The story of Scott McGarvey’s career at Manchester United offers a timely reminder about what can happen to talented young players if they aren’t managed properly.
Scott, a talented youngster who was capped by Scotland at youth level, first found out about United’s interest in him as a young boy growing up in Glasgow.
“I was about 11 years old,” he remembers. “A scout asked my Dad and the manager of the team I played for if I would go down and have a trial at Manchester United. Obviously we said yes and I went down there, I was still very young but they kept tabs on me and every year I would go down to Manchester in the summer and the Easter holidays.
“At 15 I was still living in Glasgow which was great place but we lived in quite a rough area with a lot of gang related crime which I think my parents wanted me to get away from, so United offered me a contract where I could do my last year at school in Stretford and become an apprentice at 16, then a professional when I turned 17.
“At the time I was involved with Celtic Boys club and I had opportunities to sign for them but I decided to take up United’s offer and came down here at 15 which meant that I could train at the club a couple of times a week.”
The young Scottish forward progressed quickly through the United ranks, scoring an incredible amount of goals for the youth and reserve teams before making his first team debut at the age of just 17: “I scored a lot of goals, from being 16 to 17, that one season I scored a lot in the ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams, then I got into the reserve team where I scored a couple of hat tricks. I don’t know how many goals I got but a few years later I was told that apart from George Best, I had scored the most goals at that level.”
The exciting young prospect made his first team debut as a substitute in a 5-0 win over Leicester City in September 1980 at Old Trafford: “I was only 17 but Syd Owen who used to be the youth team manager and Harry Gregg were both pushing me for a first team start. I’m not even too sure if I was ready, I’d been scoring all these goals in reserve and youth team football but it’s a massive jump into the first team.
“I thought I might even start the game but I ended up on the bench and came on for Lou Macari and I must admit, I found it totally different to playing in the reserves. I’d been training with the first team squad but other than that I hadn’t really been involved with them. It’s not like I’d been on the bench for a few games before that, like today where there’s seven substitutes and a young lad can get on the bench and just take it all in, there was only one sub in those days.
“When I came on it was absolutely fantastic, the main thing I remember was how bad the pitch was, like a lot of them were in those days. Jimmy Greenhoff was up front, he was a great player. I don’t particularly think I did that well, I maybe got a few touches and a couple of headers but it was great and I was in and around the first team from then on.”
Scott scored his first United goal towards the end of the next campaign, in a 2-0 win over Spurs at Old Trafford in April 1982 as he finally got a run of games in the first team: “Steve Coppell got the first one and I scored the second with a header from a cross from Arthur Albiston. It was a great ball and I just had to make sure I guided the ball in and fortunately enough it went in the top corner.
“It was brilliant, an adrenaline rush, I think if I could have jumped in the Stretford End that day I would have done it, it was a fantastic feeling.”
Scott played under both Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson during his time at United, he recalls his experiences playing under both men and the reasons why he didn’t quite live up to the promise he had shown as a youngster: “Both were good managers and both were good people but the biggest disappointment for me was Dave Sexton getting sacked as I was a young player coming through and he liked me and knew about me from a very young age.
“He was very tough, people think he was a soft mild mannered man but he was a tough guy and he was fair. I think he would have slowly brought me into the team rather than putting pressure on me. To play top level football at 17 is a big ask, apart from for the likes of Norman Whiteside but Norman was physically ready, he was a lot stronger than me and I think you needed that as well as the mental strength to play at that level.
“It would have been better for me personally if I’d have been under Dave’s guidance and slowly came through. Then Ron took over and we went on a pre-season tour of Scandinavia, I was still only 17 or 18 but I’ll never forget it because I scored the most goals. I was confident and felt I was ready for more first team football, but pre-season games against Norwegian and Danish teams are ok but it wasn’t on par with playing in the old First Division.
“Ron spoke to me the day we were heading back to England and said that he had big plans for me and that I would be in the first team squad. He told me when I got back to Manchester to go see the club secretary and get myself a new contract and a club car. I thought I’d hit the jackpot but that was his way of softening things up because the following day he signed Frank Stapleton!
“At the time I was gutted but looking back I wasn’t ready to go in the first team anyway. I had my moments with Ron because at times I didn’t think I was getting a fair crack of the whip, he would stick to more established players even if they weren’t playing so well but I had a good relationship with him. I think if I had been 24 or 25 I would have loved to have played under Ron because he was loyal to you and a good manager.
“I had a couple of bad injuries and I just wanted to play football so I went out on loan to Wolves where I did ok and I wanted to sign for them but it fell through.
“I came back and got a phone call to say United had accepted an offer from Portsmouth, I met Alan Ball who was brilliant but that was a mistake. I should never have gone down south, I should have stayed in the Manchester area or maybe headed back to Glasgow and got a club in Scotland.”
Scott left United in July 1984 to join Portsmouth after struggling to establish himself in the first team due to competition from the likes of Frank Stapleton, Norman Whiteside and the emerging Mark Hughes. He made 25 appearances and scored three goals for the club and later had spells at Carlisle United, Grimsby Town, Bristol City, Oldham Athletic and Wigan Athletic before finishing his playing career in Japan and Cyprus. He is now still involved in the game as an agent.
When asked who the best player during his time at the club was Scott says: “I played with some great players at United, Joe Jordan is still my friend now, I loved him as a guy and a professional, he was also very dedicated to his job.
“But Bryan Robson just had everything and was a top player. He wasn’t a Ronaldo but you have more chance of winning games when you’ve got a player like Bryan Robson in your side. He could tackle, he would sometimes go over the top against Liverpool especially but that was the way it was then. He got the best out of players, not so much by shouting at them but with his determination and drive, he was as brave as a lion, could pass the ball, head the ball, score a goal and help defensively so as an all-round package I would say him.
“Players like Jimmy Greenhoff and Stuart ‘Pancho’ Pearson were very good technically and would be worth about £50 million today. In my opinion there was better players in years gone by than there is today, they’re all athletes now.
“Ray Wilkins was a good asset to the team, he could pass the ball up to 50 yards with both feet and he matched up really well with Bryan Robson.
Of the current United side Scott thinks that it is important that the younger players are given a chance and not replaced by expensive already established players: “I watch United every week more or less and I try and get to as many games as I can. People talk about De Gea doing well and he’s done brilliantly. I don’t think the defence is as good as it has been in the past but defending is a lot different now, you can’t go in for a tackle you have to stay on your feet, it’s a different skill now.
“Going forward they are as good as anybody but I think they need a Bryan Robson type player who wins the ball high up the field. They seem a little bit gung-ho with the players they’ve got and it leaves those spaces that allow them to be exploited defensively.
“But I’d hate to think the manager will just go out and spend money on players, I’m desperate for Tyler Blackett or Paddy McNair to grab a position in the team and keep it. I hope they get a chance to make a name for themselves because if United bring somebody else in it will stop their development. Plus you’ve got Jones, Smalling and Evans who you hope are going to kick on now.
“I could go with bringing in a really experienced centre-half, like Ron Vlaar at Villa because he knows the Premiership and he’s at an age where you should still get a couple of good years out of him. I think that will do the younger players a world of good because instead of being pushed down the pecking order by a 27-year old international they will think that they still have a chance of being in team and playing regular games.”