Pat McGibbon’s time at Manchester United was hampered by setbacks and personal tragedy, but the imposing Irish centre-back fought back, going on to have a successful career in the Football League before using his own experiences in the game to help improve the lives of others.
Pat was first spotted by United in early 1992 playing in his native Northern Ireland before being signed by the club that summer after a successful trial period: “I was at Portadown at the time, I’d played in a reserve team game and afterwards I was called in to the manager’s office and told that United wanted me to go over for a trial.
“I went over for a week and during that time I played in a reserve game against Aston Villa. Dwight Yorke and Dalian Atkinson were playing up front for Villa so obviously it was a fairly difficult game but I must have done okay because they asked me to go back in the summer.
“I went over again in July and stayed for about three weeks, playing in a number of pre-season games. After that I was called up to the gaffer’s office and he offered me a three year deal.”
At a time when many youngsters were being given a chance in the United first team, Pat had to wait longer than most for his opportunity after his brother Phillip took his own life just a few months into his time at the club, meaning he had to return home.
But by the start of the 1995/96 season things were looking up, he was given a shirt number and included in that year’s first team photo. His chance finally came in September 1995 but his United debut didn’t exactly go as planned, he was sent off as a United team that also included David Beckham and Ryan Giggs was beaten 3-0 at Old Trafford by York City in a League Cup tie.
“It certainly didn’t go as planned, I was playing at centre-half alongside Gary Pallister, for the sending off we tried to play offside and I made a decision to give a free kick away as opposed to a penalty so I took the lad down outside the box which it was but ultimately the referee gave a penalty and I was sent off from it.
“It certainly wasn’t what I had planned but these are the fine margins during games. As much as I was bitterly disappointed you go in the next day and all the lads rally around you and yes, they rip you but that’s all part of football, you just get on with it again.
“The next morning when he came in the manager talked me through it, told me that it was part and parcel of football and it’s how you react to it that matters.”
Of his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson Pat says: “He was a great people person, as much as people talk about the hairdryer sometimes you have to get a reaction from players who need to be told when they’re not performing but he also had really good interpersonal skills, especially with the young lads who he tended to bring in at the right time.
“It’s always a majorly difficult task at a club as big as Manchester United to know everyone but he did his best to do exactly that.”
Eric Cantona would be the most high profile departure from Old Trafford in the summer of 1997 but Pat also decided that his United days were over, turning down the offer of a new deal to seek pastures new: “My biggest problem at United was in my final year, in 1996/97 I’d played in the pre-season games and gone on the tour of Ireland, playing against Portadown and a League of Ireland XI.
“I was quite pleased with the way things were going but I was sent out on loan in September to get more first team experience.
“I went to Swansea under Jan Molby but unfortunately it only lasted one game, I went in for a tackle and my knee went the other way so I was out for five months. I only came back from that injury around February when I went out on loan to Wigan.
“When you go out on loan and play in more games you start to get more confident and I was fortunate enough to score a goal that got the club promoted and we won the league. So all of a sudden you feel like you’re part of something, whereas at that stage I was playing reserve team games and had had almost a full season out at United.
“So that was how I came to a crossroads and you have to make a decision so I had a chat with the manager about what would be best for me. I’ve no regrets about that, the game against York was bitterly disappointing but it didn’t stop me from working hard to try and get into the first team, it was the injury that was probably a bigger detriment to me really.
“I had some great times at Wigan, we got to the play-off final against Gillingham one year and on another occasion we won the Auto Windscreen Shield against Millwall at Wembley in front of 70,000 people so I can’t complain. You always feel as if you can do better but I was lucky enough to get paid for something that I loved doing for nearly eleven years in England and then another two or three years back in Ireland.”
After finishing his playing career in Northern Ireland with Portadown and Glentoran, Pat is now a qualified coach and physiotherapist. He is currently back at his first club Portadown in both those roles and also runs his own charity, Train To Be Smart which promotes positive mental health through sport in young people.
Having come full circle, Pat has only positive memories of his time at United, especially of a number of players that he is still in contact with: “I loved my time at United, to be playing and training alongside some of the players in that group was great and they were all very genuine people, very good footballers and a lot of them were big characters.
“I started a charity a few years back and Roy Keane is coming over in the New Year to be a guest speaker at an event, I’ve always found him to be a very genuine fella. I went over to Carrington last season and met up with Nicky Butt and Ryan Giggs, they haven’t changed they’re still the same people they just happened to be very good at what they did.
“You always feel that you can do better but I don’t go down that route because of what happened to my brother, it just puts everything into perspective. I know football has become a big business but it is still ultimately a game.”