaching side of things.
It meant a lot to me that we won the FA Youth Cup while I was Under-18s coach. Dad won three Youth Cups as a player and I had that drummed into me to the point where it became a huge ambition. It’s not just winning it, it’s sharing the experiences, playing in front of big crowds in stadiums, those are the important things for the development of the players. The players, with me, knew it was incredibly sincere, that I felt the Youth Cup was very important and believed in it. They knew that when I was talking about the Babes and my dad, sometimes I’d get emotional in the team talk, and they could feel the authenticity of where it was coming from. I think they felt it as well. Stories are vital in coaching. We wanted them to feel that they were part of the next generation and I honestly feel that gives you an added strength if you do that and feel that you belong to something special.
When I was a kid, dad would have me shoot from the halfway line, time after time. Eventually, in a university game, I scored from the kick-off with one of those shots and he was there. I was so made up with that. He was forever trying to get you to try something different and that stuck with me in my coaching. I had Ollie Norwood trying that from the kick-off, or I’d tell Fraizer Campbell or Marcus Rashford to dribble towards goal straight from the kick-off. Just try something different. For me, it was about the spirit of football, something which I talk about a lot to this day, and that’s something that my dad has always embodied.
He really felt it in the 80s when Heysel, the Bradford fire and Hillsborough all happened in quick succession, and there was a lot of downers on football at the time. He was physio at Bury at that time, so he pledged to do something to lift spirits, and he started buying lollipops and throwing them into the crowd during games. He’d run on, treat the players and as he was walking back around the pitch to the dugout, he’d be throwing lollies into the crowd.
Bury played at Old Trafford in the League Cup and he was loving it. The fans were singing his name and a player went down at the Scoreboard End, so he went over to treat him, then started waving to the crowd and throwing his lollipops and everything, he was loving it, but the play restarted, went down the other end and another Bury player went down injured at the Stretford End. Dad wasn’t even watching the game, he was still waving to the crowd, so United’s physio had to go and treat the Bury player!
By the way, he was throwing lollies because he looked like Kojak.
Now, dad never felt sorry for himself, but one of the hardest things he ever went through was losing his hair in his 30s. That was hard for him because he fancied himself as a looker, and I remember it well. We’d moved to Greece by that stage because he’d taken the manager’s job at Aris Thessaloniki after leaving United, and I remember clumps of his hair falling out until suddenly it was virtually all gone apart from some white wispy bits. I was five, six, seven, something like that, and we’d gotten used to it, but then he obviously wasn’t happy about it and he got himself a wig while we were out there. We didn’t know he was going to do it. They didn’t do men’s wigs out in Greece at the time, so he had to get a woman’s wig and have it cut. I remember it clearly even now: it was dark, he came to the back door, my mum said: “There’s someone here to see you,” and this guy who looked like he was in The Beatles popped his head inside the door. My sister and I didn’t recognise him until he came in and took the wig off!
It didn’t last long, the wig, because at one game soon afterwards he was up in the stands, his team scored a goal and the chairman grabbed him in celebration. They were jumping up and down and the chairman knocked dad’s wig off in the stands, with everybody there. After that, he just thought: balls to this, I’ll just get on with it.
The wig made reappearances every now and then, for practical jokes. When he was the York manager, they were on tour in Majorca and he told the travelling party about his brother who lived in America, Laurence – Larry, he called him – and it was true that my uncle did live in America. He told them that Larry would be coming along later on to the hotel, and that they should look after him if he turned up. He went away, got dressed up, put the wig on and sat for about 20 minutes talking to all the directors in an American accent as if he was Larry. They didn’t realise until he lifted his wig off.
He did the same with the physio at Hull, who also had private sessions treating members of the public. My dad booked in for a session, went along in the wig and some false teeth and just started acting up during the session, to the point where the physio had to go and fetch another member of staff because he was getting so disturbed.
Dad took something negative and turned it into a way to make something positive happen, which was just what he always did. With his character and his array of stories, it’s not surprising that he spoke for years on the after-dinner circuit and in the hospitality suites at Old Trafford on matchdays. He’d tell as many stories as he could. He’d be the last one to leave because he loved mixing with the fans. People wanted to hear about Matt Busby, the Babes, Best, Law and Charlton, and he had the first-hand experience of how good those players were, how good Jimmy Murphy was as a coach. He used to talk about his time in management, and just said he had York in the fourth division, third division and second division in successive seasons, but unfortunately in reverse order. Same thing with the United job – he says he had it for four seasons: summer, autumn, winter and spring!
The list goes on and on. He has stories and experiences in abundance, and I’ve loved following in his footsteps and being part of his journey with him. Dad’s had an unbelievable life, enough to fill 10 lives, so I’m more than happy to still be known as Paul, son of Wilf.