Exclusive Interview: Tom Sloan
There have been many Irish players to represent United’s first team and Tom Sloan might not be one of the first that springs to mind, but for a time in the late seventies and early eighties he found himself playing alongside the elite at club and international level.
Tom signed for United in the summer of 1978 after initial interest from Spurs: “I’d played one season Irish League football for my home town club Ballymena United and I’d originally gone to Spurs on trial, I came home and United invited me for a month’s trial along with Tom Connell and another lad from Northern Ireland called Phil McCandless. We all went over together and were signed after two weeks.”
His first team debut came just a few months later on the 18th November against Ipswich Town at Old Trafford. Steve Coppell and Jimmy Greenhoff scored as United ran out 2-0 winners and Tom has fond memories of the day: “There was a lot of rain the night before and I actually thought that the game might not be played but the pitch was just about playable.
“I remember the nerves in the build-up, sat in the old changing rooms under the stand. I could hear the crowd building up, the most difficult thing was just controlling the nerves. It’s a kind of nervous excitement, a funny feeling, but once the game starts you just get on with it.
“Luckily it went well for us and we won 2-0. I’d done a lot of running and came off towards the end and received a standing ovation from the crowd of 42,000 people. I was playing against Arnold Muhren and everything just went so well.”
Speaking of the manager who gave him his chance in the first team, Tom has only good memories of playing under Dave Sexton: “He was a real gentleman, somebody you could approach and there was an aura about him that you respected. He knew how to get the best out of you without the whole hairdryer treatment.
“I struggled with homesickness when I first came over and he just reassured me, told me I was doing well and took me with the first team, not long after that I made my debut. He was very approachable.
“His record is criticised by some but he finished second to Liverpool who were absolutely dominant, got to the cup final in 1979 and then got the sack a couple of years later. Sir Alex Ferguson got a lot of stick in his first few years but they won the FA Cup and never looked back, he was in the same boat.”
Tom featured at regular intervals for the first team over the next few years, playing in a Manchester derby and a 4-0 home win over Stoke as well as picking up three caps for Northern Ireland. He also played in a couple of games that are memorable for the wrong reasons: “Playing for Northern Ireland was a proud moment but the highlight of my United career for me is my debut, without a doubt.
“I also played in a 6-0 defeat to Ipswich Town which was an absolute horror show, when I look back on YouTube over that game I don’t think I put a foot wrong but we had an absolute nightmare defensively. Gary Bailey did as well as he could do saving three penalties, it was just unbelievable but Ipswich had a great team then.
“I came on in the last minute of a 5-3 defeat to West Brom as well, it was snowing and I can remember sitting in the dugout watching the game and it was a classic. We started off well, Brian Greenhoff scored a cracking goal and Sammy Mcllroy got one as well but in the end our defence was found wanting.”
Tom made a total of 12 appearances for the first team before leaving Old Trafford in the summer of 1982 after the signings of Bryan Robson and Remi Moses by new manager Ron Atkinson further restricted his first team opportunities. He joined Chester City where he spent one season before returning to Northern Ireland to play for Linfield, where he remained for several seasons before moving down the ladder.
“I’d been offered a contract but tried to hold out for more money which was rejected so I took a free transfer as I thought my days were numbered. I ended up going to Chester who were a fourth division side and it didn’t work out.
“I often wonder what would have happened if I’d have stayed at United another year but a lot of clubs were offloading players that summer. I was at Chester for a year before coming back to play in the Irish League.”
Tom now works as a postman in his hometown of Ballymena, when looking back at his life and career he acknowledges that he has come full circle and still follows United to this day: “I’ve been with Royal Mail for three and a half years and before that I worked as a plasterer. I started playing football for the Raglan Homers and that’s also where I ended my career, I also live back in my hometown now and I’ve often thought to myself that if I was to write a book it could be called ‘Full Circle’.
“Looking back at my career now, I’m very proud. I don’t dwell or dine out on it but the people in my town are aware of what I did. At the time you don’t realise what you’re doing, when you go to the club and you see the players you’ve watched on Match of the Day you’re awestruck.
“But the more you train and play with them it becomes like a job. It’s not the same in there looking out as it is from the outside looking in. When you get in there all that leaves you and you just feel part of it.
“Manchester United are a fantastic club, when I was young I was told that if United came in for me I’d be away tomorrow. I didn’t believe them but as soon as they did, I was.”