The first in this series looks at the late Brian Greenhoff.
It’s only fitting that I start this series of articles by talking about Brian Greenhoff, on today, the fifth anniversary of his passing.
Brian was born in Barnsley in April 1953 and was a youth player at Manchester United. He was given his debut by Tommy Docherty, who had previously tried to sign Brian as a kid when the Doc was manager of Rotherham United.
Before he had kicked a ball for the senior team Brian had enjoyed an eventful time at Old Trafford. He was credited for helping Sammy McIlroy get over the homesickness which threatened to ruin the Northern Irish midfielder’s career before it really began. He got over a number of injuries with the help of some famous names including Bill Foulkes, and he even had a memorable run-in with the legendary Jimmy Murphy at the Blue Star tournament in Switzerland. Brian had one too many to drink and when he woke, far worse than the hangover, was the sight of Jimmy standing over him giving what Brian described as the ‘biggest rollicking’ of his life.
Brian was a utility player but had seemed to find his place as a ball-playing defensive midfielder. He was a nicker of the ball rather than a hard-tackling nut and liked to start attacks with long, sweeping balls.
His breakthrough came in the club’s infamous relegation season of 1973/74 when he was given the supporter’s player of the year award.
In a Cup tie against Wolves, Docherty played Greenhoff alongside skipper Martin Buchan in defence — the pair had previously played there but Buchan had usually been partnered by other players like Steve James, Jim Holton and Arnie Sidebottom. Something clicked and Buchan’s commandeering, stylish defensive play was perfectly complemented by Brian’s sweeper style. Brian had first had a run there starting at Stamford Bridge in 73/74 but it was the Wolves game where he became a permanent fixture there.
The pair of Buchan and Greenhoff worked together fantastically and Brian’s contribution can be summarised by his pass which started the move which led to Gordon Hill’s first magnificent goal in the 1976 FA Cup semi final against Derby County.
The sight of a tearful Brian being consoled by Tommy Docherty after the defeat in the FA Cup Final against Southampton that year was the iconic image from that year’s final; 12 months later, Brian was man of the match as United won 2-1 against Liverpool in the 1977 FA Cup Final.
I could not be any prouder that Brian was the first person I worked with on a book. With over 250 appearances at a tremendously eventful time in United’s history, his story is one that certainly did deserve documenting. During the time I spent working with him I was proud to call him a friend and felt fortunate to call upon his help at one or two difficult times in my personal life. He even helped and gave advice when I was moving house!
Brian was a great cook and had a razor sharp sense of humour, which I was the victim of a fair few times. More than any of that, he was a devoted family man who adored his wife Maureen, his sons Paul, Brian and Peter and his grandchildren.
His family were the only thing he loved more than Manchester United, and in the last year of his life I felt incredibly fortunate to do a regular podcast with him talking about the club’s progress.
It was thanks to Brian that I was introduced to working with Sammy McIlroy, Tommy Docherty and Gordon Hill, all names I would work with again and all names who were quick to give praise to Brian. In fact, in getting in touch with Gordon, who hadn’t seen Brian for a long time, we were all set to begin recording podcasts with the three of us before Brian suddenly passed away in May 2013.
I had known Brian for a little under a year and a half. I was born in 1981, a couple of years after Brian left United, so I wasn’t lucky enough to have seen him play for the club. I idolised him in a different way; it’s said that you meet one or two people who have a profound impact on your life and Brian introduced me to a career that had always been my dream. For that he will always be my hero.
You will hopefully, then, forgive this writer for being sycophantic if I give him some credit with being the player who revolutionised that position at United — all the great sides which followed included a ball-playing centre half in the mould of Brian Greenhoff.
But take away my romanticism and take on board the praise for him by those who knew — Tommy Docherty compared his style to Gerard Pique, while press reports in the early 70’s likened him to Franz Beckenbauer. If that seems like hyperbole, it does give an indication of the esteem he was held in, the potential he had and the quality he showed.
Brian was one of the victims of Dave Sexton’s reserved management; he preferred the aggressive style of Gordon McQueen, and so Brian was moved around in different positions before being sold, after two troubled years, to Leeds in 1979.
As such, we almost have the benefit of that crystallised performance in the 1977 FA Cup Final, a 24-year old centre-half leading the charge against the-then best team in Europe who had the best years of his career still to come.
Brian may not get into most people’s all-time United XI but for many who had the good fortune to see him play, he embodied everything that was good about one of the most loved sides in the club’s history. And, in some ways, by being the pioneer of a style at the club, his influence stretches far deeper than he imagined.
You can read his story here.