Former United player Tony Gill reflects on his time at the club, the day his career ended and gives his opinion on the current side.
Tony signed for United as a teenager on schoolboy terms after undergoing a successful trial in August 1981. He progressed through the ranks and was part of the youth team that was beaten 3-1 on aggregate by Manchester City in the 1986 FA Youth Cup final.
Times were changing at Old Trafford and after the first team made a poor start to the following campaign manager Ron Atkinson was sacked in November 1986 and replaced by Alex Ferguson, the rest as they say, is history.
Ferguson brought about a change of emphasis at the club, whereas Atkinson has often been accused of only being interested in the first team squad the new manager set about reshaping the whole club. One of his philosophies was to develop young players who would eventually come through to represent the first team.
Tony Gill was one of the first to be given his chance and made his debut on Saturday 3rd January 1987 in a 1-1 draw against Southampton at the Dell: “I remember the hotel we stayed and I was in a room with another young lad called Martin Russell. It was the first time that people like me and Martin had ever been involved with the first team squad.
“I remember there were doubts about John Sivebaek’s fitness at right-back so I assumed that was why I was there, as cover for John. I’d spent most of my time in the reserve team playing either wide midfield or full-back. We were in the hotel as Alex Ferguson was going through the team and he named Micky Duxbury at right-back, I vividly remember almost switching off at that stage thinking I wouldn’t be involved. Then he worked his way through the rest of the back four and when he got to central midfield he said my name and I remember my head snapping back up.
“I’d never played in central midfield at United before so it was a surprise and I imagine very much a gamble for the manager. I was wearing Bryan Robson’s number seven shirt and just so happened to wear New Balance boots at the time so I got a bit of stick in the dressing room along the lines of who did I think I was. I think some of the senior players did that to try and calm me down a bit.”
The game didn’t start well for United: “I was playing centre midfield with Liam O’Brien and he got sent off after about a minute and a half, I couldn’t believe it. We ended up playing Terry Gibson up front on his own and went 1-0 down after ten minutes or so. We equalised through Jesper Olsen and it was nip and tuck from then on.
“I came off with about ten minutes to go for Peter Davenport and got some congratulations type comments from everyone on the bench. If you think about it we’d played with ten men for the whole game away at Southampton and got a draw so everyone was pleased afterwards. I thought that I had done ok and myself justice in a big game in difficult circumstances.”
An Achilles rupture meant that Tony didn’t feature in the first team during the whole 1987/88 season. He made his second appearance for United nearly two years after his first in November 1988 ironically against Southampton in a 2-2 draw. For the next few months he was a regular fixture in the first team and scored two goals, one in an FA Cup tie against QPR where several other young players featured and again the following Saturday in a 3-0 victory over Millwall, it looked like the start of a promising career.
However that dream was cruelly cut short on 27th March 1989 in a 2-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest when Tony came off worse in a 50/50 challenge with Brian Laws, leaving him with a broken leg and shattered ankle. Of his memories of that fateful day he remembers being doubtful as to whether he would even be in the squad for the game: “Going into that game I thought that Jules Maiorana would get the nod because he must’ve done well in the reserve team game during the week, but he didn’t and I was given a spot on the bench. I think the reason for that was because I could play in several positions so I gave the manager more options.
“I remember us playing poorly and the manager and Archie Knox being very unhappy. Stuart Pearce scored a great free kick and the intensity wasn’t there from us. Me and Lee Martin were brought on with about 20 minutes to go. As I was stood ready to go on Archie told me to make sure I got plenty of tackles in, I remember that vividly.
“So that was still rattling round in my head the first few minutes I was on the pitch. Neil Webb who was playing for Forest gave a bad pass to Brian Laws. He put it in front of him which gave me a chance to win the ball and then, bingo. The close of play. I remember Bryan Robson holding my hand, the physio Jim McGregor asking me where it hurt and me not answering. I think that’s the closest I’ve ever come to or even been in shock.
“I remember Martin Edwards being in the dressing room and then it was off to the hospital where I had an operation that night. I remember being given gas and air in the ambulance and the anaesthetist having to go get some more anaesthetic because they’d used a whole tube on me and I was still awake.”
Tony initially tried to battle back from the injury but it was no good, he eventually left United after making 14 appearances and scoring two goals. He served as youth team coach at Bristol Rovers for six years before going into the business world. Looking back on his time at the club now he says: “It’s part of my past and something that crops up from time to time because people ask about it. It’s a long time ago, I’m 47 now and retired from football 25 years ago.
“On occasions I’ve incorporated it into my work life, I did an interview with Sir Alex Ferguson last year which I used for something I was doing. He was first-class when I left, they managed that part of my relationship with them fantastically well. For a big club like Manchester United to conduct themselves in such a big way at a time like that was brilliant.”
Of the current United side, Tony believes that results are more important than form and playing ‘good football’: “I think they’ll qualify for the Champions League now. I hear silly things like people saying they aren’t playing good football which is rubbish. If you win football matches, that’s good football. If you don’t win football matches, then that’s not good football. Ultimately, what determines good or bad football is the result.
“It’s a results orientated industry, like the one I’m in now. If you have a scrappy game, but win 1-0 then that means you’ve defended well. It’s the results, not the form that matter and we’ve seen an improvement. They’re currently sat third in the division and I think they will finish in the top four. The win against Liverpool was crucial and it’s given them that gap which I think is big enough for the top four to finish as they are. The only thing to consider is what order they will be in.”
Tony’s story is featured in Wayne Barton’s book ‘Fergies Fledglings’ and is available to order on Amazon.