Pat McGibbon on Man Utd, family tragedy, & Fergie & Roy Keane’s help
There are surely few things in life more intimidating than an angry Sir Alex Ferguson, and Pat McGibbon knows all about the legendary Manchester United manager’s temper.
It was while at The Cliff, United’s previous training ground in Salford, that a fresh-faced McGibbon bumped into Ferguson on the stairs.
“I was walking up the steps and the gaffer was coming down with two parents and an apprentice,” McGibbon says.
“As I was walking up and we crossed paths, he said to me, ‘All right, son?’ I replied, ‘All right, Alex.’ He turned and said to me, ‘Did you go to school with me?’
“I replied no, and then he said, ‘Well, don’t call me Alex, call me gaffer.’ He always wanted to get the right reaction out of you and he was a great educator, but you had to fear him sometimes.”
There were no hard feelings, however, and the Northern Irishman saw just how warm-hearted Ferguson could be during his five years at United – especially when McGibbon’s brother, Philip, tragically took his own life in April 1993.
“Back then, mental health and suicide were not really talked about like they are today,” McGibbon says. “I went back to Northern Ireland and Sir Alex told me to take as much time as I needed.
“I am so thankful that I was at a club like United during that time. Sir Alex was really empathetic, and he always made sure he knew the people behind the players – about their background and their family – right down to those in the youth team.”
McGibbon speaks warmly about Ferguson and his five years at United, despite the fact that he made just one competitive appearance, when he was sent off as the Reds were infamously sent crashing out of the League Cup by York City in 1995.
He had arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 1992, having been signed from Portadown in his native Ulster. Raised in the town of Lurgan, one of five children, centre-back McGibbon captained the Portadown youth team and was on the fringes of the senior squad.
After playing in a reserve team match, he was called into an office, where was greeted by Eddie Coulter, United’s scout in Northern Ireland, who invited him to Manchester to take part in a week-long trial.
McGibbon agreed and thought he was going to play in an A or B-team game. Instead, he was thrown straight into a reserve-team game against Aston Villa, where he had to mark top-class talent in Dwight Yorke and Dalian Atkinson.
Ferguson was suitably impressed and offered McGibbon a three-year deal off the back of three weeks with United.
“I wanted to get to get to England, whether it was with Accrington Stanley or Manchester United,” McGibbon says. “I just wanted to be paid to do something I loved.
“Obviously, once I walked through the doors at The Cliff and saw Bryan Robson, whom I had only previously seen in Match magazine, I realised that I was not at Accrington Stanley!
“It was amazing. The place was full of great pros and they were all terrific fellas who just happened to be exceptional at playing football. Everyone made me feel so welcome and it really was like one big family.”
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Going from small-town Lurgan to the bright lights of Manchester was not easy, but McGibbon moved into digs near The Cliff, where his contemporaries included Keith Gillespie, Robbie Savage and David Johnson.
He soon settled into life in Salford, where landlady Brenda Gosling took him under her wings. They still keep in touch to this day.
But McGibbon’s world was shattered on that day in April 1993, when he received the phone call that Philip, his senior by one year, had taken his own life.
“Having gone home for the funeral, I actually went back to Manchester quite soon afterwards,” says McGibbon, now 47. “It was because most of my mates had moved away to university and they all had their own lives.
“I had my football and was loving my life at United, so I threw everything into trying to make a career for myself in the game.”
Making his bow
After becoming a regular for the reserves, McGibbon was named as a substitute for United’s final game of the 1993-1994 season, a home match against Coventry City.
With United due to play Chelsea in the FA Cup final a week later, Ferguson handed starts to a number of academy products, including Gary Neville and Colin McKee. McGibbon didn’t get off the bench, but he did play in a number of pre-season games ahead of the 1995-1996 campaign.
In September 1995, he travelled with the squad to Russia for a UEFA Cup tie with Rotor Volgograd. And his big chance came a few weeks later, as he made his first senior start against York in the League Cup second round at Old Trafford.
Selected to play alongside Gary Pallister in the heart of the defence, McGibbon and his team-mates hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons as the-then third-tier side stunned United to win 3-0.
His misery was compounded when he was sent off in the 51st minute after bringing down Paul Barnes.
“We tried to play offside and didn’t get it right, but you have split seconds to decide,” he says.
“My decision-making process was to take their player down outside the box, which it was, but the referee and linesman got it wrong, so I was sent off and, instead of a free-kick, it was a penalty, which York scored.
“My dad, brother-in-law law and Bernadette, who is now my wife, had come over for the game, too. There was no hiding place afterwards and the gaffer gave me a rollicking, which is when I realised I had to take the rough with the smooth.
“If you are playing on such a stage, you had to be prepared for the tough times, as well.
“Sir Alex was terrific with me the next day, though, and told me he should have played Brucey (Steve Bruce) next to me, as he would have talked me through the game more.
“It was the gaffer’s way of taking the pressure off me. To be honest, I lost a bit of confidence and self-belief, but I was prepared to continue to work hard because I loved it at United.”
Moving on from Man Utd
When Bruce departed Old Trafford in the summer of 1996, McGibbon could have been forgiven for thinking he may be given more first-team opportunities, but Ferguson bought in Norwegian centre-back Ronny Johnsen from Besiktas.
With Pallister and David May also in the ranks, it seemed as if his time at United was coming to a close. He moved to Swansea City on loan but made only one competitive start there before being sidelined for five months.
A more successful temporary spell at Wigan followed, and the move was made permanent in the summer of 1997.
McGibbon stayed at the Lancashire club for five years, helping them reach what is now the Championship, while he was also part of the team which beat Millwall at Wembley to win the 1999 Auto Windscreens Shield.
“There was a great camaraderie at Wigan, just like there was at United,” McGibbon says. “I also worked under Brucey in my penultimate year at Wigan when he was the manager.”
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But he fell out of favour with new boss Paul Jewell and, after a loan move to Scunthorpe United and a short stay at Tranmere Rovers, he decided to move back to Northern Ireland.
His father-in-law had developed Alzheimer’s disease and McGibbon, who won seven caps for his country, had started a degree in physiotherapy.
He played semi-professionally with Portadown and Glentoran before retiring in 2006.
Mental health work
Since then, he has managed Lurgan Celtic, Newry City and Portadown, but for the last four years has put his efforts into his charity and football coaching centre, Train To Be Smart, which promotes mental health through sport.
McGibbon set it up in memory of Philip and it now supports more than 200 people living in deprived areas in Northern Ireland.
It has been such a success that, in 2018, the father of three received the Points of Light award, a prestigious award for his work aimed at increasing mental health resilience in youngsters.
“So few young footballers make it, but if we can teach them character-building skills, then they can take them into their workplace, whatever profession they end up in,” McGibbon says.
“There has definitely been a lot of progression when it comes to mental health in football, but there can always be improvements.”
Watching a memory of our @Train2BSmart Charity Q and A event with Roy Keane hosted by @liam_beckett on the start of Roy’s football career! A great night!!⚽️🍺👏https://t.co/Fe80qk4VIF via @YouTube @ManUtd
— Pat McGibbon (@pmgsportservic1) November 16, 2020
Ferguson and ex-United team-mate Roy Keane have both helped McGibbon raise awareness and funds for the charity and centre.
“Roy is Roy – you just have to look at his eyes to see which way to take him, as in whether he is joking or not. I’ve always got on well with him and he has been terrific with the charity.
“He came over to Northern Ireland and did a Q&A, and he was great with everyone, especially all the kids. He was telling them jokes and making them laugh – they thought he was brilliant.”
By Simon Yaffe
2020 has been a difficult year for us all. If you ever feel like you’re struggling with your mental health or need some support, this NHS guide to mental health charities can help to point you in the right direction. It’s okay not to be okay.